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Steve Flink: Moment of Truth for ATP

10/4/2011 6:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

In the middle of the second week at the last major championship held in 2011, the worst kind of weather swept relentlessly and alarmingly across Flushing Meadows. On Tuesday September 7 and Wednesday September 8, with the U.S. Open heading toward a golden homestretch, as the game’s top competitors and the public eagerly awaited a stirring conclusion at the largest of all American sporting events, New Yorkers were pelted with unwelcome summer rain that harmed the festivities considerably. An event that had run seamlessly until that juncture was thrown into disarray. After less than twenty minutes of tennis was played the previous two days, crucial fourth round men’s singles matches were pushed into Thursday, eventually ensuring a fourth consecutive men’s final on the third Monday of the tournament.

The players were relieved and appreciative that the USTA ultimately realized that some of them could not possibly compete in best of five set matches for four days in a row; that is why a Sunday final could have been a travesty. But the likes of defending champion Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and others had been very disconcerted when asked to try to start their round of 16 contests in what they considered dangerous conditions, on courts they felt were too wet, under circumstances that seemed at best uncomfortable and at worst treacherous. It all turned out well in the end, and both the USTA and the players deserved credit for their mutual professionalism and collective cool-headed restraint. Yet perhaps this was a seminal moment for the leading players and the ATP, a chance for them to realize that they are indispensable entertainers with voices that must be heard and opinions that should be valued.

Nadal especially—and Roddick as well—spoke with a candor and forthrightness that has seldom been displayed by the modern day players, and that was a good thing. The controversy surrounding the scheduling and conditions at the Open was not insignificant, but of larger importance is the need for the best players in the world to play a larger role in shaping their own destiny, to get involved more deeply with the decision making process at the Grand Slam events, and to become more influential at the bargaining table of ideas. Call it serendipitous. Say that fate interceded.  But however you look at it, recognize that the U.S. Open of 2011 could turn out to be a landmark event with repercussions that not only enhance the welfare of the players, but also add decidedly to the sport at large.

Over the past week, I spoke with four outright authorities—Cliff Drysdale, Butch Buchholz, Paul Annacone and Brad Gilbert—to get their perspective on the evolution of the player movement. With so much talk swirling in the air about the ATP potentially becoming a union in an attempt to improve their bargaining position among the political establishment, I believe this topic is not only timely but essential. No one really knows if a restructured ATP as a union is feasible, practical or likely, but Roddick among others has brought up that notion in a serious and exploratory way, and it is an avenue the players could choose if they believe it is the answer to their future. 

Be that as it may, the four estimable men with whom I spoke all expressed themselves eloquently on where things may be headed for the players, the options they should consider, and the opportunity that the ATP has to make their presence known with newfound persuasiveness and conviction. Consider the credentials of the four men I interviewed. Drysdale is a former world top ten player, the first President of the ATP, and has distinguished himself as one of the sport’s premier broadcasters for more than three decades on ESPN. Annacone was a formidable player who coached Pete Sampras and currently works in that role for Roger Federer. He is a cerebral, big picture thinker. Gilbert coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray and is currently among the game’s keenest analysts in his work at ESPN. And Buchholz—who was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005—has done it all, playing Davis Cup for the U.S., competing as a professional, serving as Executive Director for the ATP, and founding a combined men’s and women’s event in Florida back in 1985 that has become one of the most prestigious tournaments in tennis—The Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.

Drysdale has long been one of the chief voices of reason and intelligence in the world of tennis. If the various political factions in the sport could ever agree on a Commissioner, he would get my vote in an instant. Drysdale knows the inner workings of tennis as well if not better than anyone, and he followed the U.S. Open off court developments closely. I asked him if he felt the players—in light of the crucial role they play at the Grand Slam events—had the clout that they should at the four majors. He replied, “They definitely do not have the clout that they should have. I believe the Slams bend over backwards to do the right thing by the players, and I don’t think that the Slams are in any purposeful way trying to make things difficult for the players. There is no question in my mind about that. But what happened in New York is going to give the players an opportunity to sit back and take a look at the big picture. If they do that, I think they will come to the conclusion that they are not properly represented and not properly compensated at the Slams.”

I mentioned to Drysdale that U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier had recently said that the players were exceedingly well paid. Courier told Tennis Grandstand, “[Ever since] Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith fought for Open Tennis, we’ve all been overpaid, grossly overpaid, for what we do. So let’s be clear that this is not a pity party.”

Drysdale examines the issue differently. He looks at the percentage the players get from the entire Grand Slam purse, and believes the players deserve a larger share. Drysdale says, “I say that only because the percentage of the take from the Grand Slams that goes into the prize money purse is too low. Way too low. It is something like twelve or thirteen percent, something like that. And it is pretty much the same at all four Grand Slam events. I would have to study it more to come up with the right number, but I am talking general principle. There is no doubt in my mind that the Slams do great work and they don’t have any ax to grind with the players. On the contrary, they try to coddle the players, which I think they should. So there is no conspiracy here, but I do think the players are underpaid for what the Grand Slams gross.”

Annacone is largely in accord with Drysdale about the viewpoint of the players regarding their share of the pie at the majors. “There is a perception issue with this,” he asserts. “These guys really appreciate the money that they have earned. All of the players I have talked to haven’t said we are getting ripped off. All things considered with our economy, they are grateful for what they have. But the bigger conversation would not be ‘Are they getting paid enough?’, but the proportion of the revenues they get at ATP World Tour events compared to the Grand Slam events. This is not good, bad, right or wrong: it is just a fact. It is what it is. If you looked at, say, the ATP Los Angeles tour event, their prize money compared to their overall budget and revenue flow would proportionately be much higher probably than at the Slams. Is that something the players might want to tackle? I don’t know if it is at the top of their priority list, but it is something serious for them to think about, which is a fair distribution between the product and the managers of the product.”

Drysdale is the first to commend the USTA for buying tournaments like Cincinnati, establishing a coherent circuit leading up to the U.S. Open with the Olympus U.S. Open Series, and setting up a template for the other Grand Slam events to follow in many ways. He wants a balance of power, yet believes the players could accomplish a lot if they have the energy and the inclination to pursue their aims with a clarity of purpose. “There is a really good case for the players to sit down and say, ‘Look, we need a piece of the action in the Slams.’ I don’t think that would be at all unreasonable. I think they should do that. In a way, I think the Slams have gotten away with a lot in a financial sense. For example, there is no contribution made by the Slams to the Retirement Fund of the players, etcetera. I am not in favor of the inmates running the asylum, but there has got to be a balance. And, at the moment, the balance is in favor of the Slams.”

The thoughtful Drysdale continues, “I am not talking about a major revolution for the players here, but if the players do not have the threat of a walkout [at the majors] then they don’t bargain from a position of strength. It depends whether or not players like Andy Murray and Andy Roddick are prepared to expend a lot of their time and energy having discussions and identifying the crux of the issues, one of them being their control of the tour outside of the Slams and their interest in renegotiating their package with the Slams. This is stuff that behind the scenes I think the Slams have been worried about for years.”

Gilbert is not as steeped in the political structure of the sport as Drysdale, but he has a good feel about the mindset of the players, and what they might pursue down the road. He contends, “The one thing they need to do is form and become a union, and hire a person to be their head representative. If you had a union representative then maybe that person could have been there in New York during the US Open arguing for the players about needing a Monday or changing the schedule of other things that are of interest to the fellows. I believe forming that union is the most important thing for the players. With the current structure of the ATP, the head of the ATP basically works for the tournament directors as well. The players need their own guy. Look at the NFL and De Maurice Smith, who has been front and center arguing for their point of view. Somebody like that for the tennis players would take their cause to a whole new level and that is how change can come about.”

How does Annacone feel about the ATP standing separate and apart from the tournaments and having their own union? Would that be beneficial for those who play the game for a living? “Anything and everything is historically on the table,” he responds. “In terms of forming a union, you would have to ask some folks with some legal skills about what that means and how it would play out. I lived through the evolution of the ATP when we turned it into a partnership with the tournaments. Whether it is a union or some kind of unified front that has some significant impact and constructive contribution toward what the Slams are trying to do, I think [either way] that would be a great thing. The question is: how do you get the players to not only unite on an issue but to stay united, or to empower a person or a group of people to be their voice? That is a complicated thing to do when you have individual players with individual agents. I would be really surprised if the USTA does not turn this into a positive movement to better their product. Now, how much does unionizing solve? I don’t know. I guess selfishly in my own little dream world I have always felt that when the players stay together they are the product. They need to be heard, but it all has to be done from a position of mutual respect.”

When Buchholz is asked about a union, he asserts, “It isn’t silly. Let them explore it. They have two major issues, though. Who is going to pay for it? And are they prepared to sit down and write a check to hire somebody? It doesn’t mean you have to blow up the ATP. They can still have a union and pay somebody to represent them. But if they are going to do that, the players have to know that they are going to write the check and not the tournaments. Then the players would have to figure out what they would want to do with a union. Things happen at tournaments and then five or six months later it is all forgotten. I just think revolutions come when people are angry and hungry, but I don’t think there is that much anger or hunger out there now [among the players]. The players are doing okay.”

In many ways, they clearly are. But not since the days when Drysdale was President of the ATP upon its inception in 1972 has there been so much player unity in the upper levels of the sport. In 1973—less than a year after the ATP was established—almost all of the leading players staged a walkout at Wimbledon, skipping the world’s premier event. They were fighting for something much larger than themselves by not playing at the All England Club that year. The ITF had suspended Nikki Pilic for not fulfilling what they felt was a firm commitment to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia, and Pilic was barred from Wimbledon for that alleged offense. Pilic felt—and his fellow players backed him to the hilt—that he had made no such commitment, and that the suspension was way out of line and fundamentally unfair.

And so Executive Director Jack Kramer, President Drysdale, defending champion Stan Smith,1970-71 champion John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and other big name players put their good names behind a set of guiding and enduring values. The players at that time were a different breed. As Drysdale reflects, “We did that for an undeniably good cause. I was not second guessing at all what we were doing. It was a huge deal for players who had flown over to London with a big expense involved and then they had to fly back home. Tennis was being transformed back then in the seventies. The locker room was the players. In other words, we were each other’s council, each other’s friend and brothers. There is a difference today with all of the agents and coaches and trainers. They tend to get in the way a little bit. But fundamentally, if the cause is right, the players today could definitely take some considered action.”

Drysdale is not saying that the current top players will need to walk away from any of the majors to fight for any particular cause. Yet he does believe that they could reserve a possible threat to walk away from a major as part of the bargaining process if that becomes necessary. But if that ever came to pass, if the players felt their safety or anything else was at risk because a Grand Slam tournament was ignoring their requests, then what would be the risk in staging a revolt and having the top players bypass a major?

Buchholz is convinced that risk would be substantial. He says, “The Grand Slams are obviously the Crowned Jewels of our sport. Imagine if the players went to the Grand Slams and said, ‘You grossed this and you netted that and we think we should have more.’ The four Slams would say, ‘Look, this is how we fund the British Tennis Association and the French will explain what they do with their money and Australia will as well, and the USTA will tell the players about the positive things they are using the money for. And in my opinion, the players would not boycott the Grand Slams. The amount of money they are being paid from companies like Adidas and Nike and others is enormous, and if they did decide to boycott they would need to understand they would be out for two years. The first year they are going to lose the public relations battle and look like greedy athletes. The second year, they are going to be told, ‘I am not going to pay you all the television money and the sponsorship money, and so on.’ So in my opinion one year would inevitably turn into two years away. I can’t conceive of that. The Grand Slams are too important to the players.”

Buchholz is almost surely on target with his assessment. A player strike of some kind at some stage over any legitimate issue would be averted by those on both sides. But the other reason why cooler heads are bound to prevail is the cohesiveness that exists among the top players these days. More than at any time since the days of Drysdale and Ashe and Laver, the best players are a strong united front with many mutual concerns and much common ground. As Buchholz says, “What has really changed for the better—and this had made a big, big difference—is that the ATP in the old days was primarily run from the bottom up. And today the player side is managed from the top down. I think this group with Federer and Nadal has changed it. That is terrific for the game. In the past generations, Ashe and Smith and Charlie Pasarell were a big part of the ATP, but Connors and Nastase were not a part of it. I got John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg to join when I was there but there were top guys who weren’t even members of the ATP. There is a dramatic change now with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray and seven or eight guys at the top really paying attention to what is going on.”

Annacone is in accord. “There is a great sense of unity now than there ever has been since I started playing on the tour in the mid-1980s. Before that maybe you had more of a fellowship but now between Rafa and Roger and both Andy’s and Novak and other guys, they are very different people but there is more communication. Rafa and Roger are intimately involved with the Player Council and helping the player representatives on the board make decisions. Now they could have a really unified voice. Will that happen? I don’t know. As things drift further from occurrences that have happened, players are on to the next thing. That is human nature. So I think it is important that guys don’t dwell on the past but they do remember important things that have happened and they stay on top of it.”

How the players decide to pursue their highest goals will depend at least partially on their vision of themselves as competitors who want to make a lasting impression. They need to be concerned not only with having a larger say over their destinies at the majors, but also with how they proceed with the ATP World Tour that they have worked so hard to make viable, ever growing and increasingly important. They have some critical matters to resolve, most significantly with the notion that they might want to become a union fighting for their beliefs from another vantage point. As Drysdale says, “The players need to sit down and give some serious thought to the structure of the tour. I would advise the top players at this point to get together and decide on whether they want to stay part owners of the tour outside the Slams. I would probably lean toward them staying in that capacity. But there is a very good case to be made that they should just become a straight union and walk away and negotiate with the tournaments. But I don’t mind the ATP Tour staying in the business that they are in now, which is running the tour with the tournament directors, because that has worked pretty well. Any move to destroy the concept of the ‘Super Nine’ that we now call the Masters 1000 would be a big mistake. Then all hell would break loose and we would go back to the old days of guarantees and the inability to put together a comprehensive television package. All of those things would go by the wayside. I am a big proponent of the mandatory component of both the men’s and women’s tours.”

I could not agree more with Cliff Drysdale that this is the time for the players to do the kind of serious thinking that can lead to a redefined balance of power for the men’s game. Out of the swirl of events surrounding the U.S. Open and the scheduling could come into view a player’s world that is better across the board. That world will only take shape if the top players make certain that they are heard loud and clear. The ATP released a statement recently, asserting among other things that “ The players should and do have a major say in how the game is run, which is one of the key reasons the ATP Tour was formed as an equal partnership between players and tournaments.” They justifiably reminded everyone that the off season in 2012 will be two weeks longer. And that is commendable. But the fact remains that the players could irrefutably have a larger say in the decision making process.

Meanwhile, Andy Murray played down talk of a potentially major conflict between the players and the Grand Slams. “I never said anyone wanted to strike,” said Murray. “We hope it doesn’t come to that. But we do want some small changes. I don’t think we’re talking about anything major. We’d like to talk and see what could be done. It would be good to see some changes made sooner rather than later.”

In turn, Andy Roddick was interviewed by the New York Times, expressing his interest in the ATP becoming a union. “Without a union, it’s tough for us to complain about anything. If we don’t unite we have no one to blame but ourselves.”

On the question of unity, he is absolutely right. But whether or not unity can only be achieved only with a union is still very much open to question. The bottom line is that the players have a chance now to explore the boundaries of their potential influence, to stand up collectively and be counted, to stand for something larger than their short term self-interests. I am optimistic that is precisely what will happen, without a major confrontation with the Grand Slams or the ITF, without the need to wage a strike of some sort, without a crisis. The climate is right for productive dialogue on all sides of the net.

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