In 1988 tennis had a historical moment. It was at the US Open and the men players were restless with their lot in the sport. They felt they did not have enough say in the running of professional tennis and a louder voice was wanted. At that time tennis was administered by the MIPTC – Men’s International Professional Tennis Council which was based out of New York.
The ATP was more of a player union at that time and its chief was a man named Hamilton Jordan who was previously President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff. The ATP applied to the USTA to be able to have a media conference in the main interview room on-site at the US Open; the request was denied.
Jordan took a group of players and staged a rebel media conference outside the main gates of the National Tennis Centre. It became known as the “press conference in the parking lot” and is a seminal point in professional men’s tennis.
The ATP was breaking away from the establishment and taking charge of the wellbeing of the players. Tennis was changed. The MIPTC came to an end and the ATP became the 50:50 partnership between the players and the tournaments and the new tour began on 1 January 1990. The players now had a voice at the table and represented at the board.
32 years later and men’s tennis is in a controversial situation again and once more highlighted at the US Open.
After striving to gain a place at the board table three decades ago, a select number of players have banded together to breakaway and create the Professional Tennis Players Association.
Leading the group is world No.1 Novak Djokovic and his off-sider, Canadian doubles player Vasek Pospisil. Both have stepped down from their positions on the Player Council (Djokovic was President) and have installed themselves as the co-Chairman of the new group.
A picture of more than 60 mask wearing players standing almost defiantly on a US Open match court, is being highlighted in a similar manner to the players who assembled in 1988.
What is surprising about this compared to revolutions in history is that this has been instigated by the wealthy ones. Normally it is the underprivileged and disadvantaged that create the uprisings.
While there are many players siding with the new group there are as many opposing them and the world’s seven main governing bodies including the four majors are dead against what is happening. Player Council members Roger Federer, Kevin Anderson and Rafa Nadal are very much against what is being proposed while Djokovic is at pains to express that this is not a union.
“I have read in the letter from ATP, that they think that ATP cannot co-exist with the association. I have to respectfully disagree,” Djokovic said. “Legally we are 100% safe and we are allowed to form the player association. This is not a union. This is player association.
“We are not calling for boycotts. We are not forming parallel tours. I have seen a lot of different speculations in the media, and people coming out with just various things that we will do, which is, in a way, expected, because it's a big thing, of course. It's not new. I must underline that again. But at the same time, Vasek, myself, and obviously this generation have
managed to make that final step.”
A union is an organization that acts as an intermediary between its members and the business that employs them. By comparison an association is a group of people (members) who come together for a common purpose.
There has been talk about going back to the days of a player union several times over the years, but one needs to ask what the purpose of this proposal really is. When you look at the idea, they are restricting it to the top 500 singles players and top 200 doubles players, and it does not include the women players. That criteria hardly brings everyone together.
But why do it? What is the purpose? This breakaway group does not have all their ducks in a row. They have not created a proper memorandum or articles of association. They don’t know who will represent them. They admit to also not having major support. It’s just baffling.
Djokovic said: “We are just trying to get a sense of how many players do really want to join this initiative, then we will take it from there”. That’s like going into a battle without any weapons. Djokovic believes it can co-exist and should co-exist “at the beginning”. Mmm, what happens after the beginning? It all appears so haphazard.
Djokovic and the recruits have not explained their reasons “whether we want to be in the position to negotiate about prize money or not”. He says they are not focusing on that and admits the ATP is the main governing body and the players are members of that.
Then why bother with this?
Djokovic added: “As players we want to have our own organisation and association that is 100% ours.”
Nadal and Federer to name two have pleaded, as has the head of the ATP, former player Andrea Gaudenzi to not proceed with this idea. It is only going to create disharmony and in the present global situation it is not a good look, especially with tennis slowly grinding back to life after a near six-month suspension due to COVID-19.
“These are moments where big things can be achieved as long as the world of tennis is united,” Nadal wrote on Twitter and endorsed by Federer. ‘We all, players, tournaments and governing bodies have to work together. We have a bigger problem and separation and disunion is definitely not the solution.
“The world is living a difficult and complicated situation. I personally believe these are times to be calm and work all of us together in the same direction. It is time for unity, not for separation.”