This August, highest-ranking tennis player Novak Djokovic announced the formation of the Professional Tennis Players Association. According to an email sent out to players, the association wants “to promote, protect and represent the interests of its players … and protect the future of tennis.” One of the main issues plaguing tennis right now is the lack of financial stability for lower-ranked players. The PTPA has made it clear that this is one of the main concerns they will be addressing.
There have been rumors circulating for the past few years that a group of players wanted to create a union-type of association. With the current structure of tennis, having an official union is impossible; players are independent contractors and are not employed by the Association of Tennis Professionals, which is the governing body responsible for running the tour. Djokovic and fellow founding member Vasek Pospisil worked with a law firm to make sure their association was legal and that players’ membership statuses with the ATP would not be in question.
The PTPA plans to support men ranked in the top 500 in singles and top 200 in doubles. They will be governed by a board of trustees that are elected annually, with up to nine members. Trustees will nominate two co-presidents for two-year terms. The first presidents are Djokovic and Pospisil. Both were members of the ATP Players Council and resigned when they announced the start of the PTPA. Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey also left the Council to join the breakaway group.
To understand the significance of this move, we need some context.
The tennis world was in flux. In 1968, Grand Slams had finally let professionals and amateurs play together, bridging one of the biggest divides in tennis. This was the start of the Open Era. While who was allowed to play tennis professionally was finally decided, when and where they would be playing was still up in the air. There were multiple tours running, each with strict rules controlling which tournaments players would be allowed to compete in.
Unlike the current system, players were under contract with their respective tours. Tour promoters often ran into issues with the International Tennis Federation-run Grand Slams (the only consistent tournaments) when players often boycotted.
Finally, in the 1980s, there was more stability. The Grand Prix circuit emerged victoriously and took over as the primary tour, in addition to the four Grand Slams. The circuit ran under the Men’s Tennis Council — the governing body of that time. The MTC consisted of three representatives from the ITF (which is responsible for keeping the rules of tennis consistent, as well as managing all the national tennis federations), three tournament directors and three player representatives from the ATP. At this time the ATP solely functioned as an association to represent the players.
Fast forward to 1988, 20 years after the start of the open era. The players felt like they didn’t have enough say. They were dissatisfied with the schedule, how the sport was being marketed and management. At the US Open that year, the ATP announced their plans to break away from the MTC and start their own tour at the start of the 1990 season.
The ATC had booked an interview room, but they were banned from using it. This led to the infamous Parking Lot Revolution, where then-ATP Chief Executive Hamilton Jordan held a press conference surrounded by Mats Wildander, Yanick Noah, Brad Gilbert and others in the parking lot right outside the US Open grounds. The ITF released a statement in opposition days later, but the following year, the MTC was disbanded.
At that time, the ATP didn’t have the resources to start a new tour by themselves, instead choosing to partner with tournament directors. This led to the birth of the ATP Tour as we know it today. While the name ATP stayed, it was no longer solely the Association of Tennis Professionals — the players had only 50 percent of the power, with the rest going to the tournaments.
While this new version of the ATP did give the players more power, it also led to the cannibalizing of the players association. The ATP Board of Directors now consisted of three tournament representatives, three player representatives (who were nominated by the 12 person Players Council) and a Chairman, who served as the tiebreaker in votes. Since 1990, there have been two attempts at a players-only association: once in 2003 and again in 2011. Neither were successful.
The first attempt was headlined by South African tennis player Wayne Ferreira. This came in the form of the International Men’s Tennis Association. He advocated for players to have more say on the business side of tour. This came after a $1.2 billion deal that the ATP signed with sports marketing agency ISL, which fell through. Ferreira called for more transparency. Then highest-ranking player Lleyton Hewitt backed the cause but for his own reasons: after a penalty that resulted in a six-figure fine the previous year, Hewitt wasn’t on the best terms with the ATP. However, nothing came of the IMTA after Ferriera’s retirement in 2005.
The idea of an independent player’s association was dormant for a number of years until the 2011 US Open. Following scheduling issues, American Andy Roddick called for the tennis stars to align.
“Without a union, it’s tough for us to complain about anything. If we don’t unite, we have no one to blame but ourselves,” Roddick said.
Both Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray voiced their support for a union and the need for more power to be in the hands of the players. Nothing came of these talks either.
While many say the Open Era shed the elitist trappings of tennis, is that really true? Tennis still has a problem — and it’s deeper than it’s image. The rich keep getting richer, and the opportunities for lower-ranked players keep slipping away. Just this year, after Djokovic urged players to donate to a COVID Relief Fund for lower-ranked players, Dominic Thiem, ranked fourth in the world, made a statement.
“No tennis player is fighting to survive, even those who are much lower-ranked. None of them are going to starve,” Thiem said. While Thiem has every right to spend his money how he wants, his words come off as tone-deaf. In contrast to top-ten players, who have lucrative sponsorship deals in addition to their tournament winnings, a majority of players don’t share the wealth that Thiem has and are struggling to pay their bills due to the hiatus. Higher ranked players may be the face of tennis, but lower-ranked players are the bedrock of the sport. Yet, they have been given very little institutional support.
The ATP only have themselves to thank for the situation they find themselves in. The reason players are struggling during a four-month break is because of systematic issues that the ATP have failed to address.
While Djokovic isn’t perfect, it would be shortsighted to not appreciate the value of an external voice at the table brings. After working as the President of the ATP Players Council for four years and attempting to bring about change internally, he took a leap of faith and advocated for changes to the pay gap by branching out on his own. Some may call the PTPA a power grab by Djokovic, but, with no backing from a majority of top-20 players, it’s hard to make that argument. While Nadal and Federer may tweet out sweet nothings about “stand[ing] united” and “working…together,” the lack of action to confront these problems is what speaks volumes. Both players quit the council in 2012 and 2014 respectively and only rejoined in 2019, after a falling out that caused three other players to resign mid-term.
So, 20 years after the Parking Lot Revolution, tennis finds itself back where it started: unable to satisfy the demands of its players. While the PTPA could easily fade into the background, much like Ferreria’s MITC or Roddick’s calls for change, they have a chance to do something good. In their initial letter, the PTPA said their goal was, “not to replace the ATP but to provide players with a self-governance structure that is independent of the ATP and is directly responsive to player-members’ needs and concerns.”
Tennis is known to be a sport of tradition, but to stick by that tradition blindly with no regard for how players are faring is only a detriment to its long-term survival. Change is good, and we can hope that’s what the PTPA is bringing.