Disorder on the Court
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 29 - April 05, 2021
With Rafa, Roger, and Serena in the twilight of their careers, pro tennis is struggling to reform itself. Some players are taking matters into their own hands.
By David Yaffe-Bellany

It was a rare sight at last year’s pandemic-interrupted U.S. Open: a crowd. One afternoon in late August, a group of about 80 male tennis players in T-shirts and masks gathered at the Grandstand stadium in Flushing Meadows, filling up rows of dark-blue seats, like schoolboys assembled for a socially distanced class picture. The only action on the court below was a practice session. The 57th-ranked female player, Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, was rallying with a partner, glancing up in bewilderment as the men applauded between points.

The group had been summoned to Grandstand by Canadian pro Vasek Pospisil and Serbian world men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Frustrated with the slow pace of change in elite tennis, Pospisil and Djokovic were aiming to form a players association—not a union, exactly, but a group that could negotiate with tournaments for prize money and threaten boycotts when necessary. The meeting, convened via WhatsApp, was the latest salvo in tennis’s never- ending war with itself.

Djokovic arrived a few minutes late, after winning a grueling match across the complex. He and Pospisil took turns speaking, straining to be heard over the sound of planes roaring above LaGuardia. Their goal wasn’t to dismantle the structure of professional tennis, they assured the group. They simply wanted the executives who run the sport to take players’ concerns more seriously.

Soon, phones started to buzz, with a message from the Association of Tennis Professionals (or ATP), the business entity that runs the men’s tour. American pro Ryan Harrison handed his phone to Djokovic, who started reading the message aloud—six paragraphs seemingly designed to discourage labor organizing. “The consequences of a separate Player Association are unknown,” it said. “The future could become very different.”

By some metrics, tennis is the world’s fourth-most-popular sport. Its global fan base numbers more than a billion, and its superstars are among the best-paid athletes anywhere. As a business, though, it’s a perennial underachiever, accounting for only 1.3% of the total value of global sports TV and media rights, a smaller share than golf, hockey, or cricket, according to a 2018 report by data company SportBusiness. Players good enough to win matches at Grand Slams struggle to support themselves on their tennis earnings, sometimes taking second jobs to make extra income.

Attempts to fix the sport tend to devolve into infighting. Players and tournament organizers joust constantly over prize money. The men have proved unwilling to collaborate with the women. “Everyone distrusts everyone else,” says Etienne de Villiers, who served as ATP chairman from 2005 to 2008. “To use a very eloquent Wordsworthian expression, it’s a ratf---.”

Even before the pandemic, tennis was facing a period of uncertainty, as perhaps its greatest generation of stars— Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Djokovic on the men’s side, and Serena Williams on the women’s—neared retirement with few clear successors in sight. The coronavirus left tennis further exposed, with revenue dropping as its fractured leader ship struggled to stage tournaments. But the virus has also prompted the sport’s leaders to contemplate reform. There’s been renewed discussion of a partnership between the men’s and women’s tours, a proposal that could produce a surge in revenue. Calls for shorter, more TV-friendly matches have intensified. And the simmering tensions between players and tournaments have pushed some of the sport’s stars into open revolt.

At Grandstand, the players posed for a photo to pledge support for the new Professional Tennis Players Association. As news of the initiative traveled, Djokovic and Pospisil were asked to step down from the ATP’s Player Council, an elected body that represents player interests within the pro tour. Djokovic is a polarizing figure in tennis—an 18-time Grand Slam champion with a penchant for pointed criticism of the sport’s establishment. His main rivals in the conversation about the greatest men’s player of all time, Federer and Nadal, swiftly distanced themselves from the breakaway group, saying a pandemic was the wrong time to seek a structural overhaul.

Yet another fissure was opening in a fractured sport. Novak vs. Rafa and Roger. The players vs. the ATP. One reporter compared Djokovic and Pospisil to Cassius and Brutus, the assassins of Julius Caesar.

Pro tennis is less a single enterprise than a sprawling and divided empire, composed of fiefdoms and sub-fiefdoms, factions within sub-fiefdoms, and sub-factions within factions. Before the pandemic, the sport generated roughly $2.3 billion in annual revenue. About 60% comes from the U.S. Open and the three other Slams, each of which operates independently, under the auspices of a private club or national tennis federation. Much of the rest comes from tournament circuits supervised by the ATP and its counterpart, the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association). A third governing body, the ITF (International Tennis Federation), holds its own events, including head-to-head team competitions among countries.

The ATP and WTA are structured as partnerships between players and tournament organizers—labor and management at the same table. The arrangement has led to political paralysis, especially at the ATP. The organization’s board consists of an equal number of player and tournament representatives, overseen by a chairman who can cast tie-breaking votes. The structure isn’t the result of careful long-term planning among tennis’s factions; it’s an historical oddity that emerged from a power struggle in the late 1980s.

Rather than exploring initiatives to generate revenue, the ATP board has often spent its time adjudicating disagreements over prize money and calendar commitments. The players want to play less and earn more; the tournaments want players to play more and earn less. “It’s like watching a soap opera,” says Charlie Pasarell, who spent two decades on the ATP board as a tournament representative. “You can stay away from it for a year or two. And then you turn it on again and start watching it, and the plot is still the same.”

Last year the chairman of the ATP, Andrea Gaudenzi, circulated a report warning that tennis could “drift towards obsolescence” unless competing factions started working together. But Pospisil, a wiry 30-year-old with a toothy grin, says he joined forces with Djokovic after growing distrustful of the sport’s executives. “You see these guys walk around in their suits, and they’re all smiley,” he says. “Most players are breaking even or losing money. It shouldn’t be like that.” (Djokovic declined to be interviewed.)

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