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Saturday, September 18, 2021

A Few Tennis Pros Make a Fortune. Most Barely Scrape By.

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Pospisil and other players think the A.T.P. tournaments are also shortchanging them. But Andrea Gaudenzi, who replaced Kermode as the A.T.P.’s chairman, disputes that. He told me that while the Masters 1000 events do well, most of the other tournaments on the A.T.P. Tour earn only modest profits, if that, a situation made worse by the pandemic. And he points out that prize money is just one part of compensation. Players receive free food and lodging at A.T.P. events, and the organization offers a generous pension plan. In addition, high-ranked players are often paid hefty appearance fees by tournaments. The tour has $140 million in total prize money, and Gaudenzi insists that this, for the moment, is the best the A.T.P. can do. “The lemon has been squeezed dry,” he says.

Gaudenzi is pushing to increase tennis’s revenues over the long term — by, among other things, forging closer cooperation between the men’s and women’s tours and bundling media rights for all of the big tournaments. He says this will ultimately help lower-ranked players. “Whether you move the percentage of money from left to right, it doesn’t really grow the pie,” Gaudenzi says. “We want to grow the pie. When you grow the pie, you can redistribute the money in a more equitable and fair way.” But his plan is based on some questionable assumptions. It seems rather unlikely, for instance, that the majors would agree to pool their television rights with the two tours. Beyond that, Gaudenzi is implicitly asking current players to accept the status quo, which is unacceptable to many of them. As Pospisil puts it, “Why can’t we also negotiate in parallel something that is fair for the players now?”

With his victory at the French Open in June, Novak Djokovic claimed his 19th grand-slam singles title. If he wins Wimbledon, where he is the defending champion and favorite, he will draw even with Federer and Nadal, who are currently tied with 20. Dating back to Federer’s maiden Wimbledon title, in 2003, the three men have combined to win 59 of the last 71 majors. It is worth observing that winning just one major is still a pretty impressive achievement and that capturing two all but guarantees a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. What Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have done almost defies superlatives. And, of course, Serena Williams is the winningest champion of this era, with 23 grand-slam singles crowns.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have further distinguished themselves with their deep involvement in tennis politics. The stars of the 1960s and early ’70s, like Arthur Ashe, were very active politically, but they were trying to revolutionize the game. As the money in tennis exploded, top players tended to focus on their careers. The Big Three are throwbacks to that earlier era. Federer was president of the A.T.P. player council from 2008 to 2014, and Nadal was on the council for four of those years. Djokovic was elected president in 2016. Now that they are approaching the ends of their careers, they seem determined to wield as much influence over how the game is administered as they have over how it is played, making for another battleground in their rivalry.

The first sign of discord came two years ago, when Djokovic was part of the faction that ousted Kermode from his A.T.P. chairmanship. Federer and Nadal opposed the move, and soon thereafter rejoined the player council, which was still led by Djokovic. By all accounts, the atmosphere at meetings was cordial, but the three men were guided by very different impulses. Federer and Nadal were institutionalists by nature, supportive of the A.T.P. and generally satisfied with how tennis operated. Djokovic, on the other hand, believed that drastic reform was needed, starting with independent representation for the players.

Even so, with Federer and Nadal back on the council and the question of prize money once again roiling the tour, it was thought that the Big Three might reprise the role they played in 2012 and 2013 and cut another deal with the majors. When I asked Pospisil what he thought about that, he told me that he favored anything that would get the players a fairer share. But he went on to say that negotiating prize money was best left to lawyers, and that tennis needs to get away from ad hoc, back-room deal making. He also wondered whether Federer would be willing to take a hard line with the majors. He noted that the Swiss star and his management company were behind the Laver Cup, an annual team competition. Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open, and the U.S.T.A. were both investors in the event, which meant that Federer was now in business with two of the four majors. Pospisil insisted that he wasn’t questioning Federer’s integrity — “I have amazing respect for Roger, both as a player and a human being” — but said the players needed an advocate unambiguously on their side. “We cannot have anyone negotiating prize money on behalf of the players who has a conflict of interest,” he said. (Federer did not respond to a request for comment.)

At any rate, whatever hope there was that the Big Three would forge a united front was dashed when Djokovic and Pospisil announced the formation of the P.T.P.A. on the eve of last year’s U.S. Open. “The Professional Tennis Players Association (P.T.P.A.) did not emerge to be combative, to disrupt or to cause any issues within or outside the tennis tour,” Pospisil tweeted. “Simply to unify the players, have our voices heard & have an impact on decision being made that effect [sic] our lives and livelihoods.” To mark the occasion, Pospisil and Djokovic, along with nearly a hundred other players, gathered on a court at the National Tennis Center for a group photo. The majors, together with the A.T.P. and W.T.A., released a statement condemning the move. “It is a time for even greater collaboration, not division,” they said. The same day, Federer and Nadal circulated a letter, signed by them and several others on the player council, that said, “We are against this proposal as we do not see how this actually benefits the players and it puts our lives on Tour and security in major doubt.” By that point, Djokovic and Pospisil had both resigned from the council.

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