“That’s the mentalities in these discussions” laments Andy Murray as ATP & WTA merger still a long way off
A merger of the ATP and WTA tours could still be a long way off, but like Andy Murray, Andrea Gaudenzi, the new head of the Association of Tennis Professionals, believes that everyone in tennis would benefit from closer collaboration between the two organisations.
If the much-discussed merger between the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association does ever come about, the sport’s historians will no doubt note that Billie Jean King had been trying to make it happen for more than half a century, only for the crucial momentum for change to have come in a 26-word post on Twitter from Roger Federer. “Just wondering,” the Swiss mused in the early days of the coronavirus shutdown. “Am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united and come together as one?”
The truth, nevertheless, is not that simple. While Federer’s is a voice that everyone in tennis sits up to listen to, the key figure in the early days of a possible alignment of the men’s and women’s tours has been Andrea Gaudenzi, the new chairman of the ATP. Even in his pitch for the job last year, the 46-year-old Italian told the ATP board that the different – and often conflicted – governing organisations within tennis needed to work together. In particular, he stressed that the strength of the women’s game was a major asset for the whole of tennis.
Even before Federer’s contribution, which helped spark widespread discussion of the subject, Gaudenzi’s inclusive approach had been evident in the setting up of Tennis United, a weekly TV show featuring interviews with players from the two tours. The dire worldwide situation had created an environment in which it made sense for the ATP and WTA to work together on such a project, but even so it was a ground-breaking move. The two tours have also co-operated with each other on the resumption of tennis and with the sport’s five other major power-brokers (the four Grand Slam tournaments and the International Tennis Federation) in creating a relief fund to help players financially through the pandemic.
To any outsider, such collaboration would seem entirely logical, but from its earliest days open tennis has been a divided sport with too many governing bodies, often pulling in different directions. When tennis finally accepted professionalism in the late 1960s King and her fellow female trail-blazers wanted to join forces with the men, who instead went their own way, often fighting among themselves as rival camps formed.
Later attempts to bring the two sexes together also foundered. Although there had been more co-operation in recent years – witness the growth in the number of combined tournaments – divisions between the two tours had remained. The scenes in January in Brisbane, where the women’s tournament was initially relegated to the outside courts while concurrent matches in the men’s ATP Cup filled the centre court schedule, told their own story.
It is a fact that television rights currently bring in more revenue for men’s tennis than for the women’s game, which in turn leads to discrepancies in prize money. On the tours the annual prize pot for women is roughly three-quarters of the men’s. Consider the earnings from singles matches of the players who finished No 1, No 25 and No 50 in the world rankings last year: the No 1s, Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty, earned $12.86m and $10.87m respectively; the No 25s, Guido Pella and Amanda Anisimova, $1.45m and $1.16m; and the No 50s, Juan Ignacio Londero and Victoria Azarenka, $883,098 and $642,378.
In the past, opposition to any merger of the two tours has often come from male players fearful that their earnings might be affected. Andy Murray, interviewed on CNN during the shutdown, said: “I have had conversations in the past when there’s been prize money increases within the sport where, let’s say, the first-round loser’s cheque for the men has gone from, say, $8,000 to $10,000, and the women’s has gone from $6,000 to $10,000.
“I spoke about that to some of the male players who were unhappy because the prize money was equal. I said: ‘Well, would you rather there was no increase at all?’ And they said to me: ‘Yes, actually.’ That’s some of the sort of the mentalities that you are working with in these discussions, where someone would actually rather make less money just so they’re not on an equal footing with some of the female players.”
Although the men’s game has traditionally generated more income, Gaudenzi recognises the pre-eminence of tennis in women’s sport. If you asked most people to name the world’s leading sportswomen, tennis players would be among the first that come to mind. Tennis players have topped Forbes’ annual list of the world’s highest-earning female athletes for the last 16 years in a row, Naomi Osaka having just toppled Serena Williams, who in turn had ended Maria Sharapova’s 11-year reign. Moreover, in the most successful events in tennis, the Grand Slam tournaments, women compete on an equal footing alongside the men. Gaudenzi clearly sees equality as a sign of strength, not of weakness.
From his earliest days at the ATP Gaudenzi has made it clear to his players that he favours working together with the women’s game, while Steve Simon, the head of the WTA, told The New York Times that a merger “makes all the sense in the world”.
A fully-fledged merger is still a long way off – preliminary discussions have simply looked at how a single organisation might be structured – and might never happen, but we can expect increased collaboration between the two tours. Working together more closely on the calendar has already begun, while Gaudenzi believes that both parties would benefit from a joint approach selling broadcast rights, data and sponsorship. Ideally he would also like to work with the Grand Slam tournaments and the ITF in those areas. Absurdly, the governing bodies are sometimes currently in competition with each other when negotiating deals.
Nevertheless, patience will be needed, as there will be plenty of contracts that would need to expire before joint deals could be done. For example, the WTA still has four years left to run of its 10-year global broadcasting deal with Perform.
Merging the two tours would clearly bring about savings in organisation and administration and would not mean that all tournaments would have to be combined events. Some extremely successful tournaments simply do not have the physical capacity to stage more matches (imagine trying to squeeze in a women’s competition alongside the men’s tournament in the cosy confines of Queen’s Club in London), while others have long traditions as men-only or women-only events which organisers and sponsors would like to preserve.
However, tournaments will need to be convinced about the merits of a merger, as will the players, particularly the men. Some, like Nick Kyrgios, have already expressed their opposition. “Did anyone ask the majority of the ATP what they think about merging with the WTA and how it is good for us?” Kyrgios wrote on Twitter.
However, most of the senior players are behind the idea. In an Instagram Live conversation with Benoit Paire, Stan Wawrinka said: “If it’s done properly I think it would be a very good thing for the future of tennis if we had one body effectively in control of everything, with the ATP and WTA combined. At this moment in time the leaders of the two organisations are good, so it could be very positive.”
Among the women players, it appears that the only major concern would be to avoid the merger becoming a takeover by the ATP. Johanna Konta, a member of the WTA’s Player Council, thinks a merger “just makes sense”. She told tennishead: “We play the same sport. Why shouldn’t we be governed by the same entity?”
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