Home Sport What Happened to Novak Djokovic’s Mission to Transform Pro Tennis?

What Happened to Novak Djokovic’s Mission to Transform Pro Tennis?

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Nine months ago, a group of tennis players started an organization aimed at giving them more say in how their sport operates and divides the roughly $2 billion the game generates annually. A group of former players who brought tennis into the modern era of sports commerce have been watching their work.

But since Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, gathered with the others at the United States Open for a unity photograph to introduce the Professional Tennis Players Association in 2020, it has been unclear what, if anything, has been accomplished.

“I don’t think they realize how much work is involved,” said Billie Jean King, one of nine players who set up the women’s tour in 1973. “It’s tedious. It’s every day. It’s meetings. We’d have meetings at 4 a.m. after we finished playing.”

The new association wants to represent the top 500 singles players and the top 200 in doubles, doing everything it can to make sure those players can make a viable living. It is a significant goal. For now, only about the top 100 players do.

But Djokovic has played just three tournaments since winning the Australian Open in February. Vasek Pospisil of Canada, the world’s 64th-ranked player and Djokovic’s fellow leader in the effort, is skipping the clay-court swing in Europe. He does not plan to be back on the tour until grass-court play begins in mid-June.

In terms of activism, ahead of the Australian Open, Djokovic wrote a letter to tournament organizers demanding better treatment for players who were forced into a hard lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pospisil had a midmatch temper tantrum at the Miami Open in March, breaking into a curse-laden tirade at the chair umpire about a confrontational meeting the previous night with the chairman of the men’s tour, Andrea Gaudenzi.

There is the occasional thread on Twitter complaining about the state of the game followed by the #playersvoice hashtag. About that, King and her cohorts from the game’s last major labor movement have this to say — tweeting is not organizing.

There certainly has been nothing planned along the lines of the 1973 boycott of Wimbledon, when more than 80 top players, including the defending champion, Stan Smith, left in an effort to gain the right to choose which events they played.

“If the players were unified and were willing to take risks and suffer losses they could control the sport,” said Donald Dell, who played elite-level tennis in the 1960s, then became an agent and helped create the original Association of Tennis Professionals in the 1970s. “But are they willing to take the risk?”

Representatives for Djokovic did not respond to requests for comment. Reached late last month in Canada, where he is nursing a back injury, Pospisil said: “We’re building out the foundation. We’re hopeful by the end of summer we’ll have an exciting launch.”

Vasek Pospisil serving at the Australian Open back in February.Credit…Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Pospisil declined to provide specifics about his sources of funding, who was involved, or how the association intended to achieve its goals to avoid giving ammunition to the leaders of the International Tennis Federation or the men’s and women’s pro tours, who do not want to share power with yet another entity. Then he cut short the interview and declined requests for another.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have not signed on, choosing instead to support the ATP tour, which jointly represents players and tournament owners. The women’s tour, the WTA, has a similar structure.

Djokovic and Pospisil were late to approach women about joining the organization. They say they want to include women, but it’s not clear how many women have signed on to their effort.

Tennis ranks just behind soccer in popularity in many countries, especially in Europe. Add up all the people who work for the tours, the Grand Slams, tournaments large and small, and the media companies affiliated with tennis, and there are thousands who are earning a decent living off the sport. But players ranked outside the top 100 struggle to break even.

Djokovic and Pospisil have their work cut out for them. Tennis may be the hardest sport in the world to organize. Players come from dozens of countries and play in scores of events across the globe over an 11-month season. The players come together en masse only four times a year, at the Grand Slams. During those events, top players like Djokovic are usually too focused on trying to win to distract themselves with politics. They rent private homes and arrive with coaches, hitting partners, massage therapists, agents and managers and do not socialize much with average players.

Also, there is a natural schism between the best players, who know they are the stars of the tour and believe they should be paid as such, and the journeymen, who want more money to cover the costs of sustaining their careers in hopes of a sudden rise, like the one Aslan Karatsev, 27, of Russia has pulled off. He was ranked 114th in the world in January and is now in the top 25.

Cliff Drysdale, the former player and tennis commentator who was the first president of the ATP, said he needed to find one cause that every player could unite around.

For King, who organized the women’s tour, the cause was equal treatment with the men.

Drysdale found his unifying cause in June 1973, when Wimbledon barred Nikola Pilic of Yugoslavia from playing because his country’s tennis federation had suspended him. The federation punished Pilic for playing in a tournament where he could make money instead of representing his country in the Davis Cup. Nearly every top player left.

“It was about freedom from the control of national associations,” Drysdale said. “There wasn’t a player who didn’t agree with that.”

Once the leaders of tennis saw that players were willing to walk away from the game’s crown jewel, players got their freedom and, eventually, a 50 percent say in the operation of the sport.

Nikola Pilic (far left), outside the High Court in London with (left to right) tennis players Cliff Drysdale, Arthur Ashe and Jack Kramer in June 1973. They were awaiting a judgement on an application by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) for an injunction seeking to lift the ban placed on Pilic by the International Tennis Federation.Credit…Leonard Burt/Central Press, via Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Still, most tournaments do not share their financial information with the players, who have no idea what share of the sport’s overall revenues they receive and struggle to formulate an argument for what they are entitled to. King owned tournaments when she was still playing, giving her a valuable education in the tennis business and the ability to negotiate as an equal.

Executives acknowledge that the players’ share is not close to the roughly 50 percent that athletes in most North American team sports receive, even if the free hotels, air travel and meals the players receive are included in the calculation, but tennis players are far more independent.

Pospisil says the system fails to give players their fair share, and his goals are fairly simple: a bigger role for players on major decisions and the opportunity for more lower-ranked players, both men and women, to earn a better living.

Players broadly support the first goal, but the second one is more divisive and is likely to require the grind of old-school labor campaigning. Players in the top 20 fear they will have to give up money so players ranked from No. 80 through 300 can earn more. Also, plenty of male players historically have not been keen on joining forces to lift the less lucrative women’s game, fearing it might somehow cost them.

“The men always feel like they will have to give something up if they join with the women,” King said. “But the tournaments with both genders are the most valuable.”

Charlie Pasarell, another former player and founding member of the ATP said a new organization to represent players might even be a step backward.

“They say they want more money and a bigger cut,” said Pasarell, who owned and operated a tournament in Southern California after his playing career. “Well, they are at a table right now where they can negotiate that. Let’s figure out a formula.”