Now Is Not The Time To Be Dividing Tennis

WASHINGTON, August 31, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

In a week in which social justice messages have been bigger than sport – and let’s not forget there’s still a global pandemic going on that has created unfathomed challenges to the worldwide tennis community – say what you will, but Novak Djokovic’s new players rebellion is dividing tennis at a difficult time. All of this is happening in the lead up to the US Open, the first major since the relaunch of the ATP and WTA tours, which were halted by the coronavirus in March.

When Djokovic and Canadian player Vasek Pospisil joined together to launch a breakaway group – the Professional Tennis Players Association – that would be a separate entity from the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) that was founded in 1972, their intentions seemed to be good. It was designed to represent the interests of men’s pro tennis players – specifically those of a certain ranking (top 500 ranked men’s singles players and top 200 ranked men’s doubles players). After all, unlike much of pro sports, tennis players operate as independent contractors – they aren’t represented by a union.

However, as The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg reported over the weekend, it wasn’t entirely clear “if the group would attempt to bargain collectively like players’ unions in other professional sports.” Instead, it seemed, the new players association would provide men’s players with a self-governance structure and focus on issues such as tournament rules and regulations, revenue sharing, pensions and medical care.

Djokovic and Pospisil detailed their goals in a letter distributed to players – many of them already in New York for the US Open. They even had a photo op Saturday evening on the Grandstand.

”The goal of the PTPA is not to replace the ATP, but to provide players with a self-governance structure that is independent from the ATP and is directly responsive to player-members’ needs and concerns,” according to Djokovic and Pospisil. They solicited signups and received many responses immediately.

Clearly, the ATP sees the upstart group as a threat and its chairman, Andreas Gaudenzi, even went so far as to issue a letter to players urging them not to support it.

On Saturday, the ATP and WTA tours, the four Grand Slam tournaments and the ITF released a joint statement that backed the ATP and supporting “its role in representing the best interests of players throughout this progress.”

Through it all, Djokovic does not have the support of either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal – and that’s a problem. Each took to social media to express their displeasure and urge caution. Along with four other members of the ATP Player Council – Kevin Anderson, Jurgen Melzer, Sam Querrey and Bruno Soares — they wrote a letter that urged other players to not sign up with the new association.

“It undermines our new management’s ability to achieve their vision for the sport,” read a portion of their letter. “A new Player Association cannot co-exist with the ATP.”

Among the questions that Federer and Nadal raised, which have gone unanswered by Djokovic and Pospisil, include: “What happens if tournaments go against us?”; What is the contingency plan to protect us if this goes ahead and badly?” and “Who is taking responsibility for any fallout both with our careers, income and negativity?”

On Sunday, much of the focus centered on the WTA and why the Players Association did not reach out to include women’s players. Shouldn’t they be given a chance to unite with their male counterparts? Excluding women, it turns out, is one of the primary reasons Andy Murray said he wouldn’t support Djokovic and Pospisil. In the past, Murray has been quick call out inequalities in how players are treated, both men and women, and for now, he’s backing Gaudenzi in giving the ATP an opportunity to fix long-standing concerns he and others have raised.

“Whether that works out or not would potentially influence me in the future as to which way I would go,” said Murray during Saturday’s round of media interviews. “Also, the fact that the women aren’t part of it, I feel like that would sent a significantly – well, just a more powerful message personally if the WTA were on board with it. That’s not currently the case. If those things changed in the future, it’s something that I would certainly, certainly consider.”

Pospisil wrote on Twitter: “Regarding the involvement of women in the PTPA, there is active dialogue with the women’s side. We recognize the importance of women’s tennis and their involvement. This should be evident by the separate movement that started last year when we had support from over 70 of the top 100 ranked from both the men’s AND women’s side. … The PTPA is at its infancy stage… it will only grow form here.”

Following Saturday’s Western & Southern Open men’s doubles final, Murray’s older brother, Jamie Murray, was asked during a virtual press conference what he thought of the new association. He said:

“I think there’s no secret that the structure with the ATP is challenging I think. I think a lot of players have grievances about that, their representation on the tour in comparison to the tournaments.

“Yeah, I don’t know what it’s going to mean if it does go ahead. I think there’s so many unknowns. It’s a big step to take, a big risk in my mind. Potentially lose any leverage you have, you potentially lose your seat at the table.

“I don’t think there’s really a sort of clear path of direction of where this might end up.”

As the US Open begins Monday, one has to question the timing of the roll out of the Players Association and its tone-deafness toward women, too. At a time the pro tours are trying to get properly restarted in hopes of successfully completing their diminished 2020 tennis calendars, collaboration is what’s need – not division. Also, it’s necessary to ask whether this in the best interests of the sport, both current and future. Granted, players should have an opportunity to explore all of their options, but is this the best time for this to be happening?

One thing seems certain: This year’s US Open is going to be quite the spectacle – and not just for the tennis.

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