Hello and welcome to the 20th issue of Tennis inbox. This week, we dig a little deeper into Novak Djokovic and the Professional Tennis Players’ Association. We also see that some of the names in the women’s game today (other than Serena and Venus Williams) have been around since 2010 and before. Lastly, the organizers at Roland-Garros were perhaps a little too optimistic. Read on to find out more.
What does the Professional Tennis Players’ Association (PTPA) actually want?
The tennis world was abuzz a few weeks ago with Novak Djokovic’s default from the US Open. But a little before that, it was also abuzz with Djokovic’s formation of the Professional Tennis Players’ Association. It was relatively quiet on the PTPA front for a while until we received an update last week that around 200 WTA players had also signed up for the new association. Given that this initiative seems to be slowly gaining steam, we thought that now would be a good time to dig deeper into this story.
What is the PTPA, and what does it want? In Djokovic’s own words:
“The Players’ Association [PTPA] is a platform—an organization—which is going to be devoted 100% to the players. We are not in combatting mode (sic) against anyone. We are not planning to boycott. We are not planning parallel tours. What we want is a more unified player voice—a more magnified player voice. [The] ATP of course, has been and is the governing body of our tour to which we belong as members. But the ATP is divided between the tournaments on tour and the players. We are actually one of the only sports that does not have a players only association, so we are just trying to follow up on something that has been a project for more than 20 years.”
Implicit in his statements (and the association’s founding) is that Djokovic—and the players who are joining—don’t believe they’re having their needs met by the ATP and the WTA. It’s no secret that the current structure of both tours is the subject of intense debate from the players’ side: the calendar year is too long; the tournaments are keeping too much of the prize money; there’s not enough player support. Maybe the players are, finally, banding together to create a structure that they believe will fight for their own interests.
An interesting aspect of these developments is that it is Novak Djokovic who is leading the charge. He’s the best player in the world by quite some margin, you would think he’d be content to sit on top of his perch and just focus on his career and chasing after Federer’s Grand Slam tally. That he’s willing to risk his time for this venture either speaks volumes about Djokovic’s character or about the unhappiness that players on tour feel with the current setup. Or perhaps both.
In terms of the PTPA’s actual wants, a report by the New York Times notes that:
“In their document, Djokovic and Pospisil listed revenue sharing, disciplinary actions, player pensions, travel, insurance and amenities at tournaments as issues the new association would attempt to address.”
Of course the PTPA has been met with some resistance. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are not on board. They, along with four members of the ATP Players Council wrote a letter to players urging caution, saying: “A new Player Association cannot co-exist with the ATP.” In a letter obtained by the New York Times, Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP chairman argued that the formation of the PTPA threatens the standing that players currently have within tennis:
“You have what other athletes in other sports would strive for — a seat at the boardroom table. That is what players fought for in the creation of the ATP Tour. It makes no sense why you would be better served by shifting your role from the inside to the outside of the governance structure.”
Walied Soliman, Chair of Norton Rose Fullbright Canada, with whom Pospisil and Djokovic have been working with on the foundation of the PTPA, said that the responses from higher-ups have been “pure thuggery.” Soliman is quoted by the New York Times as saying:
“Those in positions of trust need to humble themselves and sit down with the players. Instead of sending out missives, have proper dialogues to understand where the frustration comes from.”
There is certainly frustration among players. But whether they can band together to create a complementary organization that they believe will better fight for their rights and wants remains to be seen.
Watch this space as more players sign up and as the PTPA picks up momentum in the coming months.
Does it feel like 2010?
Svetlana Kuznetsova. Victoria Azarenka. Vera Zvonareva. Kim Clijsters. These are all women whom we’ve seen play in the last couple of weeks. So you would excuse us for thinking that we were back in 2010. Why? Because a quick look through the rankings to exactly 10 years ago reveals to us that these four women were in the top 13 women’s players at that time.
They’ve all taken different journeys in the past decade. Motherhood, injury, retirement, comebacks. It’s been a tapestry of stories. But yet they’re all back and competing on the WTA tour.
- Svetlana Kuznetsova: Affectionately known as “Kuzy” by fans, Kuznetsova is a two-time Grand Slam champion: 2004 US Open and 2009 French Open. She also has two doubles Grand Slams to her name: 2005 and 2012 Australian Opens. With a career-high ranking of #2, Kuznetsova had inconsistent seasons from 2014 onwards. She was also sidelined due to long battles with knee and wrist injuries. Kuznetsova started her comeback in 2019 without much fanfare, but is back up to #33 in the world.
- Victoria Azarenka: A lot of ink has been spilled on Victoria Azarenka (and we have spilled our fair share). The Belarusian has had an astounding few weeks: WTA Premier 5 champion (Western & Southern Open), US Open finalist, and quarterfinalist at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. In sum, Azarenka has won 15 of her last 17 matches on tour.
- Kim Clijsters: Kim Clijsters made a splash on her return to tennis in the World TeamTennis event, defeating Sofia Kenin, Sloane Stephens, and Danielle Collins. We had high hopes for her, but she lost in the first round of the US Open. You might have noticed that her name’s been missing from the clay court tournaments. When will she return? We’re not sure and neither is she. Clijsters is quoted as saying: “I have decided to spend the next few weeks with my family. NYC showed how much progress I’ve made & also what I need to work on. Not sure where I’ll play next but will let you know soon. For now, back to training & school lunches!”
- Vera Zvonareva: Vera Zvonareva was once the second-best women’s player on the planet. Other than that, she also has five Grand Slam doubles titles to her name (three in doubles, two in mixed doubles), the latest of which came this year at the 2020 US Open. Zvonareva took some time off in 2015, and since 2017, has slowly been working her way through the tour. Though she has so far been unable to regain her singles glory, Zvonareva seems to be doing well on the doubles court.
The return—and continued success—of these players on the tour highlights this new trend in tennis, where we see players being able to compete with the best in the world well into their 30s.
French Open has to reduce number of fans in attendance
Roland-Garros had high hopes a few months ago when they were planning out their event. Initially, the tournament organizers wanted to welcome about half the number of fans that the tournament would usually attract. As we wrote in Ti #9:
“The plan for the three show courts is to leave one seat empty in every row ‘between every group of purchasers (a maximum of 4 people who wish to sit in adjacent seats).’ On the outside courts, ‘every other seat will be out of bounds, and spectators may sit in any of the available seats.’ These protocols will result in a French Open that operates at ‘50% to 60% of its usual capacity.’ Everything is contingent on the situation, though. Meaning if the coronavirus starts circulating at higher levels through France, Roland-Garros will reduce the number of tickets that are available. This cuts the other way, too: if the situation has improved by the time the French Open takes place, Roland-Garros will also consider making more tickets available.”
It would seem that the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been cooperating because when the French Open kicks off on Sunday 27th September, only 5,000 spectators will be allowed on site per day, in contrast to the initial prediction of 11,500. This new figure represents around 15% of the tournament’s usual attendance. In a short report for Tennis.com, Kamakshi Tandon quotes the French tennis federation (FFT) as saying: “Since the beginning of the health crisis, the FFT has worked hand in hand with the state,” and notes that the new requirements were put in place by the Paris police department. The requirements are in line with national regulations which put a 5,000 person limit on gatherings.
Though tennis is returning, it seems to be returning at a much slower rate than initially anticipated. Bought tickets to Roland-Garros and can’t go? No stress. Tandon concludes her report by saying, “The French tennis federation is providing refunds on request for ticket sales.”
Damir Dzumhur is taking the French tennis federation to court
Staying on the French Open and its organizers, Bosnian player Damir Dzumhur (career-high #23) is taking legal action against the FFT for defaulting him out of the qualifying draw. Dzumhur was barred from qualification because his coach, Petar Popovic, tested positive for COVID-19. Popovic’s defense is that the test was a ‘false-positive’ as he had already contracted the virus earlier this year and that he was “full of antibodies.” Dzumhur and Popovic said that they were denied a second test by the FFT and that a new private test that Popovic took in Serbia was negative.
We had speculated that funky situations like this would arise when it came to the coronavirus. With the global nature of the tour, and with different bodies controlling who can and cannot play and for what reasons, it was almost inevitable. We had the Benoit Paire saga in the US Open, and now we have this.
The FFT’s defense was that it was following a protocol which had been signed by all players. In a statement, the FFT said: “We have drawn up our protocol in consultation with the government services. It was signed by the players and their team to obtain their accreditation. We value it. These are our rules.”
On Tuesday, Popovic told French sporting newspaper L’Equipe: “It’s a scandal and a huge frustration. I’m sure we’re going to win in court. They’re going to pay a lot for this. It makes me crazy.”