ABOVE: Tennis Channel Live breaks down the stand-off between the ATP and PTPA in 2021.
BELOW: As we approach the start of the new tennis season, we'll answer 10 thought-provoking questions that may define the game in 2022.

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Sportswriters, in their season previews, like to ask whether it will be “a make-or-break year” for certain athletes. Usually the players in question were once highly touted, are relatively young—though not as young as they used to be—and have yet to live up to their early billings.

As we look forward to 2022, some might wonder if it’s time to ask a similar question about the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), the nascent pro union that Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil founded in September 2020. With Djokovic’s high-profile backing, and Pospisil’s confrontational approach, the PTPA has generated its share of buzz and rancor over the last 15 months. But so far it has yet to make a significant dent in the way the men’s tour does business. This year, as the men’s game transitions from one generation of top players to the next, would seem to be crucial for the union’s survival.

Last spring, when Top 50 pro Alexander Bublik was asked for his thoughts on the PTPA, his answer likely reflected the opinion of a lot of people in tennis, including his fellow players: “Basically it’s all about talking at the moment. I haven’t seen anything that happens really.”

In a sport where the players already have a voice within their tours’ governing bodies, it has been hard for an entirely new entity—and one committed to rocking the boat—to carve out a niche or gain trust.

That doesn’t mean a niche doesn’t exist, or that the boat shouldn’t be rocked. Tennis’ inequities are well documented; this is a sport that generates more than $2 billion annually, but where only 100 or so players on each tour can make a living at it.

Seen as the brainchild of Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil, the PTPA is yet to drive policy the way it promised.

Seen as the brainchild of Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil, the PTPA is yet to drive policy the way it promised.

Over the last decade, by working within the system, top players have secured prize-money gains for their lower-ranked colleagues. But as Bob Green, one of the architects of the ATP’s three-decade-old governing structure, pointed out in a Sports Business Journal article last year, that the system was originally meant to be run by the players rather than shared with tournament owners. Djokovic, after spending 10 years trying to reform that system, finally decided that it couldn’t be fixed to the players’ satisfaction. Hence the PTPA.

The organization stumbled out of the gates in 2020 when it failed to mention the WTA in its early mission statements. Djokovic and Pospisil say they’re recruiting women, and unity across tours would make the PTPA more powerful. Right now, though, the Serb and the Canadian need to convince their fellow men to come on board. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have all declined; they’ve seen progress made by the ATP and don’t see the need for outside agitation.

Which means Djokovic might find himself playing contradictory roles in 2022. Even as he’s trying to fend off younger stars like Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas on the court, he’ll want to persuade them to join him in the PTPA. So far all three have been either non-committal or uninterested. Signing any of them on would make it feel like the organization has staying power.

But now, with the new year, there’s a new question: Will Djokovic’s blow-up in Australia hurt his credibility, and have an effect on his ability to recruit younger players and bargain with the tour? Or will those younger guys rally around him? A lot will depend on whether this event was a one-off, or whether Djokovic’s vaccine status continues to be a problem, and he continues to receive global criticism.

So far, the PTPA has flexed its muscles, such as they are, over one issue: The ATP’s “30-year plan.” The core of that plan, as set out by ATP chief Andrea Gaudenzi in 2021, was to grant extended, 30-year licenses to the current Masters 1000s events, turn them all into two-week tournaments, and have them commit to sharing their net revenue 50-50 with the players. The PTPA spearheaded a “delay the vote” campaign on social media that actually did force Gaudenzi and the ATP to put the vote off for a couple of months and answer the PTPA’s questions, and their concerns about what was in it for the players. But a substantial part of that plan was eventually voted on and enacted.

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Djokovic wants to be a leader, and he has cultivated the tour’s younger set. Can he convince them to change their allegiance from the ATP to the PTPA?

The fact that the tour felt the need to address the PTPA’s questions might be seen as a victory in itself; the ATP knows the organization is there, and is watching. But the 30-year plan also points up a challenge that the union may have going forward: Can it make its cause connect with fans?

There have been two ATP revolutions in the last 50 years. In both cases, there was something in it for fans. In the early 1970s, the pro tour was formed and tournaments started coming to cities all over the world for the first time. In 1988, the aim was to get the top players to face off more often; that goal which was achieved spectacularly, and led to the Big Three era. Can the PTPA offer similar benefits for fans? If anything, it’s Gaudenzi’s plan to expand the Masters events to two weeks that will likely be popular with the tennis public. Most of us can agree with Djokovic and Pospisil that more than 100 or so people in the world should be able to make living playing tennis. But the PTPA also can’t be seen as an obstacle to the game’s progress and popularity.

Djokovic wants to be a leader, and he has cultivated the tour’s younger set. Can he convince them to change their allegiance from the ATP to the PTPA? Right now, most of them would probably echo Bublik’s highly practical view: “At the end of the day,” he said last spring, “the ATP feeds us.”

The PTPA’s job will be to convince Bublik and his tour-mates that a union can help them eat better than they are now.