The superstars of pro tennis get paid staggeringly more than everyone else. Can a new players’ association help level the court?
Credit…Illustrations by Mario Meneses
On Halloween night 2019, the Canadian tennis player Vasek Pospisil faced Chris O’Connell, an Australian, in a third-round match at the Charlottesville Men’s Pro Challenger in Virginia. The event was part of the A.T.P. Challenger Tour, a rung below the main circuit in men’s tennis. The match had a minor-league vibe: There were maybe a dozen spectators, and one of them was Pospisil’s coach. The total purse for the weeklong tournament was just $54,000, not uncommon for Challenger-level events. The winner would get $7,200.
Pospisil, a former Wimbledon doubles champion who sometimes sips maple syrup for energy during matches, was playing there as part of his comeback from an injury that sidelined him for the first half of the 2019 season. A strapping 6-foot-4 with perpetually flushed cheeks and thighs that look as if they were stolen from a linebacker, Pospisil has an aggressive game built around a big first serve, a concussive forehand and a deft touch at the net. O’Connell normally plays attacking tennis himself. Against Pospisil, however, he was thrust into the role of counterpuncher.
The match was a case study in contrasting fortunes as well. Tennis had left Pospisil very comfortable, with more than $5 million in career earnings. He was happy just to break even in Charlottesville and could afford certain luxuries, such as the presence of his coach and meals from Whole Foods, not available to many players on the Challenger circuit. The 25-year-old O’Connell, on the other hand, had made less than $200,000 as a pro and had cleaned boats and worked in a Lululemon shop to sustain himself financially. Heading into the match against Pospisil, he was ranked No. 139. He had recently won a Challenger event and reached the semifinal of another. He would go on to finish 2019 having won 82 matches in total, more than any other man or woman on the pro tour. Yet, after expenses, he would earn just $15,000 or so.
On that night in Charlottesville, Pospisil prevailed 6-3, 6-2, but he came away impressed with O’Connell’s game — “the guy is playing potentially Top 50 tennis” — and incensed that he could barely scratch out a living. “It’s crazy,” Pospisil told me when we spoke a few days after the match. (He ended up winning the tournament.) O’Connell’s financial struggles were a perfect illustration of an issue that Pospisil, who has been ranked as high as 25th in the world, believed was a threat to the future of tennis: The sport does not take adequate care of its rank-and-file players. “If you are not in the Top 100, you are basically not making any money,” Pospisil said.
The problem, in Pospisil’s view, is not that Roger Federer and Serena Williams make too much; rather, it is that the players as a group do not receive anything close to a fair share of the revenue generated by tennis. At the U.S. Open, for instance, prize money amounts to around 14 percent of gross revenues; by contrast, around half of the National Basketball Association’s total revenues goes to the players, and the same is roughly true in the National Football League, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball. “There’s so much money in tennis,” Pospisil said. “The pie is huge; the piece we’re getting is tiny.” If the tournaments gave the players a bigger cut, he argued, the extra money could be directed to lower-level events. Instead of offering a $54,000 purse, Charlottesville could be a $250,000 tournament.
Pospisil said the players were being stiffed because, unlike their peers in those other sports, they do not have a union. The Association of Tennis Professionals, or A.T.P., was originally formed as a players’ advocacy group, but today it also operates the men’s tour and has to look after the needs of tournaments. (The Women’s Tennis Association, or W.T.A., is structured the same way.) In Pospisil’s judgment, the interests of the players have been consistently sacrificed to those of the tournaments. When he and I had our first conversation, at Wimbledon in 2019, he was emphatic: The players needed independent representation. “There’s no other way,” he said. He had found a powerful ally in the No. 1 player in the world, Novak Djokovic, who believed likewise. I met with Djokovic too, at Wimbledon, and he said radical change was essential. “This structure is failing tennis,” he told me.
More evidence for his claim came just eight months later, when Covid-19 forced the pro tours to shut down, plunging the sport into crisis as scores of players who had barely scraped by in pre-pandemic times suddenly had no work. Djokovic and others tried to organize a relief fund to which top players would donate money to help their hard-up colleagues. It was a compassionate gesture but also deeply embarrassing for a sport that has long projected an image of wealth and glamour. Quietly, Djokovic and Pospisil used the hiatus to brainstorm, and at the U.S. Open last August, they announced the formation of the Professional Tennis Players Association, or P.T.P.A., which would negotiate on behalf of the players over money, scheduling and other matters.
In retrospect, the announcement was premature: At the time, they had no actual organization in place. But they have since put together what now appears to be a formidable entity, helped by the backing of a trio of billionaires: the American hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman and the Canadian tycoons Anton Rabie and Rebecca MacDonald. The group has appointed Adam Larry, a Toronto lawyer previously with the N.H.L. Players Association, as its executive director. It has hired lawyers, forensic accountants and a communications staff. It has a sharp website and a logo, and it appears to enjoy robust support in the men’s locker room.
But although it claims to want to represent men and women, the P.T.P.A. has yet to draw public support from top female players, a shortcoming that feels even more conspicuous in the wake of Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from this year’s French Open, which raised thorny questions about the rights and obligations of athletes. And the fledgling organization faces powerful opposition — not just from the A.T.P., which seems to view it as an existential threat, but also from the four grand-slam tournaments: Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open and the Australian Open, which collectively are the most powerful institutions in the game. “We’re up against a huge machine,” Pospisil says. They are also up against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, whose opposition to the P.T.P.A. has become an intriguing subplot to their rivalry with Djokovic.
Debates about pro athletes and money typically revolve around the highest earners and whether their incomes can be justified. The pandemic has confronted tennis with a very different question: What does a sport owe its also-rans?
The pity and puzzle of tennis are how a game that is so pleasing to the eye — especially on the grass lawns at Wimbledon, where play got underway this week — has become such a mess off the court. Instead of a single controlling authority, for instance, it has an alphabet soup of associations and federations that often work at cross-purposes. That goes some way to explaining why a sport that could barely support one men’s team competition now has three taking place in a span of four months. The men’s and women’s tours operate separately, and the four majors are independent from the tours — in tennis, all the energy is centrifugal. “The sport has grown like a town that didn’t have an urban planner,” says the former world No. 1, Jim Courier. Beyond the administrative chaos, tennis is riddled with conflicts of interest. Management companies that represent players also run tournaments, television commentators moonlight as coaches, governing bodies award contracts to companies with links to board members.
What’s puzzling, too, is how a sport that has done maybe as much as any other to promote equality and empower athletes ended up with such a lopsided economic structure. The biggest stars, like Federer and Nadal, earn tens of millions of dollars a year in prize money and, above all, endorsements. In fact, Federer is now apparently close to becoming a billionaire. The annual Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid female athletes is dominated by tennis players. For the nonsuperstars, however, tennis is far less remunerative. Players are self-employed, and between travel, coaching and other expenses, the overhead is steep and the pay often shockingly meager. Many players lose money pursuing their careers.
Given this set of facts, it is not hard to see why many consider tennis to be a sport in dire need of reform, or even revolution. In the genial Pospisil, it has found an unlikely Che Guevara. Pospisil, 31, is part of a wave of Canadian players, nearly all of them the children of immigrants, who have turned the country into a tennis power. The third of three sons, Pospisil was born in 1990, two years after his parents fled Czechoslovakia. The family settled in what he describes as “a small hockey town” in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, where his father worked in a brewery, before moving to Vancouver so that Pospisil could have access to better competition. He turned pro when he was 17. In 2014, he won the men’s doubles at Wimbledon with Jack Sock, an American, as his partner. The following year, he reached the quarterfinals in singles.
Pospisil has also distinguished himself with his side ventures. He dabbles in real estate and recently started a mushroom company, selling fungi that are claimed to have specific nutritional or health benefits. “He has a love for business,” says Anton Rabie, a founder and co-chief executive of the Canada-based toy-and-entertainment company Spin Master who has become a mentor to Pospisil. He believes the player has all the qualities of a first-rate entrepreneur, including perhaps the most important one. “He has chutzpah,” Rabie says with a laugh. Pospisil seems to be popular with sponsors. He has deals with KITS, a Canadian eyewear company, and with the Canadian arm of Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant.
In 2018, Pospisil joined the A.T.P.’s player council. The 12-member group elects several members of the A.T.P.’s board but otherwise serves an advisory function, conveying the views of the players to the group’s executives. Pospisil grew disillusioned as he came to understand the inner workings of the A.T.P. He was troubled by what he saw as overlapping interests. One board member, for instance, was an agent for IMG, the talent-management company that represents players but that also operates tournaments.
What especially bothered him, though, was a sense that the A.T.P. was failing at its most basic duty: to promote the interest of the players. “There’s no way that tennis shouldn’t have 300 players making decent livings,” he said. Pospisil was acutely aware of how much better middle-of-the-pack athletes in other sports had it. The N.H.L. was his reference point: The league had roughly 700 players and, in 2019, a guaranteed minimum salary of $700,000. More than half the players were earning more than $1 million per year. Coaching and travel were free, as was health care, and players were paid even when they were out with injuries, which was not the case in tennis.
Pospisil recognized that a team sport could offer benefits that an individual sport could not. “Tennis is its own animal,” he said. But the share of revenue that the players received from the tournaments — around 17.5 percent across the two tours and the four majors — struck him as inexcusably low. Players were the ones pulling in the fans and driving the revenue, and in his view, they were being exploited. And when he thought about why the 300th-best hockey player was making seven figures while Chris O’Connell, the 139th-best tennis player, was barely solvent, the answer was self-evident. It wasn’t because N.H.L. team owners were inordinately generous; it was because N.H.L. players had a union and tennis players did not. “It was a logical conclusion,” Pospisil said.
Djokovic had already come to the same conclusion. At a players’ meeting before the 2018 Australian Open, he told his colleagues that they needed to consider forming their own association. At the time, Djokovic was president of the A.T.P. player council. But he said that the players would get what they deserved from the tournaments only if they had representation of their own, separate from the A.T.P. While a number of players expressed support for the move, Djokovic was accused by some in the press of being greedy, and in the days after the meeting, he seemed to disavow his own idea. But it turned out to be just a temporary retreat.
Labor issues gave rise to the modern tennis era. For much of their history, the grand-slam tournaments and other competitions were limited to amateurs. In the 1950s, the American Jack Kramer led a professional tour that over time attracted many of the best players. Even though the amateur-only restriction was by then a farce — instead of prize money, players were paid under the table; “shamateurism” was the term used to describe this state of affairs — the majors refused to allow the pros to compete. It was, in effect, a lockout. Finally, in 1968, the tournaments, recognizing that it did tennis no good to have some of the strongest players absent from the most prestigious events, opened their draws to the pros.
Four years later, Kramer and several others created the A.T.P. It was conceived as a players-only organization, and it wasted no time asserting itself: In 1973, players boycotted Wimbledon in a dispute over their right to choose the tournaments they participated in. “Tennis is exactly a century old,” Arthur Ashe, a member of the A.T.P.’s board, wrote in his diary a few days before the vote on whether to play, “and this, at last, will be the moment when the players stand up for themselves.” Player empowerment seemed to take another step forward in the late 1980s, when the A.T.P., now under the leadership of Hamilton Jordan, who had been Jimmy Carter’s White House chief of staff, created its own tour. From that point on, the A.T.P. was a partnership between the players and the tournaments, with each side holding three seats on the A.T.P.’s board.
Plenty of players think this arrangement has served them well. If you ask them why, they just point to the growth in prize money. When Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968, the first year the tournament offered money, the total purse was $100,000 and the winner’s haul was $14,000 (which Ashe, who was still in the Army, couldn’t accept). These days, prize money totals more than $50 million, and the male and female winners receive just under $4 million each (though it was less last year). The 128 men and women eliminated in the first round take home $61,000. When I spoke with the veteran player Feliciano Lopez, who’s from Spain, he expressed dismay at the notion that he and his fellow competitors were getting a raw deal. “There are many people — they have no idea how this was 20 years ago,” Lopez said. “I was making $10,000 for entering a slam. Now I’m making $50,000, and these people complain? How is that possible?”
Prize money at the four majors, however, has increased mostly because revenues have soared. Starting in 2013, the tournaments did agree to gradually bump up the portion going to the players; the U.S. Open share, for instance, has risen to 14 percent from 11 percent. But critics point out that the A.T.P., though supposedly the voice of the players, was not chiefly responsible for extracting those concessions. Instead, Federer and a couple of other top players negotiated the increases, and the tournaments capitulated only in the face of a threatened boycott and the specter of competition: a Middle Eastern investor had offered to hold a lucrative event at the same time as the Australian Open.
And the majors are just one part of the equation. Many players feel let down by their own tour. The richest of its events, the nine A.T.P. Masters 1000 tournaments — so named because the winners receive 1,000 ranking points — pay the players around 23 to 26 percent of gross revenues. But the players don’t know the exact figures for each tournament because that information is not shared with them; instead, they receive a report summarizing the financial performance of the 1000s as a group. “There is just a very big lack of transparency,” says the veteran American player John Isner, who quit the A.T.P. player council last year and is now backing the P.T.P.A. In his view, the A.T.P. didn’t want the players to be informed and engaged. “It’s just a shut-up-and-play attitude,” Isner told me. “Shut up and play and focus on your forehands.”
In early 2019, Djokovic and Pospisil were part of a successful effort to push out the A.T.P. chairman, Chris Kermode, who was criticized for being too deferential to the tournaments (despite casting a tiebreaking vote in 2014 to increase prize money, which angered some tournaments). At Wimbledon a few months later, a meeting of the player council dissolved in acrimony, with four members resigning over Kermode’s ousting and a disputed board seat. It was a particularly baroque illustration of the dysfunction that plagues pro tennis.
By then, Djokovic and Pospisil were already contemplating a breakaway organization. When I spoke with Djokovic following his third-round victory at Wimbledon in 2019, he told me the root of the problem was that the A.T.P. was based on an unworkable idea — that the players and tournaments could be equal partners. He claimed that the two sides were at odds “98 percent of the time” and that because the players were busy with their careers and unable to immerse themselves in the negotiating intricacies, they were always in an “inferior position” when dealing with the tournaments.
But he stressed that he was not looking for more money for himself. Rather, his aim was to help players down the ranks. He said that when he discussed compensation in the past, people had “kind of twisted around” his position to suggest he was greedy. “Let’s clear this up,” Djokovic said, his voice rising. “I’m not complaining about anything personally. But as a representative of players, as the president of the player council, I feel that the players, especially from 50 to 250 ranking in the world, deserve more.” He was close to a number of fellow Serbs on the pro tour and was keenly aware of how difficult it was for them. “I know how much they struggle,” he said.
Years ago it was fairly common to see the winners of tennis tournaments handed big cardboard checks, giving the impression that the sport was unusually remunerative. For a handful of players, it has been. Last May, as tennis was scrambling to help its masses, Forbes announced that Federer was the world’s highest-paid athlete, the first time a tennis player held that distinction. The week that Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, it was reported that she earned $60 million the previous year, the most ever for a female athlete. Numbers like that tend to lodge themselves in the public mind and feed the impression that tennis is a bonanza for everyone.
Part of the challenge for the P.T.P.A. is overcoming that perception and making the case that the inequality in tennis is something worth caring about. But even in normal, nonpandemic times, the inability of some players to make a decent living is not an issue that has much purchase on public sympathy.
When I spoke with Courier a while back, he said he empathized with those players but that some perspective was in order — the sport still offered plenty of rewards, even if the money wasn’t great. “It beats working for a living,” Courier joked, “chasing a yellow ball around the world and pretending it’s a real job.” Donald Dell, who founded the A.T.P. with Jack Kramer, likewise expressed sympathy for the players but told me that he didn’t think tennis owed anyone a living. “I’m sort of the old school,” he said. Quoting his old friend Kramer, he added, “If you don’t win enough, get another job.”
And there are some in tennis who don’t believe that the income inequality is necessarily unjust. Last spring, Dominic Thiem, No. 3 in the world at the time, pointedly refused to contribute to the player relief fund. He told an Austrian newspaper that a lot of players “don’t commit to the sport 100 percent. Many of them are quite unprofessional. I don’t see why I should give them money.” (The relief fund never materialized, but the four majors, along with the two tours and the International Tennis Federation, put together a $6 million relief package.) At the lowest end of the professional ranks, there is unquestionably a degree of dilettantism. A study by the I.T.F. found that nearly half of the 14,000 players who competed in pro tournaments in 2013 didn’t earn even $1 playing tennis. In response, the I.T.F. recommended making draws smaller and tightening eligibility requirements.
But those players were not the intended beneficiaries of the Covid relief effort; rather, the financial assistance was earmarked for full-time players with legitimate prospects. Outside the top 100, there is plenty of talent and dedication — the problem is that many of the players lack the resources needed to rise higher. Gaby Dabrowski, a Canadian player who specializes in doubles, told me that racket skills and hard work only carry you so far now. “The players ranked 150 to 250 are on the cusp of breaking through, but they need to be able to invest in themselves,” she said. “You can’t do it alone. You need a coach to guide you, to have a vision for your tennis, to see your blind spots, and you need money for that.” That was the problem she faced, and it ended her singles career. “I couldn’t afford a full-time coach, but I also couldn’t get better without one,” Dabrowski says. She didn’t need one for doubles, so that became her focus.
And life on the fringes of the pro circuit is hardly glamorous. The facilities are often shoddy, and subsisting on instant ramen in seedy motels can be soul-crushing for even the most resilient athlete. The American player Noah Rubin says that depression is a major problem, one that he himself has battled, and that financial stress is a big factor. “It’s a snowball effect,” he says. “You don’t make enough money, you can’t pay for a team around you, you are traveling to these tournaments alone, which makes it tougher to succeed, which sets you up for failure, which sets you up for depression and anxiety, which doesn’t allow you to play your best tennis, and it is just going in a circle.” The poor pay at low-level events has also contributed to match-fixing problems. In 2019, 26 players were suspended or banned for life for taking money in exchange for throwing matches, sets or even just individual games. Almost all the infractions occurred on the I.T.F. Men’s World Tennis Tour, which is a level below the Challenger circuit.
But while it seems that pro tennis would be healthier if more players got more money, where should that money come from? Among the players, it is almost universally agreed that the majors should pay more. As one executive with the United States Tennis Association pointed out to me, however, the four majors alone account for half the annual prize money in tennis and have obligations that extend beyond the players. The money they take in is used to support the game in their host countries. The U.S. Open, for example, generates about 80 percent of the U.S.T.A.’s operating budget. In addition, the majors feel the need to continually upgrade and expand their facilities. (As far as infrastructure goes, Wimbledon and the other slams are almost city-states at this point.)
Pospisil and other players think the A.T.P. tournaments are also shortchanging them. But Andrea Gaudenzi, who replaced Kermode as the A.T.P.’s chairman, disputes that. He told me that while the Masters 1000 events do well, most of the other tournaments on the A.T.P. Tour earn only modest profits, if that, a situation made worse by the pandemic. And he points out that prize money is just one part of compensation. Players receive free food and lodging at A.T.P. events, and the organization offers a generous pension plan. In addition, high-ranked players are often paid hefty appearance fees by tournaments. The tour has $140 million in total prize money, and Gaudenzi insists that this, for the moment, is the best the A.T.P. can do. “The lemon has been squeezed dry,” he says.
Gaudenzi is pushing to increase tennis’s revenues over the long term — by, among other things, forging closer cooperation between the men’s and women’s tours and bundling media rights for all of the big tournaments. He says this will ultimately help lower-ranked players. “Whether you move the percentage of money from left to right, it doesn’t really grow the pie,” Gaudenzi says. “We want to grow the pie. When you grow the pie, you can redistribute the money in a more equitable and fair way.” But his plan is based on some questionable assumptions. It seems rather unlikely, for instance, that the majors would agree to pool their television rights with the two tours. Beyond that, Gaudenzi is implicitly asking current players to accept the status quo, which is unacceptable to many of them. As Pospisil puts it, “Why can’t we also negotiate in parallel something that is fair for the players now?”
With his victory at the French Open in June, Novak Djokovic claimed his 19th grand-slam singles title. If he wins Wimbledon, where he is the defending champion and favorite, he will draw even with Federer and Nadal, who are currently tied with 20. Dating back to Federer’s maiden Wimbledon title, in 2003, the three men have combined to win 59 of the last 71 majors. It is worth observing that winning just one major is still a pretty impressive achievement and that capturing two all but guarantees a place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. What Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have done almost defies superlatives. And, of course, Serena Williams is the winningest champion of this era, with 23 grand-slam singles crowns.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have further distinguished themselves with their deep involvement in tennis politics. The stars of the 1960s and early ’70s, like Arthur Ashe, were very active politically, but they were trying to revolutionize the game. As the money in tennis exploded, top players tended to focus on their careers. The Big Three are throwbacks to that earlier era. Federer was president of the A.T.P. player council from 2008 to 2014, and Nadal was on the council for four of those years. Djokovic was elected president in 2016. Now that they are approaching the ends of their careers, they seem determined to wield as much influence over how the game is administered as they have over how it is played, making for another battleground in their rivalry.
The first sign of discord came two years ago, when Djokovic was part of the faction that ousted Kermode from his A.T.P. chairmanship. Federer and Nadal opposed the move, and soon thereafter rejoined the player council, which was still led by Djokovic. By all accounts, the atmosphere at meetings was cordial, but the three men were guided by very different impulses. Federer and Nadal were institutionalists by nature, supportive of the A.T.P. and generally satisfied with how tennis operated. Djokovic, on the other hand, believed that drastic reform was needed, starting with independent representation for the players.
Even so, with Federer and Nadal back on the council and the question of prize money once again roiling the tour, it was thought that the Big Three might reprise the role they played in 2012 and 2013 and cut another deal with the majors. When I asked Pospisil what he thought about that, he told me that he favored anything that would get the players a fairer share. But he went on to say that negotiating prize money was best left to lawyers, and that tennis needs to get away from ad hoc, back-room deal making. He also wondered whether Federer would be willing to take a hard line with the majors. He noted that the Swiss star and his management company were behind the Laver Cup, an annual team competition. Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open, and the U.S.T.A. were both investors in the event, which meant that Federer was now in business with two of the four majors. Pospisil insisted that he wasn’t questioning Federer’s integrity — “I have amazing respect for Roger, both as a player and a human being” — but said the players needed an advocate unambiguously on their side. “We cannot have anyone negotiating prize money on behalf of the players who has a conflict of interest,” he said. (Federer did not respond to a request for comment.)
At any rate, whatever hope there was that the Big Three would forge a united front was dashed when Djokovic and Pospisil announced the formation of the P.T.P.A. on the eve of last year’s U.S. Open. “The Professional Tennis Players Association (P.T.P.A.) did not emerge to be combative, to disrupt or to cause any issues within or outside the tennis tour,” Pospisil tweeted. “Simply to unify the players, have our voices heard & have an impact on decision being made that effect [sic] our lives and livelihoods.” To mark the occasion, Pospisil and Djokovic, along with nearly a hundred other players, gathered on a court at the National Tennis Center for a group photo. The majors, together with the A.T.P. and W.T.A., released a statement condemning the move. “It is a time for even greater collaboration, not division,” they said. The same day, Federer and Nadal circulated a letter, signed by them and several others on the player council, that said, “We are against this proposal as we do not see how this actually benefits the players and it puts our lives on Tour and security in major doubt.” By that point, Djokovic and Pospisil had both resigned from the council.
A former member of the A.T.P.’s leadership recently told me that Djokovic’s actions were at least partly rooted in his rivalry with Federer and Nadal — the fact that he has always been cast as the interloper, the third man, the villain. This person, who asked to remain anonymous because he is on good terms with all three players, said that being the guy everyone rooted against had inured Djokovic to criticism and emboldened him to go his own way. “Novak is used to pushing things up the hill,” he said. “To get in front of a stadium of 16,000 people at Wimbledon or in Paris when you’ve got everyone yelling for Rafa or Roger and the whole world is against you and you’re kicking their ass — Novak doesn’t give a [expletive].” The former A.T.P. officer said that Djokovic was motivated by a sincere desire to help fellow competitors but that the P.T.P.A. was also a “legacy play,” another way of cementing his place in history. It was a means, too, of asserting his leadership in the locker room — of signaling that he, not Federer or Nadal, was now the sport’s most powerful figure. The executive suggested that it was a message directed as much at his two rivals as anyone else. “Some of this is personal,” he said.
In a recent email exchange, I asked Djokovic if he thought that Federer and Nadal could be persuaded to support the P.T.P.A. “Roger and Rafa are both great competitors, and I respect their individual opinions,” Djokovic replied, adding that he hoped his rivals would “keep an open mind about the P.T.P.A. movement.”
This is not the first time that players have sought a divorce from the A.T.P. In 2003, a group led by Wayne Ferreira, from South Africa, and Laurence Tieleman, from Italy and Belgium, created a players-only organization called the International Men’s Tennis Association, or the I.M.T.A. It was born of the same grievances animating the P.T.P.A.: frustration over money and dissatisfaction with the A.T.P. “There’s been a lot of problems with the way the A.T.P. has been running things,” Tieleman told The Los Angeles Times. A number of players, including Lleyton Hewitt, ranked No. 1 at the time, expressed support. But the I.M.T.A. never gained any traction. The players were unable to unify around a strategy, and they also didn’t want to kick in the resources needed to further the effort.
In that sense, the P.T.P.A. is already a step ahead. Djokovic has put up money, and the P.T.P.A. has found some major outside backers in Anton Rabie, Bill Ackman and Rebecca MacDonald. Rabie was the first to sign on. Last August, Pospisil spent a week at Rabie’s summer home north of Toronto. A tennis enthusiast, Rabie was appalled by the economic travails of lower-ranked players. “Here you have a sport doing well over $2 billion, and it can’t support the livelihood of a player who’s 110 or 120 in the world — it’s so glaring,” he told me recently. A couple of months after forming the P.T.P.A., Pospisil asked Rabie to serve as an adviser. Convinced it was a worthy cause, with achievable goals, he agreed to put up money. “I wouldn’t have gotten involved if I didn’t see a high probability of success for ensuring that the players are heard,” he says. Rabie also helped with staffing, notably making an introduction to Adam Larry, who spent a decade with the National Hockey League Players Association and is now the P.T.P.A.’s executive director.
Djokovic reached out to MacDonald, a Canadian energy executive and a friend of his. She, in turn, suggested Djokovic and Pospisil get in touch with Ackman, a colorful hedge-fund manager who, like Rabie, is an avid tennis player. MacDonald and Ackman became acquainted around a decade ago, when he took a sizable stake in Canadian Pacific Railway and waged a successful proxy fight to replace the chief executive and the board of the ailing company. MacDonald was one of the new board members. In April, she helped set up a Zoom meeting in which Djokovic, Pospisil and Larry outlined their plans for Ackman.
When I spoke to Ackman a few weeks ago, he said he knew that lower-ranked players struggled financially. For several years, he sponsored a Croatian player who was trying to make it on the tour. But he wasn’t aware that the share of revenue going to the players was so small. And based on what he heard from Pospisil and the others, it seemed to him that the players were not being well served by the A.T.P.
Ackman said it made him “viscerally angry” but also struck him as a very familiar problem: Like the companies he targets, pro tennis was an underperforming asset that needed a change in management, governance and strategy. Substitute rackets and balls for train tracks and freight cars, and there was little difference from Canadian Pacific Railway. “In my day job, when we see things like this happening, we do something about it — and so that’s why we’re going to do something about it,” he said. The question now is where the P.T.P.A. will find leverage. The P.T.P.A. is a trade association, which gives it most of the powers of a union except the right to call a strike. As it is, there is almost no chance that Djokovic would sit out a major, and other players are equally hesitant.
“We’re here to grow the game, not disrupt it in some crazy way,” John Isner says. The P.T.P.A. could set up a rival tour, but that would be a costly endeavor, in part because there just aren’t many facilities worldwide that can host large-scale professional tennis tournaments. (That said, the American player Noah Rubin is starting an independent tour; it is supposed to debut in January.)
Ackman said that if the A.T.P. isn’t willing to share more information with the players, it can be taken to court — and, in fact, he has already enlisted the help of a law firm in Delaware, where the A.T.P. is registered. Ackman believes the A.T.P. can be hit with antitrust claims. The organization has always been vulnerable to a legal challenge, he told me, but the players were like small shareholders who lacked the resources to enforce their rights. He hoped the A.T.P. would agree to be more transparent — “I’m not looking for a fight; I’m not coming with guns blazing” — but he said that the sport needed to work for everyone (players, tournaments, fans) and that it was a situation that screamed out for an activist investor. “That’s the kind of thing we do in our day job, in situations that don’t smell nearly as bad as this one,” he said.
The A.T.P. clearly feels threatened. It has barred anyone involved with the P.T.P.A. from serving on the player council. At the Miami Open, in March, Pospisil and Gaudenzi had an angry confrontation in front of several dozen players. Last week, in the first test of its strength, the P.T.P.A. called on the A.T.P. to delay a board vote regarding certain provisions of Gaudenzi’s plan. In response, the A.T.P. issued a statement saying that the new group “divides the players and further fragments the sport.” With the P.T.P.A. showing signs of viability, influence and livelihoods are now at stake.
Larry, the P.T.P.A.’s executive director, suggests the organization will ultimately derive leverage from the allegiance it wins in the locker room. “There is strength in numbers,” he says, and if enough players support the P.T.P.A., the slams and other tournaments will have to deal with it. Achieving that critical mass has been mainly Pospisil’s job. He spent much of this spring on Zoom calls with other players, answering their questions and concerns (some were worried about possible retribution from the tournaments as well as the A.T.P.). Until recently, no one was asked to formally sign on with the P.T.P.A., nor was the organization collecting dues. The goal was simply to get a majority of the top 350 singles players and 150 doubles players to back the P.T.P.A., and according to Pospisil, that objective is on its way to being met. Interestingly, Nadal took part in one recent Zoom meeting.
Pospisil concedes that it was a mistake to introduce the organization without any players from the W.T.A. — “maybe we could have taken our time a little bit more” — but insists that it was “always the plan from Day 1” to have the group represent both men and women. Tara Moore, a 28-year-old British player who has been reaching out to other women for the P.T.P.A., says the men-only rollout last August was a sore point with many of her peers. “A lot of them felt hard done by,” she says. She also thinks the P.T.P.A. is perhaps a tougher sell on the women’s side in part because tennis is still so much more lucrative for female athletes than other sports. “The top players are very happy with how things are,” she says. Djokovic has sought Serena Williams’s support; it is thought that a favorable comment from her might encourage female players to sign on. And P.T.P.A. officials also believe that Naomi Osaka’s mental-health struggles could highlight the need for a players-only advocacy group.
A number of players, men and women, have publicly expressed support for Osaka. Still, posting an encouraging message on Instagram is easy; achieving the kind of sustained solidarity that will be needed for the P.T.P.A. to succeed is much harder. Tennis is brutally individualistic, and its lopsided economy, in which almost all the rewards go to a select few, inevitably makes collective action difficult if not impossible. It is a sport in which the superstars get most of the money and attention. The pandemic has cast a rare spotlight on tennis’s unsung performers. The test now is whether it will lead to meaningful change.
Michael Steinberger is a regular contributor to the magazine. His last feature was about the tech giant Palantir. Mario Meneses is an artist and illustrator in Mexico whose work is often comical and centered on self-exploration.