Has there ever been a tweet that has come from so far out of the blue, and so casually shaken the foundations of a sport, as the one Roger Federer dropped on us two days ago?
“Just wondering…..,” Federer began, innocently enough, as if he were about to ask his 12.7 million Twitter followers for a rom-com recommendation. Instead, he dropped this surprise bombshell: “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?”
The answer, of course, is no. The idea of merging the two tours has been around…since the tours began 50 years ago. Billie Jean King tried to make it happen in the 1960s. Mark Miles and Larry Scott, who ran the ATP and WTA, respectively, in the 1990s and 2000s, each took a crack at it. More recently, Vasek Pospisil and Sloane Stephens have worked together to try to pry more prize money from the Grand Slams.
With the exception of King, though, none of those figures have Federer’s stature in the sport. And he was immediately backed up by his partner in GOAT-ness, Rafael Nadal, who made it clear that this was something more than the whim of a cooped-up superstar.
“As you know per our discussions,” Nadal said in a reply to Federer’s tweet, “I completely agree that it would be great to get out of this world crisis with the union of men’s and women’s tennis in only one organization.”
Agreed! Sign me up to join the team.— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) April 22, 2020
The sudden talk of merger wasn’t the first progressive idea that the Big 3 has batted around during the lockdown. The previous week, Novak Djokovic, joined by Federer and Nadal, announced a plan to bring financial relief to players ranked from 250 to 700, many of whom find themselves out of a job and struggling to make ends meet. The idea was that players in the Top 100 would contribute to a fund for them on a sliding scale—$30,000 from those at the top of the rankings, down to $5,000 from those closer to the No. 100 spot. This week, the game’s governing bodies also announced a $6 million relief plan for players ranked outside the Top 200.
Pay distribution, even more than a merger, has long been a hot topic around the game. Prize money has increased over the last decade, but as in most walks of life, it has increased more at the top, and more at the majors. The idea of redistributing some of the wealth brought a “what took you so long?” response from Australia’s John Millman.
“If the concern is to help players ranked 250-700 in the world, why has it taken a global pandemic to realize this?” the 43rd-ranked Millman wrote. “Surely over the many years of top-end heavy prize money increases we maybe should have maybe distributed the spread a little more…?”
Many of us hoped that the current lockdown would give tennis a chance to ponder possible improvements in the way it does business. With talk of a merger and pay equity in the air, those hopes seem to have been realized, at least theoretically. So: Can tennis really have nice things?
Let’s start with merging the tours. There’s evidence in front of us that “stronger together” can be more than just a heart-warming slogan, and that combining forces can help create a bigger, better product. The sport’s most important and financially successful events, the Grand Slams, have been dual-gender for more than a century. The next tier of tournaments—Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Canada, Cincinnati—also feature men and women alongside each other. The idea of going to see tennis—not men’s tennis, not women’s tennis, just tennis—already appeals to fans. The Slams in particular are unimaginable as single-gender events.
If the tours took the next step and merged their business interests, it seems plausible that they could negotiate more lucrative sponsorship and TV deals. The sport would almost certainly be hailed in the media as a bastion of enlightenment, which is never a bad thing when you’re trying to attract corporate backers.
At a more pragmatic level, the longer the lockdown lasts, the more a merger might come to seem like a matter of necessity. Earlier this month, Chris Clarey of The New York Times detailed the financial struggles that many tournaments will soon be facing. Federer himself, in a follow-up tweet, hinted at that concerning fact.
“It probably should have happened a long time ago, but maybe now is really the time,” Federer wrote. “These are tough times in every sport and we can come out of this with two weakened bodies or one stronger body.”
Former player Mark Petchey went further and speculated that the tours, whose “finances are more stretched than we thought,” may be looking to combine forces so they can attempt a “heist/takeover of the majors.”
If the tennis tours were to merge, they would be following in the (admittedly smaller) footsteps of another racquet sport, squash, which merged its tours in 2014. Since then, prize money has increased and TV coverage has expanded. Not that everything has gone entirely smoothly. Equal pay was made mandatory at all events, a move that helped the sport’s image, but, as Reem Abulleil reported this week, has also spurred some resentment among the men. Even as their prize money has risen by 19 percent, the women’s has gone up by 53 percent.
Could tennis replicate that success at a much larger scale? Squash has benefited from something that tennis has never had: Strong, deep-pocketed leadership at the top of the sport. Since 2008, the Professional Squash Association (PSA) has been led by Saudi businessman Ziad Al-Turki, who seems to have brought the tours together by the strength of his own will and wealth. Is it possible to imagine tennis giving similar power to one of its own billionaire tournament owners, like Larry Ellison? And how much would controlling and unifying the tours mean if the Grand Slams were still run as separate entities?
For now, a merger exists primarily in the sphere of social media, where it has met with both hope and skepticism.
Nick Kyrgios sided with the skeptics in a memorably succinct tweet on Wednesday:
“We shouldn’t merge.”
We shouldn’t merge— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) April 23, 2020
Resistance is understandable. For a merger to make sense, it has to make sense financially for the majority of players on both sides. But now that the idea is out there, and backed by Federer, it may finally be properly explored. That counts as progress in tennis.
The same could be said for the Big 3’s relief fund. It sounds logical and manageable in theory, but reality may already have begun to intrude on it. In an Instagram video chat with Fabio Fognini this week, Djokovic said that the plan to bail out players ranked below 250 hadn’t been fully embraced by everyone in the Top 100.
“It’s difficult to pressure players into giving money, whatever the ranking is,” Djokovic said. “So I understand that there are differences in the opinions.”
Whatever happens with the coronavirus relief fund, the idea shouldn’t be dropped as soon as the tour restarts. Now that the topic has been broached so publicly, and now that the Grand Slams and the tours have come together to help lower-ranked players, it should lead to a discussion about making prize-money distribution less top-heavy, and sharing more revenue across the tour, the way it is in other sports leagues.
The Big 3 have performed unprecedented feats on the court. We’ll see if they can use the clout they’ve earned to do the same off of it.