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.

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).

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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).

Schnyder, 39, gets Fed Cup call

After Stefanie Vögele pulled out of this weekend’s World Group I playoff tie against Romania, the Swiss Fed Cup captain recruited a blast from the past.

Patty Schnyder, now 39, will return to action seven years after her last Fed Cup appearance. She played from 1996 through 2011.

Retired four years and now a mom, the former No. 7 has been back since 2015 and is playing quite a bit, mostly on the ITF circuit.

She’s currently ranked No. 149.

All it’s missing to be epic would be a cameo by Martina Hingis – retired, but two years younger – in doubles.

Under suspension cloud, Cornet wins

French player Alizé Cornet was charged with an anti-doping violation in January after missing three unannounced tests.

The hearing was to be in March, with Cornet continuing to play pending a decision. She could also appeal it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

That hearing was postponed to May 1, her lawyer, Alexis Gramblat, told l’Équipe last month. So she continues to play. 

It’s a tough thing to have hanging over your head.  But Cornet is in the Charleston quarterfinals after upsetting her countrywoman, No. 1 seed Caroline Garcia, Thursday night.

Noah: Reforms will kill Davis Cup’s soul

French Davis Cup captain Yannick Noah (as with most Frenchmen) is a purist.

He’s firmly against the proposed Davis Cup changes.

‘This measure is too radical and, in my opinion, will kill the soul and the very essence of the Davis Cup. … It’ll be a bit of a circus,” Noah told the French media.

“In the old days, McEnroe saved Davis Cup by playing when Borg or Connors didn’t. Davis Cup being in danger isn’t recent.

“The current formula is fine. But when Federer or Nadal prefer to play other tournaments, it becomes more complicated.”

Wawrinka returns appearance fee in Marseille

There are a lot of things to like about Stan Wawrinka.

His rawness, for one – his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve and show his vulnerability

And his tennis, of course.

But his decision to voluntarily return his appearance fee this week to the tournament,  the Open 13 Provence, isn’t something you’ll see every day.

Wawrinka, still struggling to return to form after offseason surgeries on his left knee, had to retire after two games of the second set of his first match of the tournament, Thursday night against qualifier Ilya Ivashka of Belarus.

On a missed volley at 3-3 in the first set, Wawrinka felt a pain in the knee. He didn’t show any reaction then. But after his next serve, he did.

The scar is still very much in evidence – it almost looks angry, still.

Early in the second set, he pulled the plug. Wawrinka left the court with a towel over his head, clearly in tears, as he managed a wave for the crowd. 

Stan the Refunding Man

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The left knee began bothering Wawrinka in the middle of the first set of his first match in Marseille. It was a setback he wasn’t expecting.

“Did he come back too soon? I don’t know. But he was crushed; he didn’t think he’d have this setback,” tournament director Jean-François Caujolle told the French sports newspaper L’Équipe.

Before he left Marseille, Wawrinka told Caujolle he was willing to give his entire appearance fee back. As a multiple Grand Slam champion, this is not an insignificant sum.

“Part of it will stay in the tournament, and part of it will go towards various organizations. That was Stan’s wish, and I thought that was a good thing. We could have said we’ll keep it all, but that’s not our mentality,” Caujolle told l’Équipe. “That’ll be about 60,000 Euros, or a bit more, for various organizations. A few chosen with advice from the regional government, and two more that Stan is involved with – all of them relating to children.”

Interestingly, Caujolle said this wasn’t the first time Wawrinka offered to give back his appearance fee in Marseille. “He thought he hadn’t fully done his part. Even though once he lost 6-4 in the third (in 2015), and the next year 7-5 in the third. He did his part!” he said.  (Caujolle turned him down).

The tournamennt director added that as it was, Wawrinka already had cut his usual appearance fee in half. And that, even though he was still No. 4 in the world when the agreement was signed.

“He had already made that gesture, and now he’s giving it all back,” Caujolle said. “It’s one of the nice stories, players like that, who have a certain humanity.” 

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Supporting the smaller, struggling events

The struggles of 250-level ATP events to find the budget to attract top players, and to make a go of it generally, have been well documented.

Caujolle has played his part in bring that to light even if, with the current generation of French male players so strong and deep and generally faithful to the ATP events held in their country, the crunch hasn’t hit him (yet) as hard as it has other similar events.

It seems Wawrinka may well be conscious of that. 

His next tournament is scheduled to be Indian Wells.

(Quotes from L’Équipe; screenshots from TennisTV)

Djoker and his lookalike to meet

“Even me, when I watch him play, in certain facial expressions, I see myself,” said Pierre Vaultier, the French snowboarding gold medalist, said about his resemblance to Novak Djokovic.

In an interview on France TV with Laurent Luyat – as it happens, part of the network’s French Open coverage – Luyat said they would try to set up a meeting.

“I’d be delighted,” Vaultier said. “I’m a fan of that fellow.”

Djokovic got wind of it, so it’ll surely happen.

And Lacoste (which sponsors Djokovic and also the French Winter Olympics team) no doubt also will be delighted.

Early airport calls cost Cornet

French player Alizé Cornet, who faces a possible suspension after missing three unannounced doping tests in 2017, explained in an interview with l’Équipe.

Cornet usually puts down 6 a.m. for her “whereabouts” hour, as dictated by the anti-doping rules. But she had early airport calls to head to the Fed Cup final and the Miami Open.

She didn’t update her file to indicate she was in transit, and missed the testers

The third time, she says she was home. But there was a “huge misunderstanding”.

In the meantime, Cornet is playing St. Petersburg this week.

Bartoli comeback months in the making

The French outlet RMC Sport had the news in early October that Marion Bartoli was working towards a comeback

Bartoli denied it during the US Open. “I don’t know why everyone wants me to come back, but the answer is no,” she said then.

Now, the French federation is putting all means at her disposal to make it happen.

According to L’Équipe, the FFT has exclusively assigned her a coach, Rodolphe Gilbert, and a physical trainer, Cyril Brechbühl. She’s been going at it hard for three weeks.

In the meantime, she’ll commentate for Eurosport at the Australian Open.

Left off roster, Mahut a team player

It probably was a shock for Nicolas Mahut (3-0 in doubles rubbers this season) to be left off the four-man French squad for this weekend’s Davis Cup final.

He said the right things when he spoke to the media.

As you can well imagine, it’s a disappointment, whether for Julien (Benneteau) or for myself. It was going to be a disappointment for two players,” he said.

“In the history of the French team there are players who’ve had much greater careers than I have who were left aside. So you have to learn to accept the captain’s choices.”

Will Mahut and Benneteau double up?

The French Davis Cup team brought six players to this week’s final.

While the initial nominations were made last week, the suspense will only end with Thursday’s draw.

While the duo of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert are the top team (they qualified for the Tour Finals in London last week), will it be Mahut and Julien Benneteau, after they practiced together the last three days?

Herbert had a back issue in London, but seems healthy now.

Nineteen years ago this week, the pair (who cleaned up in the juniors), were winning the Copa Yucatan in Mexico.