“Just wondering … am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united and come together as one?”
It would be a seemingly innocuous statement had it been written by any tennis player or fan with time to contemplate the state of the sport.
It’s a nice idea that has been floated more times than anyone can count. But because this time the player was Roger Federer, and the comment was made through the megaphone of Twitter during uncertain times brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the comment gained immediate traction. The result was a groundswell of support for the Swiss icon’s suggestion.
“I agree [about the need to merge], and have been saying so since the early 1970s,” tennis legend Billie Jean King tweeted. “One voice, women and men together, has long been my vision for tennis. The WTA on its own was always Plan B.”
Rafael Nadal was among the uniformly supportive male players and tennis commentators who chimed in: “Hey @rogerfederer as you know per our discussions I completely agree that it would be great to get out of this world crisis with the union of men’s and women’s tennis in one only organisation.”
Clearly, the social distancing that the pandemic has required, along with the shutdown of economic activity, has led people to step back and take a deep breath, viewing their respective professions with fresh eyes.
“When things are going very well, no one wants to give up anything in any business. You can’t get anyone to focus on change,” Chris Kermode, executive chairman and president of the ATP from 2014 to 2019, told ESPN.com. “You tend to get people focusing on different ideas and potential changes when there’s a crisis. So necessity drives a lot of these decisions.”
The crisis is evident: Professional tennis came to a standstill on the eve of the Indian Wells combined event, and no ATP or WTA tournaments will be played until at least July 13, the week after Wimbledon would have ended, had it not been canceled. The economic impact of the lockdown has been profound, especially for players ranked outside the top 200.
Administrators for both the ATP and WTA were developing a new interest in bridging the divide between the tours in recent months, even before the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
At the Australian Open in January, WTA president Micky Lawler met with Andrea Gaudenzi, Kermode’s successor, as well as Tennis Australia officials, to discuss ways to create a closer working relationship between the tours. The top item on the agenda: creating a women’s companion event to the season-opening ATP Cup, with as many points of commonality as possible.
“We’re talking about a WTA Cup to launch in 2022,” Lawler wrote to ESPN.com in an email at the time. “It is in the works.”
Vasek Pospisil, an ATP Player Council representative who has been an outspoken critic of the prize-money structure in tennis and a perceived lack of player power, wrote in response to Federer: “Hey @rogerfederer & @RafaelNadal. Great idea. The ATP has been working on this since they brought the vision forward to us in January. “
The main stumbling block to uniting the tours under one umbrella has been the reluctance of the ATP Tour — historically more profitable — to underwrite its own resources into the WTA Tour.
Also, rank-and-file ATP players traditionally have been lukewarm to the idea of merged tours. Count Nick Kyrgios as a skeptic not entirely bewitched by Federer’s suggestion. “Did anyone ask the majority of the ATP [players] what they think about merging with the WTA and how it is good for us?”
Another obstacle to realignment plans is the governance structure in tennis. The sport is more or less run by committee, with four different governing bodies and seven stakeholders with skin in the game. The governing bodies: the ATP, WTA, ITF (International Tennis Federation) and the Grand Slam Board (a panel that represents the four Grand Slam events).
“If it’s ever advantageous for both sides to merge, it will happen,” said Kermode, who more than doubled ATP prize money and presided over soaring attendance figures during his five-year tenure. “But until that point, it won’t. If one tour is doing better than the other, why do it? Both must have an incentive to merge.”
In a follow-up tweet, Federer said he was not advocating for “merging competition on the court,” but for merging the ATP and WTA. He wrote, “It’s too confusing for the fans when there are different ranking systems, different logos, different websites, different tournament categories.”
Some disparities between the tours and how they operate could be overcome somewhat easily. A shared logo, website, ranking system and databank would be welcomed by most players, as would a common, subscription-based broadcast partner for events of lesser interest to major networks.
A closer partnership might also open the door to more combined events, not all of them at the highest level like Indian Wells. But that could get tricky. It could mean reducing jobs by as much as 50% for both tours, or creating events with larger draws and more days of play. Tournaments currently on the calendar would have to be culled, but they all have stakeholder rights.
Other issues, such as sponsorship deals, broadcast contracts and prize-money allocations, would present more formidable challenges. “I think the aim would be to work more closely together,” Kermode said. “One organization certainly won’t happen in the short term.”
The current crisis might give the tours greater incentive to move forward, and it might enhance the spirit of cooperation. It’s also difficult to see what concrete steps can be taken in the near future, as the tours are ironing out the details of a multimillion dollar relief package aimed at providing financial support to lower-ranked players on both tours.
It’s impossible to say what the climate will be like when the tours resume, and the sense of shared hardship and the need for mutual support begins to fade. It’s unlikely that a merger will be priority as the tours try to make up for lost ground. A merger that radically transforms the ingrained structure of the professional game would be an extremely difficult, complex and costly undertaking even at the best of times.
The ATP and WTA mainly run their respective tours, sanctioning tournaments that provide constituents with the framework for a career. That includes providing playing and earning opportunities, rankings, marketing and media outreach. Neither the ATP nor WTA is a labor union, nor can it be under present U.S. labor law. Players are not employees of the tours (or the game in general) but are individual contractors who, if they tried to unionize, would violate antitrust laws.
The ITF is the governing body of the global recreational game as well as the owner and/or promoter of various professional competitions, including a circuit for aspiring ATP and WTA pros and the Davis and Fed Cups. National associations such as the USTA are affiliates of the ITF and provide it with a great deal of funding. That enables affiliates to enjoy, among other things, not-for-profit status.
The Grand Slam Board speaks for the four majors when they share a common interest (such as an official Grand Slam Code of Conduct) or need to act in unison. But each Grand Slam entity also is an independent stakeholder, free to do as it pleases. French Open promoters demonstrated that in mid-March when, without consulting its fellow stakeholders, postponed this year’s tournament until September. It is scheduled to start just days after the conclusion of the US Open — if that event even happens.
French Tennis Federation officials took a lot of heat for their action; yet as more and more tournaments fell by the wayside, including Wimbledon, criticism subsided. There is a chance that at least three Grand Slams could be played this year (the US and French Opens).
ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said, “Everyone was upset about the French Open moving, but after a while I was thinking, ‘good for them.’ I hope in a few months we have an insanely crowded schedule to worry about. Maybe we could end up with the three greatest months in tennis — ever.”
Tennis has a Gordian knot of governors, but then it’s an international sport of individuals, rather than teams. Golf has a similar structure, with independent entities including the PGA, LPGA, the R&A, and USGA working in concert to administer different aspects of the sport, including separate pro tours for men and women.
“It’s easy to write that tennis is dysfunctional because of all those governing bodies,” Kermode said. “But it’s not unusual in international sports to have that. In the end, when you’re thinking of change, you always have to ask, ‘What are the benefits?’ The answer will tell you if something is worth doing.”
The benefits of merging and advancing the game into a new era lacking some of the gender-based imbalances of the past is a particularly appealing idea under the present circumstances, especially with revered names advocating for it. This hiatus has encouraged people to think of better ways to do things. But once they start doing things again, those ideas might be moved to a back burner as the day-to-day realities of life on both tours again take over.