Mailbag: Evaluating Djokovic's New Players' Association Proposal

Plus news and notes on the 2020 U.S. Open and more.
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Wednesday is Mailbag Day so here goes….

A quick prelude: as of this writing, it is Tuesday afternoon and, if Covid has taught us anything, it’s that time-stamping is essential. That said, so far this event has felt almost like…a Major tennis event. No fans, no Federer, no Nadal, no six of the top 10 women, no freedom of movement. But here’s what we HAVE had: upsets and comebacks and seeds falling and seeds surviving. We’ve had a smattering of controversy—someday, Benoit Paire of Avignon will write a memoir—but that’s always the case.

Onward and let’s start with politics….if you’re not interested, skip down:

Mailbag

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

I hope you are well. Can you please explain what the heck is going on with the new Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA)? Could there have been a better timing for this? One may think we are still recovering the sport from a pandemic, another may think that with the lack of "action,” it may be a good time to do it. However, it seems so heavy-handed, as if purely done through emotion. Also, making things even more awkward, is the exclusion of any type of presence from the women's side of tennis. While the ATP and WTA are technically separate entities, would it not make more sense to form a players’ association that serves both? I don't see how any concept that a players’ association would address would differ between men and women. It's not like one player's grievance about being forced to play on a >110-degree court would be ignored depending on if they were a man or woman. The association should take on the issue regardless. Any insider knowledge/wisdom would be most appreciated.
Anthony, Montclair, N.J.

• Tons of questions here about the PTPA. Here’s a NYT primer. I’ll try to incorporate as many as possible.

1. What is it? Before anyone takes too strong a stand, we need this organization defined and its goals articulated. Is it a union? No, we’re told. An association? Does it want to work within the ATP? Does it want to explode the ATP? I must have spoken with a dozen people deeply involved and no one knows quite what to make of this entity. Will it pay player insurance and provide a pension and deal with travel? Who is funding it?

2. Kids, remember the “said-no-one-ever” meme? “The current structure for tennis is unflawed; communication is ideal; players are fairly compensated.”…said no one ever. Tennis ASKED for the PTPA with its intransigence, its fiefdoms, its outmoded tour structure. It’s hard to find fault with athletes seeking to have their voices amplified and wallets fattened.

3. The decision to form without women was the mother of unforced errors—even if you believe the claims that women will be phased in. Guys, especially in 2020, read the room. So you are starting a breakaway organization called “Professional Tennis Players Association,” yet you lack half the professional players off the bat? At a time when all trends and sensibilities are going in the opposite direction? As someone wrote me the other night about Osaka: “In a week that saw the WTA No. 10 shut down a Masters tournament with a tweet, it seems surprising that a players union would not court her involvement given her proven clout.”

4. Novak Djokovic is the top player in the world, the figure who ought to be LEAST inclined to shake up the status quo. That he is spearheading this—at the expense of his time, his career goals and his earning potential—should not be overlooked. On the surface, his interests are not Vasek Pospisil’s interests. And yet it says a lot about Djokovic and the strength of this group that there is such broad consensus that change is needed.

5. But in keeping with Djokovic’s complexities, here’s another way to view it. Imagine this fact pattern as it might pertain to a public company. "Bob leads an important council that reports directly to the board. One day Bob and another board member—deeply embattled at the time for other reasons—acts to remove the CEO. The company finds a successor. Then, a few months into the new CEO's tenure—during a global pandemic, no less—Bob resigns to start a competing entity?" How would Bob fare in the eyes of shareholders (and regulators)?

6. FWIW, consistently, I hear two things about the new ATP Chairman, Andrea Gaudenzi. 1) He is money in a meeting. His vision—based largely on pooling rights—is smart. He can articulate it succinctly and powerfully. His presentations are first-rate. He can sell. He can market. He delegates…and 2) the players can’t find him. (Yes, he would be within his rights to reply, “Um, you do know there’s a pandemic.”) The communication isn’t there. Questions asked of him are answered by underlings. The face-time is lacking. Irony: Gaudenzi is a former player and that’s the constituency he needs to win over.

7. I’m not sure there’s an ideal time to start a…let’s call it a union. In flush times it’s: “why rock the boat; why kill the golden goose.” In lean times, it’s: “things are tough all over.” But as tennis comes back from a pandemic…as events are gasping for breath…as the U.S. Open purports to lose 80% of its revenue but keeps wages virtually steady...as Federer and Nadal are, conveniently, absent…as your new CEO has barely learned where the men’s room is located...as the tours talk about some form of merging…is this really the right time?

8. The old Willie Sutton line about banks. Why did he rob them? “Because that’s where the money is.” In tennis, the money is at the majors. Even paying $61,000 to first-round losers, the labor is only fifteen or so percent as a line-item. That is, predictably, under attack. But is the PTPA prepared to walk? The strength of any union—association or whatever we’re calling this splinter group—distills to this: are you willing to strike and is replacement labor available? If the answers are “yes” and “no,” these guys have power. If not, they are a group text paying dues.

Here I sit, in front of my television, instead of being at the venue for the Western and Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. So many of us in Cincinnati were hoping they would move the Open here instead of moving this week’s event to New York. From what I have been told, the players enjoy playing in Cincinnati. (I swear I was standing next to Jose Luis-Clerc on one of the coasters at Kings Island back in the 80’s.) As I have watched the matches this week, I wonder how much of the pomp and circumstance of tennis is gone for good. Will we ever see linesmen again? Do we need them? Players fetching their own towels? Unbelievable!
Rusty, Cincinnati, Ohio

• I love your premise. As with so many industries, it will be interesting to see what survives and what is, irretrievably, gone. I am sensitive to job loss and automation. But we shortchange the sport when we do not strive for maximum accuracy. And if a third-party never touches another sweaty towel again it will be too soon. We miss: handshakes, on-site media, a bustling lounge. Most of all, we miss fans. We are seeing how much texture they bring to sports.

Wait, what….So if you play on a show court, there are linesmen and challenges, but if you play on an outer court, it's all electronic line calling??
Helen of DC

• Correct. Ashe and Armstrong have Hawk-eye with linesmen. Others don’t. I sense you share my concern here. Imagine athletes or teams in one league playing the same event and not having equal access to the same material trappings. (“Oh, you’re in the Eastern Conference of the Playoffs? You only get two refs.”)

How can the ballpersons at both New York tournaments not be required to wear gloves? They handle balls and towels?

P.S. Even if you're not attending the Open, visit the Lemon Ice King of Corona. Take it from a local in exile, fruit flavors are great, but try the peanut butter. Crunchy, of course.

• Amen on the tip. Though is there a worse moniker right now than “King of Corona”? The USTA has been so cautious, I’m sure gloves was no oversight. We’ll consult Dr. Hainline and get back to you.

Jon, what happens to players suites once they are eliminated from a tournament? Does the player who beat them take it over?
Dustin M.

• We spoke (plug, plug) about this the other day during our Tennis Channel pregame show (live at 10:00 am ET). That would be a great incentive to knock off a seed. You get their suite. Had, say, Misaki Doi beaten Osaka, she would have gotten the prize money, the point…and also access to that enclave. But I was told the suite goes to the next highest-ranked player in the draw.

Can't find Vandeweghe in U.S. Open draw, not even doubles? Of course, no news online from any tennis media. I would think after helping New York take the World Team Tennis title and being the hero of the U.S. team that won the 2017 Fed Cup (8-0 in her matches singles and doubles), she would have been given a wild card.
Russ, Los Angeles

• Yes, she is missed, especially after that theatrical World Team Tennis season. I want to be careful, but she was not denied a wild card. She had what’s being described to me as a “non-tennis injury” that has kept her out. Check Coco’s social media for more detail.

I hate writing this and I'm sorry but his name is Roberto Bautista Agut. It is not "Robby Bats." He is not a little league player from Grand Rapids. He is the 12th-ranked player tennis in the world. He is Spanish. As with most Spanish players, his name carries his family heritage and is culturally significant. He lost both of his parents in the past two years, including his father—before winning the Davis Cup for his country last winter. According to Wikipedia his preferred nickname is "Bati" which is obviously a play on his last name, which is from his father's side. It's one thing to call Aranxta Sanchez Vicario the "Barcelona Bumblebee" but it would have been another to call her "Ariana Smalls." If television commentators are too lazy or simply too disrespectful to pronounce a player's name, or alternatively just use a preferred nickname with their consent, then they should find another job.
Matt George

• Totally agree. I don’t want to call out the offending party because I am a fan of his work overall. But, yeah….look, we all get tempted by the cheap and lazy riffs on names. (Who among us didn’t have fun with Karen Khachanov who calls the cops when he gets a bad line call, or Nadal/Nagal.) But, tempting as it is to riff on names, it’s often cheap and easy and lazy. And when it has the effect of causing offense—unintentional though it may be—it’s even worse.

What is the USTA's stance on BLM t-shirts that players might wear—this time around ? Is the USTA embracing that social message such as the NBA, or is it at best, more of a reluctant understanding of that message, such as the NFL? Do talk to us about USTA's general stance on BLM (or get someone to talk to us about it) but we would appreciate candor over corporate-speak.
Deepak, New York

• I think the USTA has been unambiguous and unambivalent here. There are even Black Lives Matter tarps draped over seats. Do I think the event last week would have been delayed were it not for Naomi Osaka? No. But the USTA has not waffled here at all.

R.I.P. James Kwok: a scholar, a gentleman, a tennis fan.