PLAYERS’ UNION – IS IT NEEDED? BY MARK WINTERS

Written by: on 11th June 2018
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Fed Cup tennis United States vs the Netherlands
PLAYERS’ UNION – IS IT NEEDED? BY MARK WINTERS

epa06512978 A ball boy waits to cross the court as CoCo Vandeweghe of the US plays against Richel Hogenkamp of the Netherlands during a Fed Cup World Group first round women's tennis match between the United States and the Netherlands at the US Cellular Center in Asheville, North Carolina, USA, 10 February 2018. EPA-EFE/ERIK S. LESSER  |

Roger Federer did it. So, did Caroline Wozniacki. They were the applauded and appreciated Australian Open singles winners. Much less well received was the brutal heat that turned the fortnight into the Dehydration Open.

 

There was more. Novak Djokovic achieved feature story status (without seeking it) when he asked those who were not players to leave the annual mandatory player meeting in Melbourne. Having Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Australian Open (AO) officials depart placed him in the “What’s He Doing?” crosshairs of nearly everyone.

 

According to those on hand, the Serbian, who is President of the ATP Players Council, had a lawyer with union expertise discuss some of the details involved in creating one. The standalone organization would, in effect, be a player collective and not include tournament and agent/organization representatives as is the case presently.

 

Initially, the idea was put forth as an effort to develop a groundswell that would lead to more players receiving more prize money. The trouble was, the next day, Djokovic claimed the media, (which seems to have to contend daily with a chorus of “Fake News” riffs), had taken his message out of context, and he circled around the question as if he were attempting to take a page from American Federation of Labor (AFL) founder Samuel Gompers and establish a new union. All he wanted to do was increase the money players will receive from tour events and more important, from the hugely successful Grand Slam tournaments.

 

Jack Kramer left an indelible mark on professional tennis. One of those marks was that the Hall of Fame legend helped found the ATP. In 2002, I wrote a Tennis Week story titled, “Missing The Mission: The ATP Is Spinning More Than The Ball”. In it, I quoted Kramer, who said, “The ATP is a dangerous subject and I don’t want to sound critical, but it appears that they have lost their path.” Kramer, who was the first executive director of the organization, went on to admit, “What they are doing is not what we had in mind.”

 

A well-respected coach, who has worked with top players for many decades, pulled no punches when he offered, “The ATP has turned from being a players’ union to being the governing body of the tour. It has become what we ran away from—the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council.”

 

John Barrett, an International Tennis Hall of Fame member, and the former tennis correspondent for London’s “Financial Times”, was one of the organizations original Board members. “The ATP was founded to release players from the bondage of national tennis associations who, in the days of amateur tennis, treated them like serfs,” he remembered. “Although Open Tennis arrived in 1968, attitudes had still not changed. The initial goals were: to unify players and provide a voice for them in the forum of world tennis; to eliminate guarantees and have all funds channeled into prize money and to start a pension fund for the protection of players in later life. The first and last were soon realized but guarantees have never been eliminated. Now they are even allowed under the rules for tournaments outside the Masters Series.”

 

Barrett added, “Other topics soon became important, like a ranking system, control of the calendar, a code of conduct, road managers, entries being handled by the ATP instead of by individuals, etc.”

According to the coach quoted initially in this story, the situation was dire then. He pointed out, “There is no longer anyone representing the interests of the players. Before the inception of the new ATP, the tour representatives were supposed to be at tournaments helping the players. They were to be player advocates. Now, they are policing players. That’s why the players need a union of their own.”

 

As dedicated tennis fans know, the ATP came into existence in May 1973, because the Yugoslavia National Tennis Federation suspended Nikola Pilić, after he refused to play Davis Cup. Pilić’s stand resulted in his being ineligible to compete at Wimbledon. In a move that more likely than not, would never take place today, 81 of the game’s best players, including 13 of the 16 men’s seeds, did not participate in The Championships. Sadly, it has been nearly sixteen years since the Tennis Week story was written and not surprisingly, the issue about representation, (meaning a union), is an even bigger concern today.

 

The Women’s Tennis Association was driven into existence by Billie Jean King and eight other players – Peaches Bartkowicz, Rosemary Casals, Julie Heldman, Kristy Pigeon, Kerry Melville Reid, Nancy Richey, Judy Tegart Dalton and Valerie Ziegenfuss – who signed $1.00 contracts with Gladys Heldman, the founder of the seminal publication, World Tennis. (Heldman became a deserved member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979.) King and the “Do Not Forget Them 8” were troubled by the fact the man who won the Pacific Southwest earned more than double what the women’s champion took home. In 1971, King and Rosemary Casals, with the score 6-6 in the first set, walked off the court, citing the sizeable compensation difference. (Their refusal to play the match to conclusion led to the “divided title” notation in the record book.) The financial decision by the Nine Trailblazers brought to an end the epic period when the Pacific Southwest, played following the US Nationals (in those days), was the second most competitive tennis event in the country.

 

As is often the case in tennis, the Djokovic “Money-Union” meeting resulted in a Facebook onslaught of support, and some resistance, from around the game. Generally speaking, Roger Federer’s reaction was “comme ci, comme ca”. Rafael Nadal felt that progress had been made, but…more needed to be realized.

 

In Ben Rothenberg’s thorough “In Talk of a Tennis Union, Women Seek a Leading Voice”, New York Times story, (written during this year’s Australian Open), Mirjana Lucic-Baroni said that she had been a union advocate since the late ‘90s. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova brought out that the men’s efforts have resulted in an increase in prize money and the women should be similarly “active.” Elena Vesnina cut to the chase by pointing out that the men are “more pushy” and the women today need to have a leader like Billie Jean King.

 

In fact, neither the ATP nor the WTA, as they now exist, are unions. Contrary to the union concept, they are not committed to solely supporting the players’ interests. Based on recent administrative decisions, they would never have made a Nikola Pilić stand today. Other than offering the dulcet tones of “corporate speak”, a decisive response would not have been forthcoming. Both have abdicated their essence and significance to agents, tournaments and a sundry collection of others on the scene. It looks as if, even now in 2018, Pilić would have been thrown under the bus.

 

According to the Business Dictionary, a union is a group of workers joined together in a specific type of organization for the purpose of improving their working conditions as well as helping promote the common interests of the group.

 

Tennis is a bit more complex than other entities because so many groups and individuals have vested interests in the sport. Traditionally, the “Alphabets” – ATP, WTA and ITF – establish the standards and for the most part, the troika has maintained the status quo when it comes to players having any real or meaningful representation.

 

There is an ATP Player Council, but its structure weakens the decision-making process. It doesn’t always reflect the feelings of the majority of its constituents. Agents and tournaments have a say, and the result is not always in the best interest of ATP members.

 

Those ATP Player Council until June 2018, who are attempting to make headway, include:

Kevin Anderson, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Gilles Simon

Yen-Hsun Lu, Rajeev Ram, Jamie Murray, Bruno Soares, Marcelo Melo, Sergiy Stakhovsky, Colin Dowdeswell, Claudio Pistolesi

 

Gavin Forbes, Charles Smith and Mark Webster are Tournament Representatives selected from the Tournament Council whose members are from the following geographic Groups:

Americas – Gavin Forbes, Bill Oakes, Eugene Lapierre, Raul Zurutuza
Europe – Julien Boutter, Christer Hult, Sergio Palmieri, Herwig Straka, Mark Webster

International – Allon Khakshouri, Cameron Pearson, Charles Smith, Salah Tahlak

 

According to information available, the WTA has a Players’ Council that includes: Victoria Azarenka, Julia Boserup, Marina Erakovic (who does not have a vote), Johanna Konta, Lucie Safarova, Samantha Stosur and Venus Williams. There are also Tournament Council representatives from the Americas, Asia-Pacific, and Europe. (Unlike the ATP, the WTA Players’ Council does not have a President.)

 

On paper, the councils seem to be democratically structured, but enough players believe the partnership between the tournament directors and players isn’t working. The balance is skewed in favor of agents and events, and not surprisingly, they (those representing performers and the championships themselves) disagree with this assessment about their position.

 

One of the problems Barrett addressed in 2002 has remained. Sixteen-years ago, the respected former British Davis Cup player and in time, captain, brought out, “In the early days, the players [who were] still competing themselves, were actively engaged in day-to-day decisions. The change from ATP—the players’ union‚ to ATP—the commercial entity‚ was accompanied inevitably by the emergence of a strong management team of paid executives who run the show like a business and report to the players several times a year. The tournament directors are the ones who make or break the company by providing funds that keep the carousel spinning on its merry way. Accordingly, there is constant tension between the two groups. The ATP, like Oliver Twist, is always asking for more to justify its existence and the tournament directors resist those demands and lean ever more heavily on sponsors to provide funds. Not surprisingly, many sponsors have collapsed.”

 

Almost everyone except those who can be classified as the “Mega Names”, (because they have been so successful), such as Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy, along with Simona Halep and Serena and Venus, are concerned about the toll tennis takes in devaluing their bank accounts. Assuming a basic Economy 101 construct is true – The players are the game and should be compensated accordingly. This holds for all of the men and women’s tour championships, and it is even more obvious when the million-dollar earnings of Grand Slam tournaments are delineated. In addition to that, the television deals that exist, and the various sponsor ties with tournaments and circuits need to be included when all the financial summaries are totaled.

 

From an outsider’s perspective, there are even more telling concerns facing the ATP and WTA. The current tournament schedules appear to literally suck the marrow from the bones of the players. The season is far too long, and it is made worse by outlier events with Masters and Premier designations. When Davis and Fed Cup play are added to mix, the destructive fragmentation increases, and the puzzle becomes even more difficult to solve. The schedule chaos is further compounded with the Year-End Championships, which finally conclude the prolonged competitive seasons. (And that is just in time for a new year with a full array of competitive obligations.)

 

With the Infrastructure Monopoly-like money filling many of the game’s coffers, professional tennis needs to update its pension system. Former players, who have fallen on hard times financially or who are dealing with major health issues, should have an arrangement that provides for their needs. They shouldn’t have to request donations. (This was brought to light, in the past few years, when former standout, Peaches Bartkowicz had to contended with a costly critical illness.)

 

Players should be able to work with an “Ombudsman” to discuss a solvent pension program and things like increasing educational opportunities, broadening insurance coverage, and limiting the number of required tournaments each year. The injury ranking protocol needs to be further clarified. And, annual all-inclusive lists should be prepared that name competent agents and coaches on both tours, in order to enable players to make fact-based selections.

 

Mention of a tennis union could be considered a misnomer. After all, tennis is a singular sport. A former WTA player noted that there is a huge difference between the men and the women players and what they get from the game. She continued, “Perhaps with more and more money and a stronger female presence there will be more opportunities each year, and the difference between the men and women on tour will dissipate.”

 

Another veteran of the game called attention to the fact that though Title IX became law in 1972, “Many women are still not accustomed to playing on a team and the dynamics of the situation isn’t clearly defined. In the end, being in a union, is, indeed, like being on a team.”

 

While it may appear to be a conundrum, the ATP and WTA working together could make the game better. Will it happen? Will a far-reaching union result? It doesn’t seem likely. It will remain a perpetual talking point. There is far too much at stake and the ATP, WTA and ITF seem to be focused on resisting relinquishing “Power”. Many agents and tournaments are supporters of the “Retain Control Putsch”, which will likely keep the players in their current position as second-class citizens and leave them fending for themselves.

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