Mailbag: What the ATP Players' Group Controversy Reveals About the Entire Sport of Tennis

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Hope everyone is well (and on their way to vaccination):

• The most recent SI tennis podcast featured Casper Ruud and he was excellent.

Here’s the Dave Kindred piece a few of you asked about.

Onward….

We are lurching toward the business end of the fifth biggest event of the year. Yet most of your questions and chatter revolved around the ATP labor issues. They flared last week when, well, this happened. It strikes me that this discussion encapsulates so much more than labor relations. It’s really a referendum on the entire sport: the fate of tennis after the Big Three; the viability of the men/women combo; the conflicts of interests; who has value and how much; do we go to events to see stars or because we like the tournaments? So here are some scattered points, trying to incorporate as many of your questions as possible.

1) That independent contractors cannot, as a rule, unionize undergirds this. Most athletes are employed by teams or leagues and have formed unions, which are often quite powerful/competent. Everything from wages—often roughly 50% of the league’s gross revenues—to discipline policies are negotiated. Not so, in tennis. Players operate as independent entities. This is not altogether bad. No one tells them when to practice or play. They can skip events citing homesickness—totally reasonable, but try floating that explanation to a team owner. They cannot be forced by an employer to make appearances. They have approval rights on every issue. This grants them a level of autonomy. But it strips them of a right to bargain collectively.

2) I’ll come clean and cop to a pro-labor bias. But I’d submit that anyone looking objectively should be sympathetic to the players. And this ought to be a starting point. The ATP and WTA were both founded as 50/50 partnerships between players (labor/talent) and tournaments (management). But if we are working on the premise that both sides are equal stakeholders, why is labor being paid so much less of gross revenues? (By my best reporting, 10-14% at majors; 20-25% at Tour events. That there isn’t transparent disclosure making these number easy to obtain is problematic in itself.) Even after the significant prize money increases of the last decade; even after accounting for tournaments paying accommodations and bonus pool contributions, management still pays a paltry percentage of gross revenues to the labor compared to other sports—and, maybe more damningly, compared to the 50/50 governance configuration. Speaking of….

3) The 50/50 partnership has outlived its usefulness and doesn’t reflect the reality of the marketplace. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Serena….those are billion-dollar brands. The notion that they can be thwarted by 250-level tournaments is the corporate equivalent of gerrymandering. Putting labor and management on the same side of the table is like putting two players on the same half of the tennis court.

4) The tournaments’ two common fallback responses ring hollow. The majors contend they are non-profits and benefit the overall sport, especially the host nation. (“We’re not a traditional sports franchise. We’re part of a federation.”) This weakens as the sport becomes more global. (Djokovic, for instance, is supposed to play for less than market value so the USTA can…. subsidize Jack Sock’s coach or a training center in Orlando?) The rationale that tournaments lose money year-over-year doesn’t hold up either. Plenty of franchises in sports have operating losses year over year, while their overall value increases dramatically.

5) Timing matters. We’re coming out of a pandemic. Unemployment rates are in double digits. After a rough six months, the U.S. Open is, miraculously, held. And, more miraculously, is essentially paying full prize money. The eve of that tournament is a singularly awful time to stage a labor protest. Likewise, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are all missing from Miami. Maybe not the best time to discuss an ATP boycott—as players did last week. On the other hand….

6) Time disadvantages the players. The tournaments, as institutions, can play the long game. The players have a shorter earning window. And every hour spent organizing and unifying and sitting in a conference room or on a Zoom is an hour they are not devoting to tennis. All the more reason the players have to be smart about their strategy and execution. It was written in Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again. And what has been done will be done again. There’s nothing new under the sun.” This is the same debate—with the same battle lines, talking points, and structural advantages for management—that have existed for decades. This, in itself, suggests management is winning.


7) Vasek Pospisil is no villain. On the contrary, he’s a sensitive, accessible guy. But that doesn’t make him the ideal labor leader. I got this from multiple sources: last week he was part of a group that called a meeting with ATP leadership. He grew emotional and pressed ATP leadership on action (and inaction) he found objectionable. Management responded that he didn’t have all the facts and would do well to be better informed. Pospisil felt humiliated and disrespected and discredited, dressed down, as he was, in front of his peers. It’s understandable. And even, perhaps, endearing that he would have these sensitivities. He is passionate about this issue and craves the backing of his colleagues. That said…

8) You can’t have a meltdown like that. You just can’t. Optics matters. And this was horrible. Cursing to an official about your boss—while tanking a match to a co-worker—is not becoming a leader. And completely undermines credibility. After that incident, players were sent a text that read in part: “[A public meltdown] allows the opposition to criticize, minimize, ridicule, and villainize the player movement, while oversimplifying very legitimate grievances as; emotional, unstable, disorganized and unprofessional. Please be mindful of your priorities, and that is where you currently have the most control; between the lines. Don’t give them the satisfaction of impacting that as well.”

9) Unity is critical here. The players’ power here is in direct proportion to their solidarity. Management erodes leverage by dividing and conquering, by finding replacement labor. That can mean overpaying stars to lock up their support. That can mean finding replacement workers at the bottom.

10) The players need to professionalize their efforts. Seven months since its founding, the PTPA is…what exactly? No one seems to be able to articulate this organization. Does it want women involved? Does it not want women? Do they support equal prize money? It’s hard to find something to support when you haven't defined yourself. Likewise….

11) And who is the leader? There are experienced professionals with legal training who would be willing to take up the cause and advise players. (Paging: Don Fehr, Jeff Kessler, executives of a conventional union or union-side law firm.) But instead there is a cacophony voices—of agents, lawyers, emotionally volatile former players; often with personal agendas, reputational damage—in players’ ears. The players give away leverage when they fail to professionalize the operation. They also lose in the short-term. I’m told by multiple sources that the ATP chieftains flood the players with charts and data and power point decks that often leave them unarmed. It should not be incumbent on Novak Djokovic or Vasek Pospisil or Karen Khachanov to counter with econometric models of his own. Someone else needs to be doing this work on the players’ behalf. But when management brings data and labor responds with emotion, management wins.

12) In a sane and functional 50/50 partnership, one party gets the other party’s transparent financial data—or else gets an independent audit. It is indefensible that tournaments won’t provide players with full financial disclosure. Imaging negotiating a pre-nup but not knowing how much your spouse is actually worth.

13) Think creatively. Arguing about how to split the pie is fundamental, but limiting. Maybe there needs to be a minimum salary floor for a certain number of players. Maybe we have independent board seats. Maybe injured players should draw a salary. Maybe draw sizes need to change. Maybe players need more opportunity to earn outside income. (Discuss: why can tournaments—including Miami, which has a seven-figure deal this year—have gambling partnerships but players cannot?)

14) We write this side a line a lot. But at some point tennis needs to make up its mind: does it want to be varsity or jay-vee? If you want to run like a family business—rotting with conflicts, dispensing wild cards to players’ girlfriends, lacking the most basic workplace policies, letting coaches and fathers run events, letting management agencies represent players and then lobbying to suppress prize money—that’s one option. If you want to run this like a credible business, a few fiefdoms will lose power, but it will be to the sport’s overall gain.

15) In this fairly stark Bloomberg piece—which I encourage you all to read—titled “The Missed Business Opportunity That is Pro Tennis,” Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP honcho, warns of tennis “drifting toward obsolescence.” I’d frame it more favorably. The NFL just signed a media deal worth more than $100 billion. Tennis isn’t the NFL. (It’s more global, has twice as many genders, longer playing careers, no head trauma.) More unity, more equity, more professionalism, fewer conflicts, and there’s real value here. It’s just a question of whether the sport gets out of its own way. It doesn’t need to hit more winners. It just needs to cut back on its unforced errors.

Mailbag

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

Enjoy all your work and love that you interact with us on Twitter, even though I’m sure it can be difficult for you often. As I was watching the Osaka/Hsieh match, I was reflecting back on famous Chinese tennis players (including Chinese Taipei) and I could think of several on the WTA, notably Li Na, Peng Shuai and Zheng Jie, I could not think of a single male Chinese tennis player, doubles or singles. Given the significant investment in tennis in mainland China in terms of bringing tournaments in country, and based on commentary during the aforementioned match, the investments they are trying to make in players, no male tennis player has risen through the ranks yet. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time, but I wanted to get your thoughts on this.
Rika

• Great question. A few thoughts: As in the U.S., in China tennis is more popular as a girls’ sport than as a boys’ sport. The folks at the USTA will tell you that getting an athletic, motivated eight-year-old girl to play tennis is one thing. They point to Serena Williams. They stress attire and the chance for self-expression. They tell the parents about the opportunities for college scholarships and the fact that nine of the 10 highest-paid female athletes are tennis players. Making the same pitch to the athletic and motivated eight-year-old boy is something else entirely. Tennis ranks lower on the spectrum. The most marginal NFL or NBA player makes more than all but the very best tennis players. The college scholarships are few and far between—and often go to foreign players.

Also, I’m told by coaches and agents that some players are still caught in the mentality whereby success in competition in the Asian Games and among provinces matter more than success at pro events.

I was interested to see Auger-Aliassime vs. Korda to see Felix finally play someone younger than him...until I realized Korda is actually a month older! It continues to boggle the mind how quickly Felix got himself to the very top of the game. I hope people can be patient with him winning a title since he'd still be considered a prodigy by most any other standards. Any given week...
Willie T., East Lansing, Mich.

• Amen to that. Especially as careers—both men and women—drift deep into the 30s, we need to recalibrate our what-have-you-done-for-me-lately meters.

How do we explain Aslan Karatsev? 27 years old, been on the tour since 2013. Had to wait until 2020 for his first top 50 win. Obviously, some injuries and other difficulties along the way but those are to be expected. A Jewish Russian player who emigrated to Israel at the age of three, goes back to Russia at 16, which is an interesting story in itself. Suddenly something clicks in 2021 and wins against FAA, Schwartzman, Dimitrov, Dan Evans, Jannik Sinner and the red hot Rublev. I understand 20-year-old prodigies coming through, I don't understand how a perennial journeyman suddenly launches into the elite orbit.
Kasib

• This was before Karatsev lost to Korda, but Lindsay, Steve, and I were talking about this on Tennis Channel the other day. I can’t ever recall this set of circumstances: A player spends a full decade as a journeyman—a loaded, pejorative, dismissive descriptor; but here, it fits. A year ago, he was 26 years old, outside the top 250 and playing futures in Kazakhstan. He catches a gear, qualifies for a major, blasts through top players, and reaches the semis. Okay, fun Cinderella story. We’ve seen this a few times. Vladimir Voltchkov and Clarisa Fernández both reached the semis of majors; but then effectively turned into pumpkins. In Karatsav’s case, he keeps going. At his next event, he loses to Thiem, but pushes him to 7-6 in the third—and wins the doubles for good measure. At the next event, he takes the titles. Suddenly, he is 12-2 on the year and will be seeded at majors for the foreseeable future.

Gasparyan! Think I have found my new favorite WTA player! That backhand is worthy of Wawrinka.
Helen of DC

• Helen is right. Blasting away in Margarita-ville:

You make a good point about Serena's camp making too big of a deal about passing Margaret Court's record, which is both dubious and draws more attention to Court’s homophobia. So my question is: if Serena retires falling just short of 24 majors (which is looking increasingly likely), could it actually have the long term effect of getting tennis statistics to stick to Open Era records and forget Court altogether, as they should? Nobody seems to acknowledge that Ken Rosewall won 23 singles majors under similar circumstances to Court's, and I can't recall anyone ever asking the Big Three if they aimed to break that record. So I don't understand why Court's record is treated so differently.
Brian O'Neill, Montreal

• Interesting. Serena has done more to legitimize Margaret Court than any marketing campaign ever could.

I don't think I ever heard the term until a couple of years ago, but now I see stories about pickleball and its ever-increasing popularity more than occasionally. I've never seen it played, but after reading about it—OK, skimming the Wikipedia entry for it, it seems sort of…casual, on the order of (but likely more aerobic than) picnic badminton, miniature golf, cornhole and jarts. No offense to those fine games, all of which I've enjoyed, but they all seem like social and recreational activities, not players in the global sports business. Do you see pickleball as competition for tennis, a potential gateway to tennis for new players, just another sport in the marketplace, or something else?
Srikanth

• Tennis needs to, in effect, acquire Pickleball welcome it under a rackets sports tent. Make it Instagram to tennis’ Facebook.

Without the WTA/ATP live app, it is difficult to keep track of the live scores. ATP site is better organized. An app is available for live events with all the details. Why is the WTA forcing one to go to their awful website? So disorganized. Where can we find a good app for WTA events.
Thank you, Annaji

• Um….we’ll crowd source this. TNNS Live is my current go-to. But there’s an opportunity here.

Press releasing

• Get into the head of Toni Nadal, the mastermind coach of 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, and dozens of other world-renowned coaches like Boris Becker and legendary Nick Bollettieri at the 2021 World Tennis Conference. Those icons of the game and 60-plus more world-class tennis coaches will divulge their coveted secrets and winning strategies as the TennisONE App plays host to a four-day online extravaganza featuring the world’s top tennis coaches in the World Tennis Conference taking place March 25-28. The event is designed and organized by the Global Professional Tennis Coach Association (GPTCA) and Segal Institute.

Click here to download the TennisONE App to register for the conference now!

• The United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) have entered into a new strategic alliance that formalizes the two organizations’ ongoing collaboration to strengthen and elevate collegiate tennis. This alliance between the sport’s national governing body and its college coaches association brings greater focus and resources to both new and existing initiatives that the two organizations believe will not only benefit college tennis, but the entire tennis ecosystem.

Take us out, Ashok of San Diego:

• I am not sure if this has already been discussed in the Mailbag, but regarding the GOAT debate between the Big Three, I think the most comprehensive and accurate measure is simply this: accumulated ranking points over entire career. During short spans, ranking points may not be representative since a player can accumulate more points by playing more and/or winning smaller tournaments etc. But the Big Three have certainly not done that over their long careers. So this measure would then incorporate everything: greater value of majors, weeks at No. 1 (almost by definition), number of titles, longevity etc. I would say it even incorporates head-to-head records, since the Big Three have mostly met at later stages where the results would cause big point swings.


Two things it does not incorporate: streaks (e.g. Federer's 23 consecutive SFs at Slams, or the Djoker Slam of 2015/16) and distributions (e.g. Nadal's clay court concentration). But I'd argue streaks are not that relevant to career spanning GOAT assessments, and total Slams (the most popular measure) also ignores distribution.

The problem of course is that the ranking point system itself changed in 2009, so one cannot simply add up all the year-end points. In the old ranking system, titles were worth half the points, but losses in earlier rounds earned more than half. For simplicity though, I just doubled the old ranking points from 2001-2008 and added them to 2009-2021 (including 2021 AO). This should benefit Federer more since he played in the old ranking system the longest among the Big Three. However, Federer lost very few matches from 2004-2007 and I have also eliminated his ranking points from before 2001 to balance it out a bit. So it is probably good enough as a first estimate. All the match data is of course available, and it would be great if you could get someone (Sharko?) to do a more accurate translation of the old ranking points to the new system.

With all that said, here are the numbers:

Federer: 177000
Djokovic: 151642
Nadal: 151357

Not surprisingly, Federer is first because of his longevity as well as all-surface excellence. It is quite interesting to note that Djokovic just passed Nadal with his 2021 AO win. But again, Nadal gets more benefit from doubling pre-2009 points here, so the real gap is larger. And this does make sense to me: Nadal's two extra slams are less valuable than Djokovic's all-surface excellence, 100+ more weeks at No.1, all those WTF wins etc. Also interesting to note that, if he keeps the rate of about 9000 points per year, Djokovic will overtake Federer in two to three years, which also makes sense.

Note: Among the Big Three, I like Nadal the most, so it is disappointing to see him fall behind in the GOAT race. But I would stand by this measure and analysis :-)