“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” said Shakespeare’s Cassius.
There is a general feeling among the tennis cognoscenti with whom I have spoken that Novak Djokovic, who seems to be taking on a Cassius persona with Vasek Pospisil as his Brutus, is riding the wrong tide.
They may not want to assassinate the ATP's new Caesar, Andrea Gaudenzi, but walking out of the tour's Player Council, of which Djokovic was president and Pospisil a member, to form a new Players' Association would seem at least to be something akin to a declaration of war.
Djokovic held a meeting as the US Open started at an otherwise deserted tennis center and some 70 players showed up. I am told 68 signed a document supporting the creation of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA). To do what exactly? That is the question that is baffling those of us who have been in at the beginning of efforts to give players a voice in the game, like Donald Dell, Butch Buchholz and Vijay Amritraj.
This week Pospisil has tweeted that “the PTPA did not emerge to disrupt or cause any issues within or outside the tennis tour. Simply to unify players and to have our voices heard.”
We live in a world where less and less makes sense, and that makes none. Since they began to dominate the men’s game, Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have largely supported each other and worked together, all of them having spells on the ATP Player Council. Federer and Nadal have come out against the PTPA concept, so how is that unifying? The disruption and disunity is clear and real.
Djokovic hasn't shied away from controversy in 2020, the latest example being his backing of a new players' association. (Getty Images)
And as far as having their voices heard, Pospisil and Djokovic, the latter now the former president of the Players Council, were ideally placed to do just that. It is what the Council is for. Yet the world No. 1 said the ATP Board—consisting of three player representatives and three tournament directors, and chaired by the new ATP boss Andrea Gaudenzi—wouldn’t listen to their demands. If so, fire them. Deal with in house problems in house. Don’t go running off creating new entities in a splintered sport that has always had far too many.
The timing is awful, for both tennis and non-tennis reasons. Djokovic was among those who interviewed Gaudenzi, a former Italian No. 1 with an impressive record in business since retirement, for the job of replacing Chris Kermode, whose removal was far from unanimous. Everyone bought into Gaudenzi’s plan for the future in January. How about giving the man a chance? Since then, tennis and the world have been thrown into chaos by COVID-19. Gaudenzi can hardly be accused of doing anything right or anything wrong. He hasn’t had the opportunity to do either.
And, on a broader scale, with over 184,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus and social justice issues dominating public discussion, discontent among tennis players does not rate high on the urgency scale.
Donald Dell, who wrote the by-laws for the original ATP in 1972, calls the creation of the PTPA pathetically naïve and unclear.
“It looks suicidal to me,” Dell told me. “They don’t have Federer, Nadal or the bulk of the Top 20. Are they proposing to still play on the ATP Tour, which costs $40 million to run and provides all the tour managers, physios and support staff with three offices worldwide? And if they break away from the ATP Board, they just strengthen the hand of the tournament directors who will form their own association.”
For a variety of reasons, Donald Dell doesn't believe the Professional Tennis Players Association stands a chance. (Getty Images)
Dell has seen it all and done it all, and history provides a little perspective here. When the legendary Jack Kramer was persuaded to become the first ATP CEO in 1972, he agreed on one condition.
“He would take only $1 in salary,” says Dell. “He didn’t want the International Federation accusing him of trying to make money off the players.”
Working 16 hours a day and flying all over the world, Dell also initially worked for a buck.
When I became European Director of the ATP in 1973, my primary job was to professionalize long-established tournaments like Rome, Hamburg and Barcelona that were living in the past. I had to sit down with Miguel Lerin, the charming but old school director of the Real Club de Barcelona, and tell him that players should no longer have to pay for their towels. Or a can of practice balls. It was that basic.
The Wimbledon boycott of 1973 that saw 81 players withdraw was not about money, but simply about ensuring players had a voice in running the game. Sound familiar? The Pro Council was formed as a result, made up of three players, three tournament directors and three members of the ITF. By the end of the 1980s, Council chairman Ray Moore and Harold Solomon, another player with long hours in the political trenches, decided it was time to get rid of the ITF and, at the famous parking-lot press conference outside the gates of Flushing Meadows, the new ATP Tour was born. There were dissenting voices but, unlike today, everyone eventually climbed aboard.
The world No. 1 is unstoppable on the court, but he may biting off more than he can chew outside it. (Getty Images)
I returned to the European theater as PR Director, and the conversations we all had over whether a marriage with the tournament directors would work were long, animated and full of doubt. Amritraj, President of the ATP at the time, was very skeptical but, along with Zeljko Franulovic, Colin Dowdeswell and, briefly, Hamilton Jordan (before Mark Miles took over as CEO), we decided it was the only way to go.
For 15 years it worked because of Miles’ political skill in ensuring he would never have to cast the deciding vote by finding ways to compromise between two parties with differing interests and objectives. Since then it has been more difficult, but let us remember what happened in 2013 when four players took the trouble to meet with the four Grand Slam chairmen at Indian Wells and got them to substantially increases in first- and second-round prize money. The four were Federer, Nadal, Murray... and Djokovic.
They were working in unity and it brought results.
“The legality of all this worries me,” says Buchholz, who flew to Washington to talk to the IRS over the status of the ATP as a non-profit during his time as CEO in the 1980s. “It’s doubly complicated because U.S. laws are totally different to the rest of the world.”
I find it sad, because there is no doubt that Djokovic is a highly intelligent man committed to his sport, but, no matter how much he denies it, he comes across as someone wanting to be Caesar. He had better be careful. He needs to get the important members of the tennis forum on his side. And at the moment they are not with him.