Novak Djokovic certainly can’t be accused of just going along with the crowd, even if his own road takes him to some truly stupefying and weird places. It appears Nole is once again following his own beat, as he, along with Canadian tennis player Vasek Pospisil, are forming their own men’s tennis players union.
There’s a lot here, so we’ll try and go through all the facets in no particular order. If you’re confused as to why there was no independent union before, you’re probably a lot like Djokovic. The men’s tour, the ATP, has players that sit on the governing board but are not independent. Ditto, the women’s tour, the WTA, has the same structure, where organizers and players sit side-by-side at the head of the tour’s table. However, because the ATP and WTA have to weigh both tournament, sponsors, and tour organizers’ interests as or more heavily than the players, a lot of the players don’t feel their concerns get heard or addressed nearly enough.
While Djokovic and the new union’s mentioned aims are pretty general to start — revenue sharing, disciplinary actions, player pensions, travel, insurance and amenities at tournaments — reading between the lines and knowing Djokovic’s history leads one to believe that the share of Grand Slam money players get is going to be the No. 1 target. This has been the main complaint of players for a while now. Even just last year, the players only got about 14 percent of the all the money the U.S. Open took in, and that’s the story across the tour.
While it may seem like this is just Djokovic and other top-20 players looking to fatten their wallets, tales of how players lower down the rankings who are barely scraping into the first rounds of tournaments struggle to get by, and can’t possibly compete with the coaching and training the players at the top get. And that was during times when tennis was actually playing and not during the pandemic. Expanding the pot that players received from tournaments — which would struggle without, y’know, players to play in them — would benefit everyone on the food chain.
Djokovic and others at the top of the game aren’t exactly out over their skiis in asking for more money for themselves either. Djokovic is unquestionably the best player in the world and put in another dominating season last year, which netted him $13 million in prize money. It’s a nice gig if you can get it, but compared with other top stars in other sports, it’s not even close. Tennis might not be close to the most popular sport in the U.S., but its popularity worldwide is much higher.
However, there are a couple glaring problems right off the bat. The most obvious one is that the new union is only for the men’s tour. It’s particularly strange considering only a couple months ago players from both the ATP and WTA were musing about combining the tours. That would have made it much easier to see that the men and women are paid the same, which they currently are not.
Djokovic hasn’t shown much interest in the past about making sure prize money is equitable, and even been strongly against it, and forming a union for only those with a y-chromosome strengthens that view. Andy Murray, perhaps the ATP’s leading feminist for a decade or more now, has said he won’t join the new union for that specific reason. Whatever concerns the members of the new breakaway union have are certainly shared by women’s players as well.
Second, this is hardly a unanimous movement. Both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have come out against the new union, and they draw a lot of water in this town. Their concerns are pretty valid, starting with what exactly is this union going to do if the tournaments won’t work with them or allow the players into the tournaments. Set up their own tour? Back down? Answers aren’t flowing in just yet.
In addition to that, this is an odd time to form a group to push for greater prize money and other things when tournaments aren’t going to have greater money. While they almost certainly could share more of what they have, not being able to sell tickets for pretty much this whole year essentially is going to push everyone down. This is perhaps not the best time to pick a fight with people who were stingy about opening up their wallets in normal times. Perhaps Australia in January and Europe next spring can operate as normal as the tours wind through them at their normal times, but no one knows that yet or what effect this lost year is going to have long term.
Division on the tour isn’t going to help anyone’s cause, so you’d think Federer’s and Nadal’s side are going to have to figure out some agreement with Djokovic’s rather quickly. Otherwise the tournaments and federations are going to have a field day with both.
But then again, Djokovic has never been afraid to come from left field on a lot of things.