Flashback: the ATP vs the PTPA

NEW YORK—Almost all of the chatter at the recent US Open was about Serena Williams’ farewell and Roger Federer’s plans, the rise of Carlos Alcaraz and the dominance of Iga Swiatek, and the emergence of new ATP contenders, including Casper Ruud and Frances Tiafoe. Yet despite ongoing, vocal criticism of the way the pro game is administered, there was scant little mention of the upheaval currently taking place in tennis’ sibling sport, golf.

The status quo in golf, long seen on the professional side as a smoothly run, model business, has been upended. All summer, the war between the upstart, Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf and the PGA Tour has been generating headlines, lawsuits and even unusual, personal acrimony among golf’s elite players. The chaos is a testament to the hoary truism: Everything—and everyone—has a price.

So what would Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz or Stefanos Tsitsipas do if they, like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed, were offered many millions in guaranteed salaries to play on a new tour? Could tennis experience its own LIV moment?

“The short answer is ‘Yes,’” ESPN analyst Cliff Drysdale, a pioneer who helped found the pro tour and served as the first president of the ATP, told me recently. “Tennis is ripe for the plucking because there are many resources in tennis, but they aren’t being properly mined.”


Phil Mickelson's defection from the PGA Tour to LIV Tour sent shockwaves through the sports world, the ripple effects of which are still being felt.

Phil Mickelson's defection from the PGA Tour to LIV Tour sent shockwaves through the sports world, the ripple effects of which are still being felt.

The long answer, though, may be a resounding “No”—at least when it comes to anything like a major challenge to or a wholesale takeover of the men’s (or women’s) tour.

While the PGA Tour is dominant in pro golf, tennis remains more federation than kingdom. It is governed by seven different entities—the ATP, WTA, ITF and each of the four Grand Slam tournaments—and flush with fiefdoms and shifting alliances. That has made it difficult for the sport to gain traction in some key areas where a single vision would be helpful, but it also amounts to a minefield for prospective mutiny artists.

The ATP Tour went into operation in 1990, more than two decades after the formation of the PGA Tour. It is still struggling to mine the “resources” to which Drysdale alluded. Many of the lowest-tier, ATP 250 events (39 of the 64 ATP events are in this category) struggle to prosper due to the lack of the sponsorship and broadcast revenues so critical to success. Prize money (or lack thereof), as well as a lack of leading-edge marketing in a global environment are thorny problems. But by and large the ATP Tour is a mature entity, warts and all.

“You could have challenged the ATP back around 1990, but not anymore,” Marshall Happer, the former head of the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council, said in an interview. (The MIPTC was an umbrella group that ran the game until the ATP Tour took full control in 1990.) “Now there may be too many obstacles.”


Those impediments include the lock the ATP Tour has on the tennis calendar. Even a modest tour of tennis all-stars would inevitably conflict with ATP Tour events, forcing players to make complicated choices should they want freedom to compete freely, wherever they choose.

Still other tennis veterans caution would-be rebels that LIV Golf is a bizarre one-off effort by Saudi Arabia, a nation flush with oil wealth but notorious for human-rights abuses, to use the popular sport for strategic public-relations on the world stage. LIV Golf itself is an entity created by PIF (Public Investment Fund), the sovereign wealth of the Saudi kingdom.

“Anyone out there has to wonder what LIV Golf is getting out of this,’ former USTA CEO Gordon Smith, told me. “There are no spectators. No TV package. It’s not a business model, it’s an attempt to sportswash Saudi Arabia’s image.”

Most of tennis’ politicians agree with Smith. But they are wary because they also believe that Smith is spot-on when he says, “Of course, if someone came along and could double or triple prize money, sure the players would go for it.”

Still, the player organizations have built-in safeguards that constitute significant hurdles for raiders. The idea of peeling some of the top stars away from the ATP Tour to form a renegade group is feasible, but historically, the top players have been committed to the ATP Tour’s leadership and overall approach to the game.

As for the rank-and-file, their outstanding beef is about prize money, and their woes are as well-documented. It’s common knowledge that only about 125 players can make a secure living from tennis. Golfers of comparable status, never mind NBA or NFL players, make much more. The reasons for that are complex, starting with the fact that the Grand Slam events—the four greatest, most successful, richest tournaments—are not officially ATP Tour events but independent entities.

Corporate America also doesn’t enjoy the same love affair with tennis as it does with golf, so sponsorship dollars are harder to raise for ATP events. Nor does tennis generate broadcasting revenue comparable to that of many other sports, including golf. It’s ironic, because the architects of the ATP Tour modeled their product on the PGA Tour, yet they haven’t enjoyed the same success.

“Week-to-week, The PGA Tour is much more successful than the ATP or WTA,” Smith said. “Ironically, the big money is made there. The prize money offered by golf’s majors is not that great.” In tennis, it’s the opposite.


The US Open and other Grand Slam tournaments offer a disproportionate amount of prize money compared to tour events.

The US Open and other Grand Slam tournaments offer a disproportionate amount of prize money compared to tour events.

Golf’s US Open offered a total prize of $20 million this year. The tennis counterpart put up three times as much. Smith also noted that the eight weeks of Grand Slam tennis produces 40 percent of the game’s annual revenue. Players complain that they ought to get a larger share of Grand Slam profits, and that the tournaments ought to do a better job with ancillary marketing (items like t-shirts and gifts). But the majors feel that they contribute enough.

That may not mollify the rank-and-file that Novak Djokovic is wooing with his upstart Professional Tennis Players Association (an entity which has yet to articulate a vision for tennis and its players). The journeymen feel that at all tournaments, the distribution is too top heavy (the singles champions at the 2022 US Open each earned $2.6 million, runners-up won $1.3 million, and first-round losers received “just” $80,000).

Rank-and-file players have no real incentive, short of a massive increase in prize money, to support change. But those players aren’t the ones that a supercharged, LIV Golf-style tennis tour would seek to recruit anyway. As for the elite pros, the current, top-heavy purse distribution helps keep them in the ATP Tour fold.

The ATP’s struggle to increase revenues makes it a less likely target for a takeover. At the same time, the high price of rights to individual ATP tournaments is prohibitive for most suitors, including those with very deep pockets ($25 million might not even buy you rights to host a second-tier ATP 500, never mind an ATP Masters 1000). The cost of infrastructure to accommodate new events would also be astronomical.

Then there’s the ATP pension fund, currently worth north of $100 million. In order to qualify for pensions, the players must be committed to the ATP Tour and fulfill its requirements. Leaving the company would automatically result in forfeiture of the pension. A Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal could survive, but as Happer said, “I can’t see the rank-and-file walking away from that.”


Novak Djokovic has been a vocal proponent of the status quo in tennis and heads the PTPA.

Novak Djokovic has been a vocal proponent of the status quo in tennis and heads the PTPA.

Curiously, tennis has been down a similar road in the early years of the Open era. Starting in 1968, World Championship Tennis, a tour started by Lamar Hunt (also a founder of the American Football League and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs), fought a 22-year running battle with the entrenched powers in tennis. WCT was an attempt to organize professional tennis in a way that had more in common with the NFL and MLB than the original ‘Grand Prix” approach that linked tournaments together in a prototype of today’s ATP Tour.

WCT also put top players under contract and featured innovative elements, including small draws populated with top talent. For a period when tennis was governed by the MIPTC, the WCT tour had its own, fully sanctioned, four-month segment on the calendar. But Hunt finally threw in the towel upon the creation of the ATP Tour, understanding that WCT would be squeezed off the new calendar.

“The ATP Tour was fortunate that Lamar and [his chief operating officer] Owen Williams decided to quit in 1990,” Happer said, reasoning that Hunt might very well have been to prevail over the ATP Tour in a legal battle.

In order to be viable, an LIV-style effort would probably have to look something like WCT did, with strong support from the very top players (back then, those included Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, among others). But in recent years, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and others have been firmly in the ATP’s corner—conspicuously so when Djokovic began to agitate against the tour’s status quo. However, we are in the midst of a generational transition, so. . . who knows?

Drysdale is a traditionalist in many ways, but he’s gimlet-eyed when it comes to the political maneuvering in tennis.

“To me, LIV Golf is already a success,” he said, “Because the PGA suddenly out of thin air found a lot more cash to put up for players. It was there for a long time, and just not passed on.”

Few are claiming that the ATP Tour has the kind of money Drysdale is talking about. That can make you wonder if the storied 1988 player rebellion that led to the creation of the ATP Tour was the smartest move. Tennis became like the PGA, but without the money.

In the end, though, that may be the ATP Tour’s best defense against a takeover attempt. The question may not be, “Can anyone successfully compete against the ATP Tour or even take it over?” Perhaps it is, “Who would want to?”