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The Possibility of Unity: Roger Federer reignited Billie Jean King's dream of an ATP-WTA merger
The ATP and the WTA have done collabs over the years. What about a merger? Over the last two years, there’s been more momentum to make that happen than ever.
Published Oct 23, 2021
WATCH: Tennis Channel discusses the possible ATP-WTA merger, proposed by Federer in 2020.
Billie Jean King had a dream. Okay, Billie Jean King had many dreams, as many as a centipede has legs. But the one that really stands out in the midst of the new American tennis boom is one that she has nurtured, without redress, since the time she played the pivotal role in creating the Women’s Tennis Association and its subsequent tour.
“I agree [about the need to merge the ATP and WTA], and have been saying so since the early 1970s,” King tweeted in April 2020. “One voice, women and men together, has long been my vision for tennis. The WTA on its own was always Plan B.”
Significantly, King was responding to a simple, provocative tweet by Roger Federer in the very early days of the lockdowns triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic: “Just wondering. . . am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united and come together as one?”
Perhaps Federer was just speculating. But even the mildest “what if?” cogitations of the Swiss icon will launch headlines and dialogue at every level in the game. Now, almost two years later, King’s vision—and Federer’s implicit endorsement of a single entity representing pro players—is a few steps closer to becoming a reality.
Call it another unexpected byproduct of the pandemic, but this time a promising one. The WTA took the lead on bringing the tours closer. Late last year, it abandoned its highly confusing tournament-rating system (thereby eliminating the distinction between, among other things, a Premier Mandatory WTA event and Premier 5 WTA event) and adopted the ATP’s easily understood, three-tier system of 250, 500 and 1,000-grade events.
The tours have also embraced a new, somewhat formal spirit of cooperation, as evidenced by the #CrossCourt marketing campaign, which features ATP and WTA players in promotional material. One of the multi-episode digital shows featured newlyweds Gaël Monfils and Elina Svitolina; another features player-parents Fabio Fognini and Elena Vesnina. Marketing specialists employed jointly by the tours are tasked with coming up with ways to meld branding.
A shift in thinking also became manifest when Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil rolled out their plan to create a new player organization, the Professional Tennis Players’ Association. The co-founders originally lobbied for support only among their ATP cohorts, and were called out for it when they officially launched the PTPA at the 2020 US Open. Djokovic and his backers swiftly pivoted and began to recruit women to their cause as well.
This new spirit of cooperation is a far cry from the basic indifference and sometimes competitive relationship that animated both tours for a long time. The ATP was formed in September 1972; the WTA was created just nine months later. In those days, the men never dreamed that women’s tennis could rival their own product.
All other differences aside, prize money for women at combined events was a borderline honorarium. Ilie Nastase took home $3,500 for winning the 1970 Italian Open; the women’s champion—King—received $600. The disparity proved to be the tipping point in King’s drive to create a viable women’s professional tour.
Thus, the two organizations went their separate ways, prevented from even contemplating an alliance due to practical considerations. The major stumbling block was the great chasm in overall revenue in tours’ early days. The men were leery about underwriting the women’s game. Equal prize money at the Grand Slams and the growing popularity of combined events like Miami and Indian Wells gradually made a closer working relationship between the two tours seem more attractive.
But it was the pandemic that ultimately provided impetus for change. Facing the prospect of extended shutdowns, the suspension of events in Asia, a prohibition against spectators and health protocols and laws that turned the international character of the sport—long regarded as an asset—into an enormous liability, tour executives began to see the beauty of greater cooperation.
“When things are going very well no one wants to give up anything, in any business,” Chris Kermode, who was the highly successful executive chairman and president of the ATP between 2014 and the end of 2019, told me when it became obvious that the calendars of both tours were going to be decimated by COVID-19. “You can’t get anyone to focus on change.
“You tend to get people focusing on different ideas and potential changes when there’s a crisis. So necessity drives a lot of these decisions.”
The urgency created by the pandemic dovetailed nicely with some new priorities at the ATP in the post-Kermode era, and at the WTA under Steve Simon. Andrea Gaudenzi, the former ATP pro who took over from Kermode in January 2020, came to his job with the mandate to make the ATP less reliant on ticket sales, a mission that included boosting revenues derived from media, and pursuing greater engagement with social media and partners. What better place to start than with the WTA, which has been more vigorous in promoting its social media presence.
One voice, women and men together, has long been my vision for tennis. The WTA on its own was always Plan B. Billie Jean King
At the Australian Open, just weeks into his new role, Gaudenzi met with WTA president Micky Lawler and Tennis Australia officials to discuss various ways to create a closer working relationship between the tours. The advent of the multi-city, multi-week ATP Cup wrought havoc with the tennis calendar Down Under, resulting in a big hit to the WTA. Some Australian Open tune-up tournaments lost their viability because of the new ATP event.
High on the agenda for the tour officials gathered in Australia: creating a women’s companion event to the season-opening ATP Cup, with as many points of commonality as possible.
“We’re talking about a WTA Cup to launch in 2022,” Lawler wrote to me in an email weeks after those discussions. “It is in the works.”
The fate of that event is still up in the air, as Australia continues to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, but if the two tours can pull off complimentary mega-events to kick off the new year, can joining season-ending finals be far behind? Both tours already hold their season finales in indoor arenas in the fall, and the format—featuring just eight singles players and eight doubles teams—would be manageable.
True, up until the pandemic hit, the WTA season ended about a month earlier than did the ATP’s, but that doesn’t seem an insurmountable obstacle. But there are other challenges that may keep King’s dream in the realm of wishful thinking for a while.
The main stumbling block to bringing the tours under one umbrella remains the same: the greater revenues generated by the men. But that gap is smaller, and may continue to shrink in a post-Big Three era. And with equal prize money at the Grand Slam tournaments, as well as the big combined events where the WTA is in a better position to demand equal pay, the revenue gap will grow even narrower.
An inevitable post-pandemic shakeout may leave room for the creation of more combined events—bringing King’s dream of one tour one step closer to becoming reality.