About a year ago, Canada’s Vasek Pospisil became the go-to interview when you were looking for a revolutionary’s perspective on tennis.
Pospisil wasn’t a loud critic of tennis’s structure, wherein individual tournaments dictate everything and the players line up to tug a forelock. He was the only consistent critic.
“There was a Deloitte report that said they have never seen a structure this disastrous in sports. … We are battling a monopoly of power,” Pospisil told a packed media room at Wimbledon. Unfortunately, the room was about the size of a refrigerator box, and “packed” in this instance meant six or seven people. Over in the main media room, some top-five player was talking about effective ground strokes in front of a concert-sized crowd.
Last year was not a good revolutionary moment. The weather was too nice and the WiFi at the cottage never works as you want it to. This year, however, the situation on the ground has changed somewhat. Everybody’s itching for a fight.
Tennis has been going on for a while, but it returns to front-of-mind on Monday with the start of the U.S. Open.
The first COVID major is in danger of being a dreary televised affair. No other tennis tournament is so associated with the fans in attendance, many of whom have been drinking since the morning of the day before. What’s a late match at the U.S. Open without boorish hooting? We are about to find out.
Both of last year’s champions – Bianca Andreescu of Canada and Rafael Nadal of Spain – have taken a pass. Roger Federer ruled himself out in June by opting for knee surgery.
The top storyline will be Serena Williams’s attempt to win a record-tying 24th Grand Slam. Six of the top 10 women’s players in the world are absent and Williams is about to turn 39. This may not be her last chance, but it does feel like her last best chance.
But the story-grabbing headlines the day before a ball is struck in anger involve Pospisil. Along with Novak Djokovic, he is starting a new players’ union. They’re calling it the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA). Its goals are still a bit loosey-goosey, but according to Pospisil, it will “have an impact on decisions being made that effect [sic] our lives and livelihoods.”
In launching the effort, Djokovic and Pospisil both quit the ATP players’ council. Djokovic had been its president.
The PTPA claims it is not intent on replacing the ATP, but is instead designed to give the players “self-governance.”
You can say all sorts of things, but that sounds the dictionary definition of a breakaway group. All we’re debating here is the timeline.
Unions – everyone likes those again, right? Even one-percenter unions? That’s the memo I got. The streets are ablaze and we’re all union men again.
That right there is the first problem with the PTPA – men. It’s just men’s players at this point. Because the move to harmonize prize money between the two tours got wide support, the broad agendas of the ATP and WTA are practically identical.
So it feels a bit off to start up something gender separate, even if the goal is to eventually get everyone under the same umbrella.
The second problem is the top end. Federer and Nadal have already waved the idea away.
On social media, Nadal said, “It is time for unity, not for separation.”
Federer rebroadcast Nadal’s message, using nearly the same formulation: “… it’s critical for us to stand united as players, and as a sport, to pave the best way forward.”
Pospisil’s position all along was not that everyone in tennis needed a better deal, but that the people at the top needed to pass some of the gains down the ladder to the people in the middle.
Even in the midst of the COVID slowdown, Djokovic has made US$4.5-million in prize money this year. The 100th-ranked men’s player has made $140,000.
That sounds like a decent return until you consider that tennis players are independent contractors. They pay for everything themselves – travel, accommodation, coaching, racquets. A hundred-and-forty grand is, at best, a break-even proposition.
It’s not a huge surprise that the Nadals and Federers are the conservatives in this thing. Why would they want to change a winning game?
But the call for “unity” is a bit rich. You’re not exactly all in it together if one guy leases a country estate for the fortnight at Wimbledon, and another guy is staying at a Motel 6 out by the airport.
The third problem is Djokovic. Everywhere but on the tennis court, he’s had a terrible COVID. He’s been pumping up a brand of holistic medicine that sounds a lot like witchcraft. He outed himself as a vaccine agnostic (that’s being charitable). He put on his own tournament, held a club night to close it and half the people there – including Djokovic and his wife – got COVID-19.
Djokovic was always odd, but now he seems seriously out there. This is not the person to be fronting any new movement. Which is a shame, because Djokovic is the brave one in this instance. He has no financial incentive to share, but that’s what he’s promoting. It may be an ego trip, but the goals are salutary.
Based on early returns, the PTPA is not catching much traction. If the organizers want to keep it front of mind, they will have to pick an almighty fight. Because people do love to watch the rich eat each other. They’ll tune in to that soap opera for as long as it lasts.
Meanwhile, there is actual tennis. On Sunday, it was reported that France’s Benoît Paire had tested positive for COVID-19 after entering the U.S. Open bubble. Now it’s a rearguard action to contain this outbreak before it spreads widely.
One of the running themes of COVID sports has been who gets it right from a health perspective (the NBA, the NHL) and who’s getting it wrong (MLB, U.S. college athletics).
Let’s see how the U.S. Open deals with multiple ruptures – not all of them epidemiological – at once.