Players Seek Larger Role in ATP
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Rivals for supremacy on the court, Roger Federer
, Rafael Nadal
and Novak Djokovic have now become political allies off it in an attempt to take more control over the direction of tennis.
Saturday in London, two days before Wimbledon begins, the world’s three top men’s players are all but certain to be voted on to the player council of the Association of Tennis Professionals. That would be a most unusual move in an era when the game’s stars are typically more preoccupied with hitting big forehands and maximizing their big earnings than addressing the broader issues facing the sport.
But Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are concerned about the current leadership of the ATP and about the potential impact of a lawsuit filed by tournament organizers in Hamburg, Germany.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have expressed reservations about decisions made by the ATP chairman Etienne de Villiers, whose contract ends later this year, like a failed experiment last year to introduce a round-robin format at low-level tour events. But the bigger issue is apparently a perceived lack of communication between the players and the ATP’s board, which is the tour’s primary decision-making body.
Nadal, the world’s dominant clay-court player, has also been upset by attempts to restructure the clay-court schedule.
“Controversy, nobody likes it,” Nadal said in an interview in Paris shortly after he won his fourth straight French Open. “I prefer to play tennis and have tranquillity, which in many cases we are lacking. But with the ATP, there have been moments when we were simply not informed about things that they were going to do. Our complaint is that we have representatives on the board who do not represent the players. They are our representatives, but they aren’t representing us. They’re representing the head of the ATP.”
agreed that the board’s management style needed to change. “We don’t need to be treated like little children,” he said in Paris.
The ATP is a joint venture between the tournaments and the players. The board of directors has six members: three elected by the player council and three chosen by the tournaments with de Villiers, a former Disney executive, serving as chairman and the tie-breaking vote.
The players’ dissatisfaction led to last month’s move by the existing player council to vote Perry Rogers off the board. Rogers, the longtime agent and close friend of the former champion Andre Agassi
, has been one of de Villiers’s primary allies and advisers in developing and negotiating a new structure and calendar for the men’s tour in 2009.
The changes would be more evolutionary than revolutionary, but de Villiers has emphasized that he needs commitment from the top players in order to package and sell rights to the revamped tour. The board has already approved a system whereby the top players must commit to play (or in case of injury, attend) all eight of its top tournaments or risk financial penalties and suspension.
The board is also requiring that the top players commit to 4 of the 11 events in the second tier. The four Grand Slam events, the most prestigious in the sport, are not run by the ATP.
The new commitment policy has not been welcomed by all the top players or their agents, who are concerned, in part, about losing guaranteed paydays at smaller tournaments.
Rogers did not return a telephone call seeking comment, and de Villiers declined to comment, except to say that he welcomed the prospect of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic joining the council.
The ATP spokesman Kris Dent said that, in an attempt to bridge any communication gap, the top 10 players had been offered the chance to have someone representing them in the boardroom report back on all discussion. “That offer was made months ago, and we’ve heard nothing back,” Dent said.
Ivan Ljubicic, the Croatian veteran who is president of the existing council, said: “We are at the most important moment for our sport in 20 years. The next two to three months are critical.”
That is largely because of the antitrust lawsuit filed against the ATP by the tournament organizers in Hamburg, whose traditional clay-court event is set to be downgraded from the top tier of tournaments in 2009. The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in United States District Court in Wilmington, Del., in late July.
“It all depends on the lawsuit,” Ljubicic said. “If the ATP wins, the ATP presumably stays as is, but if Hamburg wins, we don’t really know what happens. It could change the whole sport. It could cost the ATP more than it has.”
The ATP has reportedly already spent more than $7 million on legal and court fees related to the case. With the lawsuit blocking final plans for 2009, it has been difficult to procure sponsorship, although Dent said the “interest from the commercial world has been extremely encouraging.”
If the 2009 plan goes forward, Dent said, the tour has already secured a 36 percent increase in prize money for next year along with an $8 million bonus pool and “almost a billion dollars” of investment from tournaments in new stadiums and improved facilities.