After Wimbledon’s exclusion of Russian and Belarusian players, decision-makers in world tennis are at odds over ranking points. For Novak Djokovic’s independent players’ association PTPA, it’s another missed opportunity.
Novak Djokovic may be set to compete at Wimbledon this summer but he is once again embroiled in an off-the-court war of words with tennis’ ruling bodies as his alternative players’ union continues to struggle for recognition.
The 34-year-old last week criticized the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC)’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “wrong” and is now unhappy that his independent Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) has not been consulted regarding the subsequent decision by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) not to award ranking points at this year’s Wimbledon tournament.
“We are not at the negotiation table where we should be because we’re not recognized by the Grand Slams or by anybody else,” the Serbian complained last week while competing at the French Open.
“The PTPA is the only organization representing players’ rights, both male and female, and will continue to exist even though there are a lot of people and governing bodies who don’t want us to be present in the tennis ecosystem.”
In 2020, Djokovic quit the ATP council to begin a revolution, founding the indepedent PTPA in the presence of more than 60 players at the US Open.
The current debate over ranking points could have been an ideal situation to rally players to their cause but, two years on from its formation, the PTPA, which also includes co-founder Vasek Pospisil of Canada and the United States’ John Isner, still has little influence.
The political structures in professional tennis
Professional tennis players have traditionally been represented by the men’s ATP and the women’s WTA, which look after the interests of both individual events and the players themselves.
To do this, ATP tournaments and players select representatives for the tournament council (13 tournament directors) and the players council (12 players). Both councils then elect three representatives each and, together with ATP boss Andrea Gaudenzi, these six are the decision-makers in tennis — each with one vote.
This structure is intended to create equal opportunities for tournaments and players on important issues, but Djokovic and his PTPA feel that, especially when it comes to finances, Gaudenzi too often makes decisions in favor of the tournaments.
Djokovic criticized these 50-50 situations in Paris, where he has set up a French Open quarterfinal meeting with Spanish rival Rafael Nadal.
“I don’t think it’s the best system,” he said. “I think it has failed players so many times and it’s why the PTPA needs to exist because when it comes down to these big decisions, the players’ voices are not heard enough.”
One of the player representatives is Australian John Millmann, who vented his anger on the sidelines of the French Open. He and the players council had not even been informed of Wimbledon’s decision beforehand, and called it “discriminatory.”
Millmann believes that everything that followed, including the ATP decision, could have been prevented with better communication.
PTPA out in the cold
When it comes to the Wimbledon decision, a strong, independent player association, would have been exactly what the players needed. But there is a distinct lack of presence from Djokovic, Pospisil and the PTPA staff.
Strictly speaking, nothing has happened since Djokovic announced at the 2021 French Open that he had hired two businessmen to build structures. Since then, one has disappeared from the association’s homepage and is no longer part of the movement, while statements on important topics in tennis are generally conspicuous by their absence.
Thanasis Kokkinakis regrets this. The highly talented Australian is fighting his way back into the extended world elite after countless injuries. “People come to tennis because of us players and that’s why we should have more say,” the 26-year-old told DW. “We should be more involved as a community.”
Kokkinakis had hoped there would be ranking points available at Wimbledon but says he “recognize[s] the bigger picture behind it, of course.”
The majority of professional players have the same thought process, at least publicly. Very few are as blunt as Benoit Paire was in Paris this month. “I want to know if the ATP wants to protect the players or Russia?” the Frenchman said.
PTPA: inspired by the NBA
The four biggest tournaments on the calendar are not organized by the ATP but by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). The four Grand Slams generate around 60% of world tennis’ income — 18% of which goes towards prize money. In comparison, in the NBA, up to 50% of the income goes to players.
“What is paid out in prize money is in proportion much less than in other sports,” explains Kokkinakis. “But when we say that, people think we [are complaining that we] don’t get enough.”
The National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) was the inspiration for Djokovic’s PTPA. The NBPA is completely separate from the NBA and negotiates salary caps and general player conditions. But while professional basketball players are effectively employees of the NBA in the US with their own works council, tennis stars are effectively self-employed professionals. Legally, this raises questions, but none of the experts that arrived in 2021 have yet been able to help.
And so tennis has reached the point where world ranking points have been temporarily removed and where players who performed well in 2021 will fall behind in the rankings after Wimbledon, creating an imbalance.
Doubles specialist Kevin Krawietz says it secretly annoys every professional. Krawietz’s partner Andreas Mies claims the ATP was virtually presented with a fait accompli by Wimbledon officials, leaving them no choice but to react.
“We know that the ATP and Wimbledon will sit down again next week. The decision is not final yet,” said Mies, revealing that he was better informed than the PTPA’s actual leader Djokovic.
And right now, that’s all you need to know about the PTPA.
Translated from German by Jonathan Harding.