There’s No “I” in Team, but Could There be a Union in Professional Tennis?

Over the past few months, unions have been a hot topic of discussion throughout the United States. After news broke of Amazon workers in Alabama attempting to unionize, President Joe Biden affirmed his support for them. “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences. You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.” The results of that vote should become clear later this week and after a contentious election cycle. Amazon’s resistance to worker unionizations has led to allegations of bad faith against the company. Celebrities like actor Danny Glover, rapper Killer Mike and Senator Bernie Sanders even organized rallies in support of the workers. The voting period that will decide whether these Amazon workers will unionize has lasted seven weeks and finally came to an end on Monday, March 29.

Likewise, talks of unionizing have been increasing within the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour due to dissatisfaction with the lack of input from the players on the state of men’s tennis. The movement is spearheaded by world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, and former Wimbledon quarter-finalist Vasek Pospisil. This issue came to a head this past week during Pospisil’s first round loss in the Miami Open after which he lashed out at a chair umpire about his frustration with the ATP’s attempt to quell the unionization crusade. While the duo’s endeavor has been gaining momentum, they still face plenty of obstacles before their demands can become a reality. 

            Djokovic’s first foray into administrative leadership in the tennis world came when he was chosen to be the next president of the ATP Player Council in August 2016. The council is a 12-person committee composed of players from the professional tour that make recommendations to the Board of Directors. The 18-time Grand Slam winner started to make waves prior to the 2018 Australian Open when he asked players to demand more prize money from tournaments, even encouraging the formation of a union if necessary. Players’ associations are commonplace in sports. Every major American professional league in addition to professional soccer, cricket and rugby in the United Kingdom has one. That’s not the case for professional tennis. 

The ATP is the governing body for men’s tennis, with the female equivalent being the Women’s Tennis Association. The ATP organizes the yearly schedule, including every tournament besides the four Grand Slams. As such, they represent both the players and the tournament heads, a possible conflict of interest. These competing interests mean that often, one party loses out — usually, that party is the players. The Covid-19 pandemic only exasperated the issue. The stalling of matches meant that tennis professionals endured a five-month layoff, and as tournaments tried to find a safe way to return, many players remained irritated by the strict protocols put in place by tournament officials without any of their input. This culminated in a stunning announcement right before the start of the 2020 U.S. Open: the four highest-ranked players on the council (Djokovic, Pospisil, John Isner and Sam Querrey) resigned, and formed the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), with Djokovic and Pospisil serving as co-presidents.

The full extent of plans of the proposed PTPA aren’t totally clear. It would represent the top 500 singles players and top 200 doubles players according to the ATP rankings, have a board of nine annually-elected trustees and have presidents serve a two-year term. Djokovic’s shocking revelation elicited mixed reactions from the players. Milos Raonic, the top-ranked Canadian player, gave the organization a boost after criticizing the ATP Chair Andrea Gaudenzi for the organization’s handling of the pandemic. “Players have had plenty of time to think and reflect and take a look at certain parts which they may not be happy with and discuss,” he said. “A lot of us were kept in the dark by our leadership for six months. We were disappointed with many things. I voiced my opinion on many things, such as … executives in other sports taking pay cuts to support us. As tennis players, we weren’t making a dime for months and months. … Lower guys weren’t making a dime.” 

The ninth-ranked player in the world, Diego Schwartzman, joined Raonic, Querrey and Isner in signing onto the PTPA. Seventh-ranked Alexander Zverev has hinted that he would be interested in joining as well. However, not all the top players share that sentiment.

Immediately following the news regarding the creation of the PTPA, Spain’s number one player, Rafael Nadal, tweeted his response. “The world is living a difficult and complicated situation. I personally believe these are times to be calm and work all of us together in the same direction. It is time for unity, not for separation. These are moments where big things can be achieved as long as the world of tennis is united. We all, players, tournaments and governing bodies have to work together. We have a bigger problem and separation and disunion is definitely not the solution.” Nadal’s longtime rival, Roger Federer, showed his support for his former foe. “I agree @RafaelNadal. These are uncertain and challenging times, but I believe it’s critical for us to stand united as players, and as a sport, to pave the best way forward.” Other notable players that have expressed skepticism about the PTPA include three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray and reigning U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem. In fact, Nadal, Murray and Federer were all reelected to another term on the ATP Player Council by their peers after Djokovic was deemed ineligible due to his presence on the PTPA. South African Kevin Anderson was chosen to succeed Djokovic as the new president.

The PTPA hasn’t garnered the acceptance that its leaders had hoped, and Pospisil’s anger boiled over this past Wednesday in the first set of his match against American Mackenzie McDonald at the Miami Open. Defending set point, Pospisil received a point penalty from umpire Arnaud Gabas for verbal abuse to concede the opening set to McDonald. Pospisil explained his grievances to Gabas: “What’s happening today? An hour and half yesterday, the chair of the ATP f–––– screaming at me in a player meeting, for trying to unite the players. For an hour and a half. The leader of the ATP. Get him out here… f–––– a–––.” The leader that Pospisil was referring to is ATP Chair Gaudenzi, the same person that Raonic has expressed his disapproval for. It’s not hard to see why Pospisil is so frustrated. Although the PTPA has the backing of some notable tennis players, none of them are household names. The cachet that names like Federer, Nadal and Murray hold cannot be understated. In any sport, the biggest names hold the most power as they are the ones that make the most money and drive revenue. Having a player of Djokovic’s caliber is a great first step for the PTPA, but he’s not enough to lift the union up on his own. Until he can convince his fellow members of the Big Four to join, the PTPA will remain nothing more than a pipe dream.