The Kermode kerfuffle: Why tennis’ era of good feelings could be over

The Kermode kerfuffle: Why tennis’ era of good feelings could be over

Historically, player revolts have had a positive effect on tennis. Will that be true of Thursday’s controversial ouster of Chris Kermode?

“Straight out of central casting”: When Chris Kermode was hired to lead the ATP Tour in 2014, that’s the phrase that came to mind. English, well-dressed, with a full head of gray hair and a blend of approachability and gravitas, the 54-year-old was exactly what you think the head of a men’s professional tennis tour should look and sound like.

And that’s what, until very recently, most people in tennis assumed Kermode would continue to be. As the ATP’s CEO, he had presided over a period of calm prosperity. A former player and tournament director, he seemed ideally suited to keeping the peace between those two, often opposing, sides of the tour’s governing structure.

When discussions began earlier this year about whether to sign Kermode to a third three-year contract, commentator and coach Darren Cahill spoke for many when he wrote on Twitter:

“Big increases in prize money, pension plan, new events, doubles initiative supporter, new progressive rules for injured players and [Lucky Losers], Challenger increases, facility upgrades. I’d be stunned if Chris Kermode is removed. ATP needs stability right now.”

On Thursday, the ATP went in another direction, when its board decided not to offer Kermode that extension. Instead of stability, the tour found itself embroiled in drama and dissension. The top players, typically united, were at odds over the move. A player-council meeting ended in deadlock. Former players voiced their support for Kermode on Twitter. A pot-stirring headline on an Australian website summed up the situation like this: “Novak Djokovic has deepened the cultural divide between himself and Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer after a ruthless call that will anger plenty.”

Kermode’s ouster split the tour between a European camp—including Nadal, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov, and presumably Federer—that wanted continuity, and a mostly North American camp—including John Isner, Sam Querrey, Vasek Pospisil, and presumably Djokovic—who wanted to rock the boat.

Nadal spoke for the don’t-fix-what-isn’t-broken camp when he said, “I believe in long-term projects. I’m not a very big fan of changing things very often...I personally think Chris did a good job.”

Pospisil, a player-council member, spoke for the insurgents earlier this year when he wrote in an email that the “system is broken,” “the ATP represents the tournaments,” and the players “have nothing to say about our future.”

The major issue for Pospisil and those who voted with him is revenue-sharing. As he says, while players in the NBA receive 50 percent of league earnings, tennis players get significantly less: Roughly 20 to 25 percent at ATP events, and an unknown but smaller amount at the Grand Slams. “Some have suggest the the figure is as little as seven to eight percent,” wrote Paul Newman of The Independent last year, though Wimbledon officials disputed that.

As for Djokovic, he has refused to tell reporters which side he supports, but he has talked about wanting to change the “structure” of the ATP’s board so that the president isn’t constantly caught between the players on one side, and the tournaments on the other. In general, Djokovic has been a reformist rather than a traditionalist. He has consistently called for prize money increases, he’d like to see the ATP Finals moved out of London and rotated to other cities, and there has been talk in the past of him supporting a boycott of the Australian Open and the establishment of a player’s-only union among the men.

It would be easy, and maybe logical, to say that the insurgent players don’t know how good they already have it. According to Newman, total purses at all men’s events have nearly doubled since 2008, contributions to the players’ pension funds have risen 250 percent, and 51 players earned more than a million dollars in 2017. Prize money at the Grand Slams has also increased steadily and significantly.

Historically, though, player revolts that have inspired skepticism at first have ended up having positive effects on the sport.

In 1973, when 80 male players boycotted Wimbledon, the London press and public sided with officials at their home Slam. But that boycott broke the hold that amateur officials had on the players, and helped lead to the pro-game explosion of the late '70s.

In 1988, when players and officials formed a new tour—the ATP we know now—their announcement ceremony was relegated to a US Open parking lot. The goal then was to streamline the schedule so the top players faced each other more often. That led to the creation of the Masters 1000 series, and to an era when stars like Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have dueled each other in dozens of legendary contests.

In 2011, when the top players, led that time by Nadal and Murray, complained about poor conditions and unfair scheduling at the US Open, many people shrugged and said nothing would ever change, it was all controlled by TV anyway. But the players had more power than they realized. Those complaints helped lead to a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium; the end of the dreaded Super Saturday schedule that forced the men’s finalists to play on no rest the next day; and multiple rounds of prize-money increases at all the majors.

We’ll see where this latest revolt takes us. This time, there’s a real division among the players over the need for a change; Nadal and Murray, to name two, felt like they weren’t properly consulted on the decision to oust Kermode. Those hard feelings will have to be dealt with, or progress may be hampered.

Maybe the goal will simply be more money, or maybe Djokovic’s restructuring will lead to the formation of a player’s union. There’s general agreement that a union would be a positive development for tennis; the question for the last 50 years has been whether players in an individual sport, with varying needs and agendas, could ever fully unite. But as long we’re rocking the boat, what about a union that crosses tours and genders and includes men and women players equally?

Which leads me, finally, to what I hope doesn’t happen, post-Kermode. I hope that the quest for more prize money among the men doesn’t lead to calls from ATP players and officials to backtrack on equal pay at the majors. If the percentage of revenue the players earn at the Slams is really as low as seven, or 10, or even 15 percent, there should be more money there for both tours.

Is tennis’ era of good feelings, of peaceful prosperity, over? The face of that era on the men’s side was Kermode’s (as well as Federer’s). So far, the face of the new era is Djokovic’s. During his decade and a half in the game, he has matured into a champion on court, and an ambassador off it. Now we’ll see what he’s like as a leader.