On the eve of the 2020 U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic announced the formation of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA)—a group intent on representing the interests of men’s pro tennis players “independent from the ATP.” The world’s No. 1 player hopes to gain enough support amongst the ATP’s top 500 ranked singles and top 200 ranked doubles players to proceed with the initiative (+/- 60 are currently on board). Djokovic & Co. are not looking to create a competing tour. They wish to create a vehicle that will empower the players and enable them to negotiate directly with organizers of the four Grand Slam tournaments (the tour’s most lucrative competitions). As Tim Mayotte (a former president of the ATP Player Council and the founder of the Tim Mayotte Tennis Academy in Springfield, Mass.) explained, just “[14%] of total [Grand Slam] revenues are going towards player compensation,” a percentage far lower than what athletes in other sports command (consider: NFL players get 48% of revenues, NBA players take home +/- 50%). The PTPA also hopes to address issues pertaining to tournament rules and regulations, pensions, medical care and revenue sharing.
Our Take: To be clear, this is not the first time some of the world’s best tennis players have sought to break away from the establishment. In 1988, a collective of men’s pro players left the Grand Prix tennis circuit and World Championship Tennis to form the ATP Tour. The players achieved significant financial gains with the change (see: prize money increased dramatically). But as Mayotte explained, by agreeing to share control over the tour with non-Grand Slam tournament directors, the players—who are not represented by a union—“limited their ability to negotiate directly with the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup.” It should be noted there is some symbolism in Djokovic’s decision to issue a statement about the formation of a new players’ association on the eve of the U.S. Open. Hamilton Jordan announced the ATP would be assuming control over men’s professional tennis and forming a new tour in a parking lot press conference at the 1988 Open.
It’s no surprise that Djokovic is the player spearheading the movement towards player empowerment given his role in ousting Chris Kermode as ATP chief just 18 months ago. His previous position as ATP Player Council President (he resigned with the announcement of the PTPA) also gave him a first-hand look at the difficulties associated with the players’ exacting change under the organization’s existing leadership structure (see: three player representatives, three non-Grand Slam tournament director representatives, one CEO serving as the deciding vote).
Grand Slam tournament revenues have exploded since 1988, but because the players have been unable to negotiate directly with organizers over the last 30+ years, many believe they’re not receiving a fair share of that money. Despite the widespread belief amongst players that they are being short-changed, Djokovic has struggled to gain enough support to threaten the status quo. High-profile stars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have vocally rejected the effort (at least in its current form) and less than 10% of players targeted have agreed to sign on to date. While some believe unifying the sport is the way to go (as opposed to sowing further division), others believe there is a path to a stronger player voice under the ATP’s current structure; there’s also a series of unanswered questions that is preventing some from signing on. For the PTPA to have a real chance at commanding change, Mayotte says Djokovic will need to get either Federer and/or Nadal “on board, along with a solid majority (think: 50%-60%) of the middle-rank guys—and he’s currently nowhere close to that.”
The PTPA’s failure to include female players has also irked some of the men (including Andy Murray). The ATP generates significantly more revenue than the WTA, so one can understand why those behind a movement trying to increase player compensation would be hesitant to share any gains they might make (remember, Grand Slam prize money is split 50/50). But as Tennis Channel’s (and Sports Illustrated’s) Jon Wertheim said, it certainly comes off as “tone-deaf to the times,” and there’s certainly an argument to be made that the PTPA would be in a strong position to command change with the women on board. “Naomi Osaka sent one tweet, and an entire tournament was frozen a week ago,” Wertheim noted of the two-time Grand Slam champ’s influence.
Players supporting the PTPA—many of whom are ranked below the top 50—perceive the non-Grand Slam tournament directors within the ATP’s current power structure as having vastly different motivations than they do. Mayotte reminds, “Players ranked outside the top 100 are barely making a living. The only real way to change that is for the players to keep a larger percentage of Grand Slam revenues and for them to distribute more of that money to the lower-ranked players.” But while the players seek to increase the prize money from both Grand Slam and non-Grand Slam events, Mayotte said non-Grand Slam tournament directors “want players to play as much as possible and to keep their costs down.” They also fear that an increase in Grand Slam prize money will threaten their future. Wertheim explained that if the players start to make significantly more from the majors, they’ll “anchor their years around those tournaments—more so than they already do—and it will dilute the Tour’s other events. If [a player] could make 80% of their income from four tournaments, everything else will turn into sandwich filling.”
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