Is A Players’ Union Needed? – An Update Look - UBITENNIS
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Is A Players’ Union Needed? – An Update Look

Following the 2018 Australian Open I wrote a story titled “Players’ Union – Is It Needed?” which examined how tennis professionals, contrary to popular assumptions, really didn’t have effective representation, along with the necessary protection needed to participate in such a grueling sport. Following this year’s championship Down Under, I have updated the feature…

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At the annual mandatory 2018 ATP players meeting in Melbourne prior to the start of the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic, the president of the Players Council, discussed creating a “real” players’ union. The idea involved forming an organization that was solely focused on improving the wellbeing of its members. Unfortunately, the day after that idea was put forth, Djokovic back-peddled. Borrowing, perhaps, from the “Fake News” pillorying that has become a part of  today’s political news cycle, he claimed his message was taken out of context. Somehow, he overlooked the fact that he had a lawyer with union expertise on hand to discuss some of the details involved in creating a legitimate union. He claimed that all he was interested in seeing was that the players earned more from the game’s behemoths, the fortune making Grand Slam tournaments.

 

While the prize money has increased and the slams, along with many other tour events have added a collection of player amenities, the point is clear. The union concept didn’t gain traction. The alphabet leaders – particularly the ATP and ITF – joined by organizations representing players, the tournaments themselves and other assorted tennis business interests, made sure it remained a “decent idea” and nothing more. Bottom line, there is no way this group was going to lose its almost ironclad control of the game.  (For whatever reason, the WTA has been sidetracked and become a meaningless anacronym with next to no grasp of comprehensive player representation. As a result, it is not part of the discussion.)

Maintaining the status quo, albeit with occasional new touch-ups to cover the surface chipping, seemed entrenched until Chris Kermode’s leadership was put in the spotlight this year in Melbourne. Vasek Pospisil, who is on the Player Council representing those ranked between 50 and 100, e-mailed fellow players saying that the group should begin to act like it was involved in running a major business. What’s more, members should not be afraid to voice opinions. The Canadian pointed out that the current ATP operation clearly favors tournaments and the individuals/companies that own them, (meaning that the players are secondary at best, even though they are the ones the throngs of fans pay the big bucks to see). He suggested that Kermode’s contract should be terminated and a CEO, who focuses on players’ genuine interests, should be found.

As is often the case when there is administrative turmoil in tennis, an all-star cast of current and former players have been waving their Kermode flags in support. The steal-strong backing was offered despite the facts Pospisil put forth, including the point that the prize money offered by the majors was still less than ten percent of their annual revenue. In the end, he became an outlier.

In “A Tennis Wish List for 2019” , which appeared in the January 12th edition of the New York Times, the esteemed tennis journalist Christopher Clarey admitted that his No. 1 wish was for tennis unity. He wrote, “That would require each of tennis’s seven governing bodies to cede some of its authority, a situation that would probably require an existential threat to the game’s viability or profitability.

“In an imperfect but still better world, unity could also mean a genuine players’ union — why not men and women together while we’re wishing? — That could make for more meaningful progress on tennis’s now-intractable issues through tough negotiations with those who own and operate the tournaments.

“In the current system, the players and regular tour events are in partnership, an unusual arrangement in professional sports that can make consensus and change difficult.

“Novak Djokovic, back at No. 1 and president of the ATP Player Council, has explored the concept. But for now, a union appears to be wishful thinking: too many legal and logistical hurdles.”

Perhaps insight, along with “how to do it” direction,  could be gained from what took place in New York during the first week of January, this year. A collection of major banks and brokers decided to set up a new stock market in the US. The Members Exchange idea was driven by the unhappiness resulting from a number of issues. Foremost was the fees exchanges charged for transferring money. The back story is clear – Those involved want to control their own destiny.

Time will tell if the players will ever be able to have anything more than pseudo control. Time is also a component in Kermode’s case. His position will be the major issue discussed at the ATP players meeting at BNP Paribas Open in March at Indian Wells, California.

It is important to note that Pospisil has had the courage to draw a line in the sand saying, “Our system is broken … it’s time for a change.”

Perhaps there will be others who, once the “politicking” is side-stepped,  find the gumption to step up. Imagine if a standalone organization, a player collective sans tournaments, agents and organizations, was decided upon? In 1973, the concept resulted in the original ATP being brought to life. In 1990, a bad knock-off version II originated. Will ATP members have the fortitude to cross the line with Pospisil and initiate a process that will lead to actual player representation in the world of tennis?

Unfortunately, other than a smattering of vocal support, things haven’t changed much. Players at the top of the rankings are busy training, traveling then competing. Competitors, who are more lowly ranked,  have tunnel vision when it comes to finding tournaments where they can build their rankings and collect decent prize money. Collectively, players don’t seem to have enough hours in the day to do all that is needed to even get the ball rolling to launch a union.

Pospisil’s effort could be a start. But, realistically, as was pointed out in the conclusion of “Players’ Union – Is It Needed?”, the inference is still the same in this update, which means the answer to “Will a union come about?” is – Not Likely…

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Andy Murray Is Going In The Right Direction

Andy Murray came from a set down to pass another test against France’s Ugo Humbert to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, at the European Open on Saturday. The former world No.1 is through to his first singles final since Dubai 2017. Edging closer to his first singles title after coming back from a second successful surgery on his hip.

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Andy Murray – ATP 250 Anversa (foto via Twitter @EuroTennisOpen)

It seems that Andy Murray, who wasn’t sure whether he would be able to compete again at the beginning of the season this year, is finding his way back very well these days.

 

The Scot commenced his comeback slowly and carefully by playing doubles with Spain’s Feliciano Lopez at the Queen’s Club Championship in June. Where they both clinched the title in a very positive comeback for Andy, who seemed at the time very eager to play tennis again though he wasn’t completely ready for big stages as he always used to.

A couple months later in Zhuhai, he got his first singles win on tour since his comeback, which was followed by a loss to world No.26 Alex De Minaur in 3 sets. Taking on the US Open semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini in the opening round at China Open was a real challenge and a good test for the former world No.1 to evaluate how everything is going on. He passed in two sets in what was a good indication that everything is going in the right direction. Then he got past his countryman Cameron Norrie in three sets before falling to Thiem in two.

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He lost after Beijing in Shanghai to Fabio Fognini in the second round during a very exciting match. Including some clashes between both of them with Murray losing his game when he was serving for the match in the decider set.

Even if he didn’t get any significant result there, playing such long matches against top players is an essential part in the build-up process for his game mentally and physically.

“It’s just difficult in tennis, because you don’t get the opportunity to just come in and play one set like you might in other sports and build up your fitness by playing a little bit longer each time. You need to get it through playing matches and maybe at that stage I just wasn’t quite ready physically for long matches. But now obviously my body’s getting a little bit more used to it and coping fairly well.” Said Murray about his improvement.

In Antwerp this week, the Scot seems to be getting better as he got four singles wins in a row, so far, for the first time since his comeback. In other words the number of matches won consecutively in one week increases as he plays more which is a good indication that his body is getting used to it more and more and recovers faster, yet he still needs some time to reach his highest level. Having played long, intense matches in the quarter and semi finals against Marius Copil and Ugo Humbert today, which could have some effect on his physical readiness against Wawrinka. Who reserved a spot in the final by beating Jannik Sinner (6-3, 6,2). Both players dropped two sets on their way towards the final with Murray playing an additional match.

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Whether the Scot lifts his first single trophy since 2017 on Sunday or not, he is definitely getting in there with a very good rate. Considering he was thinking of retirement earlier this year than having a hip replacement surgery afterwards and now competing in such a level and one step away from a single title, that is a huge success. Moreover, he is getting more confident and mentally tougher which is shown clearly in the last two matches; surviving from a very tight situation and keeping cool in a very crucial moments.

Speaking about his aspects of the game, his defensive game has improved very fast. It’s been a fundamental part of his game throughout his career. He is trying to level up his offensive shots and turning from the defensive to the offensive when possible, especially on fast indoors courts, which would normally take more time as he’s gaining more confidence. Yet Murray needs to work hard on his serve, especially his second serve which costs him a lot of points sometimes very crucial ones.

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Laver Cup: As Europe’s blue reign, myriad hues peek out in event’s latest iteration

The 2019 Laver Cup showed all over again why it was an opportunity for tennis to be diverse in its offering.

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2019 Laver Cup, Team Europe, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal
Photo Credit: Laver Cup

Twelve matches spread over a three-day weekend later, Laver Cup has modified the proverbial face and scope of men’s tennis. It is still viewed sceptically as a disruptor to routine, individual-focused tennis matches in certain pockets. Yet, the singularity it has brought into the midst of the prevalent concept of individuality is irrevocable.

 

In the third year of the event’s emergence, these aspects are repetitive. However, Laver Cup’s display re-lit the theme of a team before a player. It also elevated it to heights not seen in its previous two editions. This showed in the players’ camaraderie with each other. As it did in the numerous coaching tips that came from the bench from Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and even Nick Kyrgios towards their fellow squad members.

Broadly, it was laid out in how the Laver Cup changed the subject from who would win the most Slams to which part of the globe would be victorious. For once, the conversation did not focus on 20 Slams versus 19, as it had come to be after Nadal’s win at the US Open. It was riveted on how two sportsmen with 39 Slams between them could set aside their competitiveness towards a common goal for a still-mushrooming tourney.

“Winning (as) teams is just amazing because you celebrate together. It’s a very special thing. Honestly, I really hope that this new and young generation keeps supporting this event because this event is special,” Nadal said after Team Europe’s three-peat on Sunday. “We need to make this event stronger and stronger because the atmosphere that we leave here is difficult to find in other places.”

The 33-year-old’s statements, aside from setting aside any cynicism about his involvement in the event this year, emphasised the growth Laver Cup has had in its three years. Nadal’s participation in Laver Cup’s inaugural year was seen as a novelty, a continuation of his and Federer’s triumphant return to the Tour after an injury-troubled 2016. Novak Djokovic’s inclusion in Europe’s 2018 squad was viewed as a reiteration that the event was a fad, where top-ranked players would make a one-off appearance, before stepping away.

In 2019, the 12-time French Open champion’s return contradicted this previously-held supposition. This shifting of perceptions is why Laver Cup has turned problematic to the Tour’s other mainstay events.

If Laver Cup were to be regarded as merely an exhibition, a tournament with no relevance to how the ATP tour progressed year-on-year with its usual clanking schedule, all of the players’ emotiveness and reactions would have been on par with the idea of livening it up for its sake.

https://twitter.com/rogerfederer/status/1176258686269952000

On the other hand, when two former world no. 1s were heard sternly telling their touted successor not to be negative for the rest of his match, it was hard to convince that the whole atmosphere was made-up.

Though, it does bear noting that not being put-on and the ease with which it has been assimilated in tennis’ mainstay have been the catalysts for Laver Cup’s disparaging mooting in certain circles.

The past weekend it coincided with a couple of ATP tournaments, in St. Petersburg and Metz. Both events had several interesting match-ups of their own. Followers deeply vested in the sport knew the happenings across all tournaments held last week. But for casual viewers, it would have come down to picking one event over the rest.

The factoring in of this unnecessary chasm added to the enervation around tennis by making one take sides in a sport that is already at crossroads, without Laver Cup even being mentioned.

Yet, if it were about inclusivity, selectivity in audiences’ preferences is the other side of tennis’ coin. These choices cannot always remain aligned, even in accepting or discarding the tri-day tournament as a consequential pursuit. As Nadal opined, when asked to compare between his other title wins and his Laver Cup team win, “…every single thing is different and is important by itself.”

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Novak Djokovic Doesn’t Need Love, Just Respect

He will never win a popularity battle with Federer, but does that really matter?

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As a world No.1 with 16 grand slam titles, Novak Djokovic has proven himself to be one of the best players in the world. Yet, amid the outburst of boos following his retirement from the US Open last week, the debate surrounding his popularity in the sport was reignited once again.

 

Taking on the formidable Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, a player known to play his best on the biggest stages of the tour, Djokovic called it quits during the early stages of the third set. Citing a shoulder problem as the reason. Something that had bothered him during the earlier rounds. On the Arthur Ashe stadium, the crowd was less than pleased with his decision to stop.

“I’m not being offended or mistreated by anybody. I don’t really pay too much attention on that.” Djokovic said of the crowd. “I like to respect others. I hope that others can respect me and my decision.’
“I’m sorry for the crowd. Obviously they came to see a full match, and just wasn’t to be. That’s all it is.’
“I mean, a lot of people didn’t know what’s happening, so you cannot blame them. It is what it is.”

The New York crowd are certainly unique when it comes to other grand slams. When you go to Wimbledon there is a guard at every gate to direct you to your seat. Talking during points is frowned upon and misbehaviour is certainly not tolerated. In Flushing Meadows, there is no such thing with people casually walking around the stadium during points. Highlighted by one journalist during the women’s semi-final who tweeted ‘Why are people just strolling around in the Arthur Ashe Stadium? Get to your f***ing seats.’

“Well, no, I really believe that he doesn’t deserve of course,’ Rafael Nadal commented about his rival. “I believe that he’s a super athlete. If he had to go is because he was not able to continue at all.
“For him is much more painful than for anyone on that Arthur Ashe Stadium.”

At a glance all of this could be put down to the sometimes rowdy New York contingent at Flushing Meadows. However, this isn’t the first time Djokovic has been in this situation.

Taking to the Wimbledon final back in July it was more than evident that he wasn’t the crowd favourite. It was rival Roger Federer, who won the event seven times. Chants of ‘Federer’ erupted around Centre Court. Prompting the Serbian to mentally transmute those calls into one of his own name.

It is clear that Djokovic is a powerhouse and an icon in the world of tennis given his achievements, but for some reason he isn’t able to generate as much popularity as his two rivals. Illustrated by their social media accounts.

PLAYER

*TWITTER FOLLOWERS

*FACEBOOK LIKES

Rafael Nadal

15.7M

14.4M

Roger Federer

12.6M

14.878M

Novak Djokovic

8.7M

7.063M

*numbers as of 10/9/2019

Whilst the 32-year-old may not be the most popular man in the world of tennis, that isn’t to say that he doesn’t have a loyal fan base. On social media that are groups of die-hard ‘Nole’ fans ready to defend their man from any potential criticism he receive. From first hand knowledge, some of them are very feisty to say the least.

The debate surrounding the popularity of the Big Three is one that will likely continue beyond their retirement, but that doesn’t mean that the focus should be taken away from their outstanding achievements. For Djokovic, he is the first player to earn more than $100 million in prize money, the first to win four consecutive ATP Finals, the oldest-ever year-end No.1 and the only man to win every Masters 1000 title.

Many have said his reception in the world of sport triggers memories of Ivan Lendl. In 1987 he graced the front cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption ‘the champion that nobody cares about.’ A reserved Lendl struggled to struck a special connection with the crowd in North America compared to what some of his opponents managed to do. Fortunately, he was later recognized and appreciated more for his contribution to the sport.

As for Djokovic, he is somewhat on the same ground as Lendl, but not to such an extent. It would be quite inconceivable for a magazine to place him on their front cover using the same caption as what was used for Lendl. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly similarities.

It is likely that Djokovic will not be as popular as Federer, but that isn’t a problem. An all-time great is measured by their records in the sport and not how many are cheering them on. He shouldn’t be loved by everybody in the world, no player has the right to that entitlement. However, what he does deserve is a degree of respect. Something that is sometimes forgotten by the public attending the world’s biggest tennis events.

Maybe Djokovic’s true impact on the sport will not be recognized until he walks away for good. Whenever that will be.

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