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The World According To Novak Djokovic • Or The End Of The World According To Those With Sense

Novak Djokovic of Serbia sits in a chair during a rain delay during the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California, USA, 11 March 2019. The men's and women's final will be played, 17 March 2019. EPA-EFE/LARRY W. SMITH
Novak Djokovic of Serbia sits in a chair during a rain delay during the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California, USA, 11 March 2019. The men’s and women’s final will be played, 17 March 2019. EPA-EFE/LARRY W. SMITH

 

 

By Alix Ramsay

 

Be careful what you wish for Mr Djokovic. Be very careful indeed.

 

Having removed Chris Kermode from the office of president of the ATP, Novak Djokovic is now free to turn his attention to business of winning the BNP Paribas Open for the sixth time while, at the same time, maintaining a stubborn refusal to discuss what his political game plan is. It is a nifty little juggling act but one that he has been perfecting for more than a year now, ever since he started agitating for a players’ union at the players’ meeting in January last year.

 

Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have made their views clear – they were in favour of maintaining the status quo and keeping Kermode in power – and they mapped out their ideas for the future the other morning over coffee at Roger’s digs in Indian Wells. But Djokovic? He is keeping schtum.

 

The world No.1 is a very good talker but we have all learned that the more words he uses, the less he actually says. Only after wading through the transcripts of his defensive responses to persistent questioning does it become clear: he just wants to have everything his own way and get more money while he does it. Simples.

 

The nearest indication of his intentions was a verbose and rambling riff that, when boiled down, translated to two possibilities for the future ATP president: the first was that a puppet president with little power was installed or, if that could not be achieved, then he wanted a president who agreed with him.

 

But whether that is good for the sport is a moot point. Actually, it is not that moot – most people think like Roger and Rafa and very few people are marching under the Djokovic banner. That did not stop Djokovic and his pals from staging their coup and dismissing Kermode, mind you, but the end result may not be quite what the revolutionaries had in mind.

 

During Kermode’s six-year tenure, prize money increased (Wimbledon’s prize fund almost doubled in the last five years), contributions to the players’ pension fund increased and more tournaments were created, most famously the new ATP Cup which will be staged for the first time next year before the Australian Open.

 

Kermode is also the man who turned the Queen’s Club event into one of the most popular tournaments of the year, beloved of the players, and who turned the end-of-year championships at London’s O2 Arena into a massive money spinner for the tour. He is also a people person – he gets on with everyone. Apart from Djokovic, that is. He is nobody’s fool but he is open, friendly, innovative and energetic. It takes a lot to dislike Chris Kermode. Yet, clearly Djokovic has worked hard at his dislike.

 

Despite the growth of the men’s game and the financial rewards that came with that growth, Djokovic wants more. The model he often quotes is that of the NFL in the United States. The National Football League is one of the biggest businesses in a land of mega-businesses. And the NFL shares around 48 per cent of its revenue with its players. Djokovic likes those numbers.

 

In tennis, the ATP Tour shares out between 15 and 28 per cent of its revenue with the players but at the grand slams, that figure is vastly reduced (some un-verified figures show that to be as little as eight per cent). Compared to the NFL, that looks pretty miserly.

 

But let us compare and contrast.

 

In tennis, a man of Djokovic’s age and standing is allowed to play as and when he wishes. While every player is obliged to play all the Masters 1000 events he qualifies for, those who have played 600 tour matches are allowed to drop one event. All those who have played for 12 years are allowed to drop an event. All those who are aged 30 or over are allowed to drop one event. And all those who tick all three of the above boxes can drop any event they want. Their ranking will take a hammering, but they can do as they please.

 

Even those who are young enough to be obliged to play the four slams, all the Masters 1000s (if they qualify) and the allotted number of smaller events are free to arrange their own schedule around that timetable. If they are injured, they do not have to play (obviously), if they do not want to play in tournament ‘a’ this week, they can play in tournament ‘b’ the week after. There is wriggle room for everyone.

 

Back with the NFL, life is very, very different.

 

The NFL owns all the teams that compete in its league (each team owner buys a franchise for squillions of dollars) and the players who play in those teams. The team owns every one of their players, lock stock and barrel, for the duration of that player’s contract (unless they decide to trade them). And the NFL owns the team.

 

Players can be traded without their consent – today you play in Miami, tomorrow you could be in Green Bay. Keep that suitcase packed, then. Some of the big name superstars have it written into their contracts that can only be traded to pre-selected teams, but those names are few and far between. The regular bloke goes where he is told. And when.

 

As for injuries – if the boss says play, you play. Even if your leg is hanging off. Or you have been seeing stars for the past two weeks due to the concussion you picked up when you were flattened by another big bloke in body armour who could not see straight due to his concussion issues. You play because you have no choice.

 

Oh, and just for good measure, the NFL has the power to close down a team if it wants to. Imagine if the ATP had the power to shut down a tournament if it fancied it – “We are not sure we need the BNP Paribas Open just before the Miami Open. Contract cancelled. End of story.”

 

In tennis, the players are sole contractors; in the NFL, the players are the NFL’s commodities to be bought, sold or dismissed at the whim of the NFL. But they do get a share of 48 per cent of the NFL’s revenue. Woo-hoo.

 

Is that a deal worth doing? If you are a short sighted money-grabber, yes. If you are a sensible, experienced player of the ATP system (like a Roger or a Rafa), you might think differently.

 

In life there is no such thing as a free lunch. If Djokovic thinks that a 48 per cent share of the cash floating around the tennis world is his by right, he is sadly mistaken. You want it, you have to pay for it in one way or another.

 

So far, he has got his own way. But if he leads the rest of the players down the road of a loss of freedom, a Djokovic dictatorship and more money for some but no voice for the majority, he may not last long in his position of power.

 

Be careful what you wish for Mr Djokovic. Be very careful indeed.

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