For the better part of a decade, Tatjana Maria, the veteran German player, crammed into cramped hotel rooms with her husband/coach and children, or used her own money to pay for older ones as she traveled the world with her her family. she could be a full-time mom and professional tennis player.
In 2018, CoCo Vandeweghe played most of the season with a broken leg to avoid fines for missing mandatory tournaments. The injury led to a syndrome that left her unable to walk and nearly ended her career.
With no guaranteed salary, in 2019 Danielle Collins spent money she didn’t actually have and didn’t know she’d earn back to cover the costs of a full-time trainer, physical therapist and hitting partner to try to break into the upper echelon of a sport that exists largely for 50 years with an eat-what-you-kill model.
Now, most of the world’s best tennis players have had it all, with the feeling of being treated as hired help for an organization, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), rather than the star attractions that fans buy tickets and tune into. on TV to see.
long boiling tClashes between top players and professional tour leaders boiled over in Cancun, Mexico, at the WTA Tour Finals. The turning point was a pitch court in a supposed signature event of their sport that they have deemed unpredictable and unsafe. It also wasn’t ready for practice until the day before the event began.
This battle, the players say, is about the big ideas — respect, equality, listening and hearing — that usually lie at the foundation of athlete uprisings. For three and a half weeks, Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, has rejected a request from top players for a written response to a long list of requested improvements in everything from compensation and the tennis calendar to tournament operations and maternity coverage.
“These questions have been coming up for years, and now we’re seeing the results of not answering them,” said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the doubles expert and former member of the WTA Players’ Council, who is now a leader of the fledgling players’ organization. , the Professional Tennis Association (PTPA). “We put Band-Aids on things instead of creating real change.”
Players have long resisted major collective action, but no more. The recent list of “requests” (not requests, for now) submitted in early October by 21 top players, including the majority of those ranked in the top 20, covers four areas: the schedule, tournament qualifying rules and standards, payments, and representation.
Some are easy gifts, while others, especially those involving money, are less straightforward because there is a finite amount of it to be developed. Media rights fees for women’s tennis are about one-seventh of those for the men’s tour. This means the WTA contributes far less financial support for each tournament, resulting in lower prize money, which makes up the bulk of the income for all but the top players who enjoy extensive endorsement portfolios. At the Italian Open this year, the men competed for $8.5 million, while the women competed for $3.9 million. At the ASB Classic in Oakland in January, men’s champion Richard Gasquet took home nearly $98,000. The women’s champion, Coco Gauff, received just over $34,000.
Misogyny, a softer market, less exposure and interest in women’s sports, as well as basic incompetence share the blame for this to varying degrees, depending on who you talk to.
In the program, players are largely looking for more flexibility. They want more time between larger and medium-sized events. They want fewer mandatory events, which can put unhealthy pressure on injured players to participate. They want more opportunities to play at small events and exhibitions, which come with appearance fees.
In terms of qualifying rules and tournament standards, players want the entry deadline for tournaments reduced to three weeks instead of four, more opportunities to leave a tournament without penalty, and lower fines for missing mandatory events. They want an end to matches that start late at night or without sufficient recovery time and new rules for early round byes and wildcard entries. They want childcare services at all major and mid-sized tournaments, larger hotel rooms for players traveling with families, and a voice in evaluating a tournament’s operational performance.
They are also seeking a shift from a strict pay-to-play format to a guaranteed compensation format for the top 250 players: $500,000 for players in the top 100, $200,000 for the next 75 and $100,000 for the rest. The proposed compensation system would include injury protection, providing half of the minimum wage if a player misses six months.
In case of pregnancy and childbirth, a player will receive the protection for two years. They want a bonus for top players, a guaranteed percentage of a tournament’s revenue, and the ability to review the financial records of each tournament. They want a PTPA member present at all of the organization’s Player Council meetings, with full access to all player areas at all tournaments, so that their needs and wants are no longer neglected.
That oversight became public on Monday night, along with details of two tense meetings between players and tour captains. Finally, the tour’s embattled CEO wrote to the top 20 players late Monday to convey the message that he understood the dissatisfaction with playing conditions in Cancun and was working to address their biggest concerns.
The question now is whether Simon and the other leaders can both pass the test to quell this current rebellion and commit to the kinds of changes the top players are demanding to ensure the survival of the WTA Tour.
“In my experience, when this has happened, it’s always been about voice, with players not feeling like their voices matter, that they feel like there’s a power imbalance that’s been taken away,” said Pam Shriver, the retired player. . , a coach and commentator who was WTA president in the 1990s. “I understand why they are upset.”
The WTA declined to provide a copy of Simon’s letter. On Monday, the tour released a statement saying: “PThe layers have always been equal decision makers to ensure a strong direction for women’s tennis.“
The players disagree. Earlier this year, Paula Badosa of Spain, who last year rose to No. 2 in the world rankings, expressed her frustration at the lack of communication between the WTA leadership, which includes full-time staff, tournament directors and player representatives. and the players themselves. Rule changes and financial decisions on key issues such as prize money are rarely explained.
“They’re not informing us,” said Badosa, who is a PTPA board member. “They say this is what you get and you have to play.”
Vandeweghe, who retired earlier this year and is now an analyst for the Tennis Channel, said she was excited to see players feel empowered to speak more freely to their sport’s leaders and demand the kind of transparency that would allow them to better understand business and the roles they play in it. Her memories of playing in intense pain – so she would have enough money to support her career and avoid being fined for withdrawing from mandatory tournaments – are raw and real.
She had reached No. 9 in the world, and then everything disappeared, including her income, as she struggled to manage the financial burden of treatments, rehabilitation and physical therapy. A rest period with temporary disability pay can make all the difference, he said, and it’s something worth fighting for.
“This looks like a family match,” he said of the growing conflict between top players and tour leaders. “You have fights here and there, but now we’re reaching the extremes.”
Mattek-Sands, the longtime professional and former WTA Players Council member who is now a PTPA leader, said she used to sit in meetings with tour leaders and think about what pro tennis would look like if they could start from the begining. again. The more she asked the question, the more she understood that her sport required radical changes.
In a letter to Simon last week, Ahmad Nassar, the PTPA’s executive director, said the organization “will explore all alternatives in our ongoing efforts to do better on behalf of the players who make this game amazing.” Nassar was no more specific than that. It didn’t need to be.
Nassar went on to say that the current system, with the same organization trying to serve the often-conflicting interests of tournament organizers and players, was doomed.
“There is a broad wave of athlete empowerment sweeping across sports,” Nassar wrote. “We would all be wise to embrace it and ride it instead of trying in vain to fend it off.”
(Top photo: Getty Images)