L’Équipe: Is men’s tennis about to implode?

NEW YORK – A story in the French daily sports newspaper l’Équipe, published online a few hours ago, has done a deep dive on how the various forces in men’s tennis seem to be battling each other – and themselves – for a bigger piece of the financial pie.

And, in so doing, they may all pay the price.

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Tennis journalists Vincent Cognet and Franck Ramella have been working their sources during this US Open.

And they’ve come up with a piece that has a ton of food for thought, as well as a number of exclusive details that add some interesting twists to the tale.

Please click here to read the story and given them the page views they deserve for doing all the reporting. 

(if your French isn’t up to it, you’ll get the gist via Google Translate).

implode

Here are some of the major points in the story – and a VERY abridged look at the history of men’s tennis, which has seen this before.

Top-secret meetings

Over the last few days, the ATP, ITF and the Kosmos group led by soccer star Gerald Piqué have been meeting at the US Open. The biggest topic is the “new” Davis Cup, as voted in by the ITF at its annual general meeting in Orlando two weeks ago.

Even though the date seemed to have been decided for November, after the ATP Tour Finals, we’ve all seen through this process that nothing – not the site, not the dates, or even the format – is set in stone.

The players don’t want it in November. Piqué wants September. But September has Laver Cup. And September also has ATP events in Metz, France and St. Petersburg, Russia. The Metz connection provides the story with some detail.

Bullet points

*the ATP and ITF had negotiated, as late as Wimbledon, about cooperation. But then the players signed the agreement with Tennis Australia for the Tour’s own “World Team Cup” in January, 2020.  

*There’s general agreement, L’Équipe posits, that two “new” team competitions so close together cannot both survive.

*L’Équipe reports that despite the “$3 billion” number being that’s been thrown around from the get-go, only $52 million – a tiny portion of that lofty figure – is guaranteed at this point. Which is worrying.

*There’s no love lost between the ITF and its member Grand Slams, L’Équipe writes. And even the Slams are not in solidarity. Tennis Australia, in particular, has gone rogue by its deep investment into this major potential rival to the new Davis Cup.

*The players’ voice is getting louder, in terms of getting a bigger share of the pie. L’Équipe says former player Justin Gimelstob is leading that charge, from his position on the ATP Board. The newspaper reports the players saw their share of the revenues increase 14 per cent, each of the last three seasons – but they want that bumped up to 18 per cent in 2019.

*The problem, L’Équipe says, is that tennis’s financials are on the decline. But the players aren’t buying the viability of an audit the Masters 1000 tournaments commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers that confirms their numbers. 

*A decision to approve the jump from 24 to 32 doubles teams at Masters 1000 tournaments in 2019, l’Équipe says (which gives more doubles players more prize money), has drawn the ire of all the tournament owners and directors. Let’s remember that this group once wanted to do away with doubles altogether, because it drains the revenue pot more than it contributes, with prize money and room nights and other costs.

Will the Masters 1000 events go rogue?

Unlike the Slams, the Masters 1000 tournaments (with the possible exceptions of its biggest rogue – big-money Indian Wells – and Shanghai) are more unified, l’Équipe writes.

Could they decide to jump ship and start their own elite, mega-bucks circuit that would include most of the Masters 1000s, a few 500s, the Davis Cup – and the Slams? 

Imagine a scenario where all this would be controlled by … Kosmos, as professional men’s tennis sells out to the highest bidder.

(And yes, we’re fully aware that nowhere in all these machinations do the WTA Tour or the women even rate a mention).

That’s the worst-case scenario, and l’Équipe writes that they’re not there yet.   

History repeating itself

Thirty years ago, out in the parking lot, the ATP Tour was born. (Photo from the ATP Tour).

All of this just shows that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Fifty years ago, there was a battle between rival circuits that left a lot of blood in its wake.

The WCT (World Championship Tennis) circuit, run by mega-rich impressario Lamar Hunt and his group, and the National Tennis League were the two circuits.  The WCT started with the famous “Handsome Eight”; the NTL had such luminaries as Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall.

And soon, they began to manipulate the fledgling professional scene. The first open pro event in England in 1968 had no WCT players. In 1970, the NTL (info per Wikipedia) didn’t get a guarantee from the Australian Open. So its players mostly didn’t show up. 

Given their roster included two of the biggest Aussie stars in Laver and Rosewall, that was quite the statement.

Another circuit on the scene

And that led to the creation of another circuit, the Grand Prix Circuit, which was run by former player Jack Kramer (Could Novak Djokovic, who led a charge at the Australian Open to look into forming some type of players’ association, be the Jack Kramer of his generation?)

For a couple of years in the early 1970s, when the Grand Slams didn’t have the prize money or huge bottom lines they enjoy now, they went ahead without many of the top players. These multiple factions were fighting for supremacy, and the leverage used by the majors was exclusion from their events. Even Wold Team Tennis was a force at that time.

It’s hard to even believe now.

By the mid-80s, the players were unhappy about how the Men’s Pro Council (the MIPTC, ironically a cooperative effort between the ITF, ATP and tournament directors) was running things. Some of the issues have not changed. The difference now is that there is so much more money at stake.

From a story on the ATP Tour site by James Buddell back in 2013:

The players were on board to break away. But the US Open wouldn’t, at first, let them have the press conference room to announce it.

So nearly exactly 30 years ago, at this very tournament, the US Open, Mats Wilander led what’s now called the “Parking Lot Press conference”. And that’s how the ATP Tour was born.

What’s old is new again

Thirty years later, it may be about to blow itself up again.

The meetings related to it are likely being held in five-star hotels, not in the halls of the US Open or in the parking lot – or even the well-appointed men’s locker room. But the principle remains.

And somehow, it feels a whole lot different – probably because of all the extra zeros attached to the end of the tale.

Back in the early days of the professional game, the players (who until then had played for literal peanuts) were fighting to be able to make a decent living and have better working conditions, so they didn’t have to be on the road 45 weeks a year.

These days, with the interests of big business, and the bigger tournaments themselves being big business – and the millions and millions the top players earn – it doesn’t feel like the same almost noble cause, does it?

(If you want to learn more about this fascinating period in tennis history, can we recommend this book by longtime tennis journalist Richard Evans).

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