Rumblings about a player union have been in the making on and off for decades, but the push to organise players - at least the male ones - has taken a prominent position in the sport since last August’s surprise announcement of the formation of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA).
The group, led by Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil, made headlines with splashy words about their intent to represent the interests of workaday players around issues such as prize money, benefits and scheduling as well as a picture of themselves standing on court at the US Open, with the notable (and widely noted) absences of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or a single woman.
While players have since signalled their intent to join, support or ignore the PTPA’s efforts, the tension between the group and the ATP, which organises all of the male players, came to a head last month in Miami where PTPA co-founder Pospisil allowed an intense fight with ATP President Andrea Gaudenzi to spill over onto the court, resulting in an epic meltdown and conflict with a chair umpire, who, when asking what was going, elicited the following tirade from Pospisil:
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“An hour and a half yesterday, the chairman of the ATP f*****g screaming at me in a player meeting, for trying to unite the players. For an hour and a half! The leader of the ATP. Get him out of here. F*****g asshole.” Followed by: “If you want to default me I’ll gladly sue this whole organisation.”
He didn’t and won’t, but the sentiment behind his words still holds true in tennis, where players have been discouraged from organising and the divide between the earners at the top of a sport that earns north of £1.6b annually is greater than ever, with lower-ranked players often unable to break even after paying for travel, coaches and equipment. The PTPA has been notoriously vague on details or proposals, but it’s assumed that their preferred solution to the growing inequality between the prize money have and have nots is to call for boycotts and negotiate with tournament organisers for a larger percentage of the take going to players.
But given the controlling interests in the sport - between the ATP & WTA, ITF and the four Grand Slam governing bodies - anyone aiming to disrupt the current power structures in tennis has a difficult task ahead. It’s worth the effort, but while we wait, here’s a far less political and straightforward stance the PTPA could take and tournaments could begin implementing starting tomorrow: Ban appearance fees.
Many dedicated tennis followers have no idea appearance fees exist, much less what the going rate for an in-demand player to appear at a tournament might be. Reporting on them is scarce and they seem to operate in a shadow economy (good luck finding tournament organisers or players to speak on the record about them), they are common practice for non-mandatory tournaments to guarantee commitments from stars deemed able to generate interest (and ticket sales).
We know they exist because of incidents that turn controversial: American player Jack Sock was asked to return his $100,000 appearance fee at a 2018 tournament in Auckland after his first-round loss was deemed a sub-par effort by tournament officials. When Alexander Zverev ended his commitment to the Citi Open in Washington DC in 2019, event owner Mark Ein explained that they’d offered him less money than in years past: "The strategy for appearance fees has changed and we are going after a wider field rather than going after a few big players.”
While Rafael Nadal skipped a scheduled appearance in Mexico when the tournament announced they had no appearance fee money for him, it seems (and would make sense) that he, Djokovic and Roger Federer enjoy the highest fees among players. This, of course, is payment on top of any prize money earned for play, and sits on top of lucrative endorsement deals and performance bonuses committed to top players by their brand partners.
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With confirmation that Federer is going to be playing the upcoming Geneva tournament ahead of Roland Garros (after skipping a few of the bigger clay tournaments such as Monte Carlo), the tournament organizer Gerard Tsobanian was quoted as saying the negotiations for this have been two years in the making. The unspoken part of this is the appearance fee they negotiated and what it takes from the total prize money offered to other players. If Stuttgart’s clay tournament is any indication, the $2m they budget for appearance fees eats up what would otherwise be on the table for player prize money.
Appearance fees only serve to further the dynamic in tennis where the rich get richer, and the pot is smaller for the workaday players who rely on prize money to fund their careers. And in addition to further skewing the economics of the sport, they also emphasise that the sport revolves around a few stars and overshadow what makes it great: the variety of the field and the travelling circus of personalities.
Tennis isn’t one player, or three. If the PTPA is serious about addressing inequality in the sport and providing more economic opportunities for lower-ranked players, Djokovic can put his money where his mouth is and lead the call to end appearance fees.
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