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Novak Djokovic Wins Cincy Tennis But Will He Win The Battle For Power?

Novak Djokovic of Serbia wins the Western and Southern Open at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, USA, 29 August 2020.

By Alix Ramsay

Not content with winning his second Western and Southern Open title, so completing his second career golden Masters (he has now won all nine Masters titles at least twice), not content with beating Milos Raonic 11 times on the bounce (he beat him 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 on Saturday afternoon), Novak Djokovic now wants to rule the world.

Together with Vasek Pospisil, the Serb is trying to create a breakaway players’ group to be called the Professional Tennis Players Association, a setup totally separate from the ATP and one which, Djokovic believes, will provide a real voice for his peers and rivals. Well, for the male players, that is; there is not a mention of the WTA in this revolution but let us leave that for the moment.

Locked together in the USTA’s bio-bubble with no hope of escape, there has been a fair amount of politicking going on about this in the past week and the players were brought together for a vote on Saturday. Some players, like Raonic, thought there would be an overwhelming majority in support of the move. Others, like Andy Murray and Dan Evans were far from enthusiastic.

Novak Djokovic kisses the Rookwood Cup trophy.

Part of the problem is the timing of the rebellion: the sport is limping out of lockdown; many tournaments are struggling to cover their expenses (some are just trying not to go bust) and most players simply want to get back to work and earn some money. There are more important matters to deal with in this pandemic than a battle of egos between some big names and the ATP.

The other main problem focuses on what the new association will look like and what it wants to do. So far, there has been a lot of talk about change but very little by way of detail.

“We don’t have a minimum number of players that will sign or maximum number of players that will sign.” Djokovic said after winning his 35th Masters 1000 title. “We are focused on top 500 in singles, top 200 in doubles. We are hoping we can get a majority of those players.

“We are aware that it most likely will not be the case today, but we are giving it a time. We have to start from somewhere. I think this is an important step for players and for the sport, as well, because I see that there is a kind of a narrative going around that this is only good for players. I disagree. I think this is very good for sport.

“Whether we want to be in the position to negotiate about prize money or not, I have no answer to that question, because we are not focusing on that at the moment. This is the responsibility of ATP, and we regard the ATP as the main governing body of our tour. We are members of the tour.

“So, we just want, as players, to have our own organisation and association that is 100 per cent ours where we could discuss various matters that are concerning players’ rights, players’ future, players’ present. Where that’s going to take us, I’m not sure.

“We are definitely going to try to work with ATP and all the governing bodies in sport. I mean, of course, we are not going to have any executive power, at the beginning, especially. Whether that’s going to change in the future, I’m not sure, but I’m hoping that, first of all, we can attain the majority of the support of the players, because I think it’s important step forward.”

Novak Djokovic reacts after defeating Milos Raonic during their Men’s finals match at the Western and Southern Open.

In other words, Djokovic and Co. want something different, they don’t know what that is yet and they don’t know quite what they will do with it when they get it. But they want it, nonetheless. Or, that is what Djokovic is saying at the moment.

The biggest beef is the proportion of prizemoney allocated to players at the grand slams. The slams make a mint and the players would like a bigger share of the profits. But the world No.1 is not daft: when the USTA is losing a fortune by staging the US Open behind closed doors, now is not the time to be banging on about more money. But if the PTPA gets up and running and life gets back to normal next year, what then?

That said, the grand slams are separate from the ATP and the power struggles between Djokovic and the hierarchy within the ATP have been rumbling on for years. That is another side to this argument entirely.

Until now, Djokovic had been the president of the players council while Pospisil was a council member. They, together with John Isner, have now resigned from their positions (at the public prompting of Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP’s chairman) leaving the rest of the council to pick up the pieces. And the those left behind, led by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, are clearly angry.

Publishing their official response to the Djokovic putsch, they made it very plain that in no way did they support the breakaway faction. Then they started asking some very pertinent questions such as: ‘where is the business plan for this?’ and ‘what happens if it all goes wrong?’, ‘what new rights will have’ and, most important of all: ‘what happens to my ATP membership? ATP pension? ATP insurance? ATP entries? Who is taking responsibility for any fallout both with our careers and income?’

Answer came there none. See Djokovic’s statement above.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates winning against Milos Raonic of Canada.

As ever, people lined up – virtually on Zoom, obviously – to ask Murray what he thought of it all. And, as ever, he offered his opinion with clarity and authority. We have missed him for that in these past couple of years.

“I won’t be signing it today,” he said of the player meeting, voting and list of player signatures to support Djokovic. “I’m not totally against a player union, player association, but right now there’s a couple of things:

“One is I feel like the current management that are in place should be given some time to implement their vision. Whether that works out or not would potentially influence me in the future as to which way I would go.

Andy Murray will only consider if women are part of the association.

“Also, the fact that the women aren’t part of it, I feel like that would send a significantly — well, just a much more powerful message personally if the WTA were onboard with it, as well. That’s not currently the case.

“If those things changed in the future, it’s something that I would certainly consider.”

It is no wonder the WTA locker room love the Muzz: no women, no deal. No chance for the establishment to change, no deal. Simples. He cuts through the blather and the waffle like a surgeon’s knife.

Dan Evans, Britain’s current No.1 (he says he is only keeping the seat warm for the day when Murray gets back to his best), is also not shy of voicing his opinions. And he was anything but impressed by both the message the new organisation was putting out and the manner in which they were doing it.

“I think now is horrible timing to be talking about that sort of thing,” he said. “We have all been off for such a long time and the US Open has done such a great job to put this on. Now we are talking about other stuff where we should be focusing on what a good job the ATP are doing getting a schedule for the end of the year, what a good job the USTA have done, what a good job the French Open are going to do [next month].

“For what it’s worth, I think the ATP do a great job for us and I won’t be signing the sheet of paper they want.”

But it was the approach the ‘leavers’ took that really annoyed Evans. He is a Brit; he has lived through the ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ argument with Brexit. He is an old hand at this. Note to the wise: don’t try and bully Evo. It won’t end well…. well, it won’t end well for you.

Dan Evans won’t be signing on to the PTPA.

“I don’t understand what the vote is, what are they getting in power for? They have just made a new group. But what do they do? It’s not like they have any standing in the game. If the top 10 players don’t sign, are they not going to play because of the [new] union? It is not really a vote. It is signing a piece of paper that doesn’t really stand for much.”

“I had a conversation yesterday with someone in the changing room, and I played devil’s advocate on the ATP side,” Evans said. “It wasn’t taken very well. Those people who think the union should [happen] are set on it, and I must say they are quite passive aggressive towards anyone who doesn’t want to be involved in it. It is all about having a vote, but it seems that, if they don’t like it, they don’t like you very much.

There is an air of the emperor’s new clothes in all of this. The PTPA wants change and they want a brave new future. But, so far, their leader, Djokovic, stands before them without a stitch on him: no detailed plan of action, no route map for the future, no structure to support them as they go forward.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia (R) holds up the Rookwood Cup trophy after defeating Milos Raonic of Canada (L).

Never mind, Djoko is the champion of Cincy and the nailed-on favourite to win the US Open. But it really didn’t have to be like this.