Mailbag: Is Roger Federer's ATP-WTA Merger Proposal Realistic?

The idea to combine the men's and women's tennis tours is making waves throughout the sport, but it's not a new concept and the obstacles have been insurmountable for decades.
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Hey all you cool cats and kittens…

Housekeeping:

1) We had no Beyond the Baseline podcast last week but the wonderful Jamie Lisanti and I spoke about the Williams/Williams final at the 1999 Miami event for The Record, a new podcast from SI.

2) This week’s Beyond the Baseline podcast guest, Dr. Jonathan Katz, talks sports psychology and the challenges athletes face during times of inactivity.

3) Spoiler alert: Dr. Katz—who’s worked with winners of majors, lower-ranked players and the University of Texas tennis program—is offering to volunteer his services to professional players during this time of inactivity.

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I filed the Mailbag last week and then, boom, Roger Federer drops a tweet and tennis goes a-twitter. What if the ATP and WTA joined forces? Here’s Andy Roddick, Lindsay and I discussing on Tennis Channel.

Personally, my optimism here is of the guarded variety. The tours ought to combine for a host of reasons. The bargaining power is greater when men and women offer a unified product. The tours’ business models are essentially the same. It’s better for fans, the overwhelming majority of whom follow both tours. It’s better for streamlining everything from data to officiating. One of tennis’ great virtues: men and women play alongside each other at the biggest events. Why not capitalize on this?

I also think a joint tour is a great hedge. At some point the Big Three are not going to be on the scene. When Coco Gauff or Naomi Osaka—both from commercially critically markers—are killing it...well, wouldn’t it benefit from a diversified portfolio?

[Inflection point here]

The concern to me is the execution. I’ve heard this again and again: the WTA is in some real trouble if the Asian swing doesn’t materialize this fall. Just look at public filing and it’s clear the ATP is more economically robust. “Mergers” are rare in business. Others go further: “There are no mergers; there are only acquisitions.” For what it’s worth, here is the ATP’s most recent public filing. Here is the WTA’s.

When Federer tweeted his remarks last week—followed, surely strategically—by Nadal and Wawrinka, among others, it drew a quick and positive response from the salon, including WTA players. Darren Cahill—who, of course, coaches a top female player—was very pointed (and overall spot-on) in his remarks with the excellent Reem Abulleil.

As is always the case, the devil resides in the details. Are the men willing to divide prize money equally? Or are the women willing to accept less than 50/50? Is there a creative solution? Will competing sponsors be accommodated? Are both tours willing to surrender power to a commissioner? You’d like to think that these are deal points that can be negotiated after an agreement in principle. But then again, the idea of merging tours is not a new one. These hold-ups have been insurmountable for decades.

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Your recent Mailbag mentions the financial troubles of mid-ranked players; it got me thinking. I’m reading about the original 9 for the WTA, and also getting gofundme requests for Vic Seixas’ last days care. Is there a legacy fund the tours have to provide revenue or comfort for some of these legends? Do top players sometimes independently kick money over to those who inspired them? Thanks for keeping our spirits high.
Jon B, Seattle, Wa.

• Here’s the gofundme set up last year.

Tennis—and this is a real virtue—does well to take care of its own. But it’s often on an informal basis. I have heard of top players donating funds. (We should also point out that one of the inspirations for the Laver Cup was Roger Federer realizing that he made more in one night, playing an exo in China, than Laver made for his career.) Some of the fault here lies with Open tennis and the greedy federations. Some of this is simply that players in Seixas’ generation predated the media rights and the big money days in sports. (I was just reading about Pete Rose holding out for $107,500 the year after he won a batting title.)

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. As a child clinical psychology intern in 1968 at a major city hospital, I tested and interviewed a boy and his mum. He was ready for kindergarten age-wise, but had some developmental delay, and severe hearing and vision problems, which were all the result of mum contracting German measles early in her pregnancy. Getting childhood diseases because you are not vaccinated is not always benign by a long shot and it endangers populations of at-risk people like mothers-to-be, cancer patients, etc. Antivaxxers need NOT put such a mum through this and damage her unborn son when it can be avoided. It is tantamount to assault.
Jean

• It is disappointing Djokovic gave this credence. It is possible to be “a seeker”—which is admirable—and open to alternative therapy/psychology/methods while also respecting objective reality. The idea that—during a global pandemic, as his sport contemplates a path to relaunching—a top player would make a comment like that…it’s really problematic. Again, I don’t want to impugn Djokovic. He is, overall, a force of good. He is a worthy No. 1. His willingness to challenge conventional wisdom is something to be admired. But he is way off base here and should run back, not walk back, those regrettable remarks.

If Fed wins the gold in Tokyo next year, where would that rank for his accomplishments?
@pmalan1979

• We usually defer and demure on the hypotheticals, but this is too good to pass up. And the answer: way up there. Like, his greatest achievement after winning a major. We’re talking about winning the elusive gold in singles...at age 40…in a field featuring his two rivals. Sentimentally: he began dating his wife at the 2000 Sydney Olympics so there’s that as well. Objectively, that is an immense accomplishment.

But I also think we need to take our cue from the athletes themselves. It’s not quite Serena gunning for 24 majors, but Federer has been outspoken in his prioritizing the Olympics. There’s no question he constructed his 2000 schedule so he would peak in the summer at Wimbledon, Tokyo and New York. When players emphasize goals, almost by definition, they become freighted with extra significance.

I hope you’re well and staying safe. Writing to you from quarantine in Toronto....I just read (on TMZ of all places) that Novak is an anti-vaxxer. 3...2...1... Go! Be well.
L.T.

• I am not doing this to pick on Djokovic. I just want to convey how many people—from all over the globe, including Serbia—were disappointed by this.

Are the public courts in Wichita actually open for Derek's boys to play...? The Wichita city web site seems to indicate not; all the courts near me are closed and chained up. I'm jealous, I guess! Stay safe—keep up the good work.
Joe Cook, Arlington, Mass.

• Speaking of jealous, know what’s an underrated song? And are in agreement? Black Crowes d. Counting Crows?

Where were we? Oh, right. Tennis courts. Here’s the latest from the USTA:

The USTA recognizes that the coronavirus has been affecting different parts of the country in different ways and with different timing. We therefore believe it will be possible for people to return to playing tennis safely in some cities and states sooner than others. Attached are two "Playing Tennis Safely" documents, one geared to players and one geared to tennis facilities, that have been developed by the USTA in conjunction with its Medical Advisory Group and its Industry partners. These documents provide extensive guidelines for the safe return to the courts. By following these guidelines as well as those of local governments and health agencies, facilities and players will be able to make informed decisions as to when play can recommence. Please note that the local decisions on phased opening will not apply to USTA-sanctioned programs. These programs will remain suspended until at least May 31 as previously announced.

I live in Washington, D.C., and all public tennis courts in the metro area are closed. Is this true in the rest of the country? Why? If any sport naturally embraces physical distancing (aka social distancing), it would be tennis, the ultimate non-contact sport. Not to sound opportunistic, but it’s a great time to promote the sport of tennis. Is a there way that the USTA and other big stakeholders (Tennis Channel, IMG, big tournaments and tournament sponsors) could lobby to have tennis recognized as a “safe” sport and get our courts re-opened?
Jenna S. Ward

• As Dan Patrick put it last week, with a little creativity, golf and tennis could really capitalize on this strange period. Safety, obviously, is paramount. But surely there is an opportunity for a sport—where the athletes stand apart and cordoned by a net—to make inroads.

Ending on a happy note:

Tennis Channel will introduce an international subscription streaming service April 28, the first-stage rollout for what is intended to become a global tennis-media destination. Initially launching in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with plans for other worldwide markets, the over-the-top (OTT) platform will offer content on the new Tennis Channel International app, with the service available in all three countries on www.tennischannel.com. The product debuts ahead of the Tennis Point Exhibition Series, a four-day tennis competition between men's tennis professionals May 1-4 - the first professional-level tennis in two months - which will be shown live and on-demand on Tennis Channel International. With the launch, Tennis Channel will make its programming available for purchase outside the United States for the first time.