Dog, Meet Tail

Friday, September 23, 2011 /by

Pic by Pete Bodo

I was just thinking about how this entire "reform" (or is it "complaint"?) movement has been picking up steam when I got the news that Roger Federer has withdrawn from the Shanghai Masters (week of Oct. 10), a huge blow—and not the first one—in a long saga of promises made and broken to the Shanghai promoters. Federer wrote on his website: 

“After consultation with my team, I’ve unfortunately decided to pull out of the Shanghai Rolex Masters in order to take some necessary time to rest and recuperate after a long summer. I have some nagging injuries that I need to address and I look forward to returning to the ATP World Tour as soon as possible. I have very fond memories of Shanghai so I will miss this amazing tournament and all my loyal Chinese fans, but I look forward to returning to China next fall.”

Roger Federer is not even the No. 1 player in the world and yet you can almost hear the collective groan rising from far eastern shores. The situation underscores the extent to which all but the Grand Slam tournaments desperately rely on a handful of names to sell tickets. It was ever thus in tennis, and it shall be so until Nick Bollettieri retires or forevermore, whichever comes first.

This is an important point to keep in mind as talk heats up about the players forming a new union, with even as negligible (for these purposes) a player as Somdev Devvarman generating headlines with his call for a workplace revolution. The problem with such a rebellion is that if it's an ATP-wide movement, the top players cannot but lose ground or end up pretty much right where they are—working a lot longer and harder than journeyman like Devvarman, but also making amazing sums for efforts. The top players carry the tour; take them out of the line-up and you have no tournament (or no ticket-buyers or television rights holders at any rate). 

The present situation seems pretty fair to me, but apparently it isn't to the likes of Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, and others who bitterly complain about having to play too much, yet each of whom has played more—by his own choice—than the ATP demands. And for no greater reason than the related urges to make more money and/or improve his ranking.

One of the first things any player's union would undertake is spelling out obligations for its membership, and that must begin with tournament commitments. Do you think the job-hungry journeymen of this world, knowing no tournament is going to offer big money (some of which proportionately trickles down to first and second-round losers) without a few "stars" in the line-up, are going to lower the commitment bar? 

I want to pause for a moment to look at something else Devvarman said, because it's become something of a rallying cry for the malcontents: "Also, we get only 12 percent of the revenue (at Grand Slam events—my parenthetical, PB) while it is we who generate the revenue."

This is grotesquely naive and breathtakingly simplistic. Devvarman makes it sound like there would be no such thing as Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open, if he and his colleagues didn't deign to show up to play. The reality is the reverse, and that's been proved. The event is bigger than the players. The event also represents roughly, oh, 100 years of development, investment and risk on the part of the promoters, never mind the expertise and massive outlay of money required to run the show—which of course is a 12-month rather than two-week annual job.

Devvarman and others are catching on the the fact that tennis doesn't have a player's union, but what the dissidents fail to understand is that at the critical moment (1988 and the now famous "parking lot press conference"—feel free to Google it) the ATP—which was a player's union—remade itself into a partnership between the players and the tournaments. It developed that way because a bunch of fired-up, gung-ho, freedom-seeking tennis players looked at each other at the moment they decided to take over the tour and make it better for the players and simultaneously asked, "What do we do now?"

They did what they had to do, what anyone in his right mind would have done. They turned to the tournament promoters and formed a partnership. There were political machinations galore, big winnerrs and big losers—but not among the players. One thing about that segment of the community: They will never, ever risk their own (or borrowed) money to create a new entity or event, which is exactly why they have no right to demand excessive influence. The players are hired hands, they're the help. They assume no risk or responsibility; the rewards they get are guaranteed and performance-based in the most individualistic way imaginable. Don't you wish it were that clear in your life?

There's a terrible back-to-the-future air about this entire debate. The players are a dog chasing its own tail. The ATP and WTA should certainly negotiate the best deal it can get from the tournaments, but also keep in mind that were it not for the ITF and Grand Slams there probably would be no ATP, and no pro game. There certainly would be no not-for-profit development program to sow the seeds of the game across every continent. Who do you think puts together those junior tournaments at which the future Federers of this world meet the future Djokovics or Nadals? Who created the infrastructure that allows every nation on earth to field a Davis Cup team, and helps provide the funds to enable the competition? It certainly isn't the ATP or WTA, which is another good reason not to allow the pro player organizations to be the major power in the game; all they would do is perpetuate themselves and enrich their constituents. 

Tennis truly is different from other sports. That ought to be the starting point for any discussion or negotiation. And tennis has come a long, long way since the dawn of Open tennis in 1968. Personally, I don't see any way to re-make tennis in a manner that would free the top players from their obligation to carry the tour—not if those top players want to have a proper tour. But that's a little bit what the present agitation is really about: Do we really need as comprehensive and rich a tour as we have now? And that's precisely why the Devvarmans of this world ought to be careful what they wish for.

One other note: By virtue of pulling out of Shanghai, Roger Federer will enjoy a tennis-free month to rest, rehab and practice. Novak Djokovic had a month off after Wimbledon, and he didn't even have to pull out of a tournament to get that free time. So it's not entirely accurate to claim that tennis isn't the only sport without an off-season. The more accurate way to put it is that tennis is the only sport that has no. . . season. It offers three or four "off-seasons" every year because it's an interval sport.

Perhaps the stars could prevail upon the ATP and the other stakeholders to end the year right after the U.S. Open. Just don't ask me to write about the avalanche of lawsuits and multi-million dollar transactions (none involving players great or small) this will trigger from the promoters of events like Shanghai, to whom the ATP has promised the moon (or at least Roger Federer), back when top players were more than happy to have year-round earning opportunities.

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