By Richard Pagliaro
Prominent doubles players took their case against the ATP to court in a lawsuit filed last month. Today, an ATP Masters Series tournament announced it will keep doubles players off the court this month.
The Tennis Masters Series-Madrid, the same event that turned the court into a catwalk in hiring models to work as ball girls last year, announced today it will not host a doubles competition at the tournament until "the antitrust lawsuit brought by 45 doubles players against the ATP and its Board of Directors Members is withdrawn or resolved."
Tennis Masters Series-Madrid tournament organizers said today if the lawsuit is not resolved by the start of the tournament on October 17th "the organization of the Masters Series Madrid will cancel the doubles competition and will donate 50 percent of the doubles prize money ($202,726) to the ATP Player's Retirement Plan."
"We believe that the ATP new rules will help the doubles grow and take this great competition out of the dark hole is in at the moment," Gerard Tsobanian, General Manager at the Masters Series Madrid said in a statement. "Doubles matches at ATP tournaments around the world go on unnoticed, attracting very small crowds. By making it more accessible to top singles players, with a new format and short matches we feel that this competition will become more attractive to the fans. We consider that the lawsuit filed by these 45 doubles players makes no sense and therefore it is not coherent for us to organize the doubles draw this year in Madrid with these same players while they are in the middle of a lawsuit against the ATP, of which we are members."
It is the latest shot in an escalating high-stakes shootout between doubles players and ATP tournaments.
On September 1st, several highly-ranked doubles players joined forces as plaintiffs in filing a lawsuit in a Southern District Texas Federal Court against the ATP and members of its board of directors. Grand Slam doubles champions Mark Knowles, Bob Bryan, Mike Bryan, Mahesh Bhupathi and Jonas Bjorkman are among the players voicing their opposition to the ATP's new experimental scoring system that shrinks doubles sets to five games rather than six with a tiebreaker at 4-4. Additionally, an ATP initiative proposed to go into effect in 2008 would permit only the top six to eight doubles teams entry into tournaments, while denying lower-ranked doubles players entry into in tournaments if they did not also qualify for the singles draws.
The players' lawsuit alleges that the ATP's proposed experimental efforts to "enhance" doubles competition is in fact a concerted effort by tournament directors to diminish and eventually eliminate doubles players' ability to gain entry into main draws as a cost-cutting measure to save the tournament's money. The international law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. and the Houston-based firm of Ellis, Carstarphen, Dougherty & Goldenthal P.C. filed suit on behalf of many of the top doubles players, identifying them in court papers as a "submarket" of the men's professonal tour and alleging that the ATP's directors have "violated their fiduciary obligations to the players by enacting rules that prevent doubles players from competing, contrary to the express wishes of the players." Furthermore, the suit seeks an injunction to "stop the ATP's and its directors' alleged unlawful and anti competitive conduct against athletes who excel in doubles. The players charge the ATP and its directors with antitrust violations and breaches of fiduciary duties.
Tennis Week has contacted the ATP for further comment. Today's announcement raises the question: does the Madrid tournament have the authority to cancel the doubles event under existing ATP rules?
Rule 2.03 in the 2005 Official ATP Rulebook states: "Any ATP or Challenger Series Tournament that defaults in payment of prize money or tournament fee or any other payments due to the ATP may have its membership status (sanctioned status if a Challenger Series Tournament) changed subject to ATP Bylaws."
Because many of the top doubles players do not play singles events, they contend the proposed enhancements would effectively eradicate several doubles specialists and jeopardize the integrity of the game.
"There is no credibility left for the ATP," said Knowles, who partnered Daniel Nestor to beat the Bryan brothers, 6-3, 6-4, and win the 2004 Madrid title. "They are basically trying to annihilate one form of the game, which is doubles."
Essentially, the players are suing the very union that was created to represent them and believe the ATP is placing the interests of tournament directors above its own players when it comes to doubles. It is an economic issue in that tournament directors want to save money, while players want to preserve their jobs. Knowles said doubles players have made repeated concessions over the years and have come to the conclusion that taking their case to court — and making a case for preserving jobs for doubles players through the media to the tennis fan base — is the only recourse to spare doubles specialists a death sentence.
"My stance on it is we have to fight," Knowles said. "This time when the tournament directors were shooting they wanted to see how many bullets were in the gun. When I discussed the 2008 initiatives (at a recent ATP meeting) half to three quarters of the tournament directors in the room had no idea what I was referring to. I really get the feeling there are two or three people totally speaking for the bunch."
In an interview with Tennis Week conducted during the U.S. Open, recently-appointed ATP President, Europe Horst Klosterkemper, said doubles does not draw the crowds that singles does and suggested doubles controversy, rather than competition, is what commands coverage from the media.
"You tennis people have to admit that the fish and not the angler has to enjoy the bait," Klosterkemper told Tennis Week. "Daily newspapers only cover controversy, not the game of doubles. It really hurt my heart to see at a Grand Slam doubles event when 90 percent of the people did not stay for the men’s doubles finals [this year's match at Roland Garros where the No. 3 seed team of Jonas Bjorkman/Max Mirnyi defeated the No. 2 seed Bryan brothers] after the women’s semifinals and half of the people in stands at Roland Garros left after first set. The doubles issue has been on the table nine years and it has not been fixed in a way that enhances situation of doubles at all. It came to a point where we had to make a decision where we had to enhance the product of doubles."
The talk of "enhancement" has now escalated to an act of elimination in Madrid.