March 2, 2021

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Djokovic, Pospisil withdraw from ATP Player Council elections

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Novak Djokovic announced Monday he has withdrawn his name from consideration in the current ATP Tour player council elections.

The world No. 1 was council president until he resigned last August.

Djokovic announced his decision more than a month after he accused the current council of jerry-rigging a last-minute amendment specifically to exclude both he and Canadian Vasek Pospisil from running for council.

Just a week remains in the voting period.

Opportunity to work from the inside

It’s an interesting stance for Djokovic to take. And clearly he gave it a great deal of thought.

But the Professional Tennis Players Association isn’t even an official organization yet. So there is nothing that currently contravenes the Player Council’s amendment.

In other words, there is nothing preventing Djokovic from being duly re-elected to the Player Council right now. In that position – theoretically – he could work from the inside to help them understand what the PTPA mission is. And, with that, work to find a way the two organizations could be cooperative, not adversarial.

While the notion that the PTPA “has no intention of being in conflict with the ATP” is admirable, it’s too soon to tell whether it’s realistic.

The impetus behind it comes from a core belief that the ATP is not accomplishing what the PTPA’s founders believe should be done for the players, including the lower-ranked players.

Hence their conclusion that a parallel organization that will work to achieve those ends is needed. And that, by definition, is a confrontational situation.

Those who work to effect change – including those pioneers earlier in the ATP Tour’s history – can rarely be successful without conflict with the status quo.

A little recent PTPA history

Speaking after his round-robin defeat at the hands of eventual champion Daniil Medvedev at the ATP Tour Finals last month, Djokovic said the ATP’s board of directors had voted on a by-law amendment just the previous night.

It was a change the world No. 1 felt was aimed squarely at him, as a founder of the PTPA.

According to Djokovic, the amendment “basically doesn’t allow any … active player to be part of the (Player) Council and any other organization in the tennis ecosystem.”

Djokovic said the amendment to the by-laws was a “a strong message from ATP that they don’t want PTPA at all in the system, and they don’t want any player involved in council and PTPA at the same time.”

Melzer rebuts the accusation

Current Player Council member Jürgen Melzer, who returned to the council after an earlier en-masse resignation of members the previous summer, rebutted that notion a few weeks later.

“Djokovic is talking about the fact that some regulation has now been made, overnight, that nobody from the PTPA is allowed to participate in the council. This is utter nonsense. These statutes have been around since 2006. And it’s also logical: if you have two associations, it is clear that you cannot be part of both; that’s common sense,” Melzer said. “I am surprised that Djokovic is so surprised now. And that he thinks that it developed against him overnight.”

(We efforted hard to find the original source of this quote, to properly credit them. Unfortunately most of the websites that ran it credited other websites that .. took it from other websites without attribution. So it was nearly impossible to source).

Pospisil: “It blows my mind”

Canadian Vasek Pospisil, who is leading the PTPA initiative along with Djokovic, echoed those sentiments on a Tennis.com podcast a few weeks ago.

“When the ATP had found out we were on the list (of candidates), they created, overnight, a new by-law to prevent us from being able to go there to represent the players,” he said.

But it’s okay to have an IMG representative on the board. It blows my mind that it’s okay that all these other insane conflicts of interest – like in no other sport in the world – they give a pass to that. That’s no problem. But these two tennis players shouldn’t be able to represent the players because they’re tying to do something else, so we’re going to create a law overnight that the board is going to pass,” he added. “It’s crazy. And it just shows how desperate they are to maintain … It’s upsetting, but it’s reality.”

Back then, both Djokovic and Pospisil stopped short of saying they would no longer be candidates in the elections for the new Player Council, which is to take office Jan. 1.

On Monday, Djokovic changed his mind.

About 10 minutes later Pospisil announced that he, too, would be withdrawing his name from consideration.

What about the other PTPA supporters?

No word yet from any of the other players who have expressed support for the new PTPA. That includes current Player Council member Félix Auger-Aliassime.

The 20-year-old Canadian joined the Council in August after Djokovic, Pospisil, Sam Querrey and John Isner resigned. He remains on the list of candidates in the current elections.

Auger-Aliassime’s countryman Milos Raonic, who strongly supported the notion of the PTPA during the US Open, remains on the list along with many others who expressed their support for the new organization.

Are they considered “members” of the PTPA, the same way Djokovic and Pospisil consider themselves to be? Why have they not resigned or removed their names from election consideration?

Both Djokovic and Pospisil – and the others – had the support of their fellow players, who nominate candidates. But only one player is needed to nominate any candidate.

Amendment discussed during Roland Garros

It appears circumstances surrounding the by-law change were not nearly as dramatic as the last-minute, late-night, specifically-targeted impediment to the PTPA plan Djokovic so vividly and confidently portrayed in London.

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The ATP Tour board met during Roland Garros and agreed upon an amendment to the by-laws – one that Djokovic and Pospisil feel specifically targets them. (Stephanie Myles-Opencourt.ca/Wordpress)

The ATP Board first discussed the amendment in meetings during Roland Garros, we’re told. And the amendment was agreed to then, even if the official vote came later.

Also notable, as we understand it, is the fact that any amendment to the ATP Tour’s by-laws requires what’s called a super majority. That means at least two of the three tournament reps – and two of the three player reps – must vote in favor.

So the Player Council’s own representatives voted for the amendment.

Amendment for players and tournaments

As well, we’ve had a look at the language of the amendment, as outlined to the players.

It reads, in part, thusly:

“The amendment precludes members from holding official positions on the Player Council, Tournament Council, or Board if belonging to alternative associations or organisations whose functions overlap with those of the Player Council, Tournament Council, or Board, or whose purpose or objective is deemed contrary to the best interest of ATP and/or the sport of tennis.

The amendment applies to both players and tournaments. … Any association or organisation that works alongside ATP without conflicting or overlapping with the core functions of the Councils or Board would not lead to any restrictions in eligibility.”

New by-law applies to all

The wording is fairly important. First because the amended by-law doesn’t just apply to Djokovic and Pospisil and any members of the Player Council.

And the wording contradicts the statements made by both Djokovic and Pospisil. They expressed the wish that, in Pospisil’s words, “this type of rule is applied to all levels within the ATP structure including the board of directors and management – and not just targeted at the formation of player associations.”

Which is exactly what the amendment does say.

Seeking a cooperative relationship

Djokovic and Pospisil have often said that that working with the ATP Tour is this is exactly what the PTPA is being formed to do.

“Theres so much information out there, wrongly, there’s a lot of politics. It is what it is. But the whole purpose of the PTPA is strictly to organize and unite the players, and be represented in a proper way where we actually have the ability to impact major decisions that are made that affect our livelihoods,” Pospisil said on the Tennis.com podcast.

“Most other major sports have an association that represents solely the players’ best interests. And then they’re able to go with this association to go with, say, the NHL, and negotiate with the league and the business partners. You come to the table, you have one side and another, you come to a compromise, you make a good business agreement, and you move forward. And in tennis, we really don’t have that.

The difference between the ATP Tour and the NHL or NFL, of course, is that its players are individual contractors, not actual employees of the team. And those employees can have a true union to represent their interests.

In fact, there are no true comparisons. The ATP Tour is, on paper, a 50/50 partnership between the players and the tournaments. Each has three seats at the six-man board of directors’ table. Of course, the chairman becomes the tiebreaker if the two sides are evenly split.

The fact that Djokovic, Pospisil and others feel the ATP chairman (even after new boss Andrea Gaudenzi replaced Chris Kermode) will side with the tournaments is the core reason for the unrest.

PGA Tour a better comparison

The closest equivalent to the ATP (or the WTA) might be the PGA Tour, which does not have a union. The PGA Tour, itself, is an association, which separated from the PGA of America in 1968. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player led the charge; it called itself “American Professional Golfers Inc.”

The impetus behind the split was the fact that the PGA represented thousands of golfers. And the vast majority of them were club pros and teaching pros. The professional golfers who generated the TV revenue that made the thing run felt they were subsidizing the others.

The move was effective, as a compromise was reached. Prior to 1975, when it was renamed the PGA Tour, it was actually called the “Tournament Players Division”.

Another comparison: the PGA Tour does not own or run any of golf’s majors – just as the ATP Tour does not own, run – or profit from – any of tennis’s Grand Slam tournaments.

Conflicts of interest nothing new

Pospisil and Djokovic are absolutely right about the fact that conflicts of interest abound in professional tennis. It is an inarguable point.

And if the ATP board is going to open this particular Pandora’s box about conflicts of interest, it creates rather a fraught situation with some of the other board members.

As a star witness, we give you Herwig Straka, a tournament representative on the ATP Board. The company Straka founded is also the owner and promoter of several tennis events (including the new, last-minute ATP tournaments in Cologne this fall and some of the new grass-court tournaments that did not kick off in 2020 because of the pandemic.

He’s the director of the ATP 500 tournament in Vienna. He’s on the ATP’s Tournament Council.

And, notably, he’s also currently the manager of top player Dominic Thiem.

Gavin Forbes, a tournament player rep to the board for 12 years, is senior vice-president and managing director of IMG Tennis.

ATP Executive Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi also serves on the board of directors of the ATP’s broadcast spinoff, ATP Media.

Council only impactful place

On the Tennis.com podcast, Pospisil said he and Djokovic were “forced out” of the Player Council, which said the two had a conflict of interest.

They didn’t have to resign, technically. But the other players on the council held a majority. So if they didn’t, the others could/would have chosen to vote them out for that stated reason.

It was clear from letter that circulated around US Open time, signed by the remaining Council members, that they had major objections to the new association.

They outlined (in rather poorly-written fashion) a number of questions they had about the PTPA. They were legitimate questions, in large part. And they are questions that, four months later, remain unanswered.

So why be candidates to rejoin in the first place? The two players were under no obligation to accept the nominations, whether one player or a hundred backed them.

“Players obviously want us there to represent them. And until the PTPA is fully established, it still is currently the only platform where you can represent players in some capacity,” Pospisil said. “Quite ineffectively, but however minor of an impact you can have, that is the only area you can do that currently.”

Pospisil and Djokovic would still have been able to do that – at least for the near future. And, if the PTPA was not, as they stated was the goal, in conflict with the ATP, there wouldn’t theoretically be any issue.

Theoretically.

The PTPA isn’t even a thing yet

“What is so wrong about having a player group being represented by professionals? If everything is run so smoothly, if everything is so fair for players, why are they fighting this so hard?” Pospisil said on the podcast.

“Of course, there’s issues there. Everyone wants their business to be as profitable as possible, that’s just the essence of it. So I get it they’re trying to protect their business and their profitability.”

Where does the PTPA come in? Too soon to tell

To coin a phrase, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And since the big splash at the US Open, with the large group of male players posing inside Louis Armstrong Stadium, there still is no official organization for players to join.

Pospisil: It’s not a union

“In many ways, it could act as a union. But it’s not a union. It’s an association – legally, it’s not deemed a union. It’s an association,” Pospisil said.

The PTPA doesn’t seem to have been registered anywhere yet. (FYI, if they want to try to reserve ptpa.com or PTPA.org or even PTPA.ca on the web, they’re out of luck).

Pospisil said they were in the process of designing the structure of the PTPA.

“The idea is that we’ll get the by-laws drafted, and gather the support from the players, and also make key hires, where we actually have real professionals that are representing just the players’ best interests. Be it lawyers, be it … whoever we need to actually help run this organization, to also give it credibility. We’re really just building it right now,” he said.

“One of the most important things we’re trying to obviously avoid is conflict of interest. The ATP Tour has tremendous conflict of interest right now, from everybody who’s on the board. It’s so intertwined, it’s like no other sport out there. It’s unfortunate that’s it’s gotten to this point. It needs to be a little bit cleaned up, and unfortunately the reality that it’s hurting the players.

“I’m a man of principle, and when I could see that things were being run the way they were, and lot of times dirty politics, and players were being lied to and brainwashed, It’s really not good.”

Who will pay the bills?

The big question here: if there are hires to be made, lawyers and other professionals, who is going to pay for all that? The players already pay dues to the ATP.

The original proposal sent out to the players in New York had a sliding fee structure: $1,500 for top-50 singles players, $1,000 for top-30 doubles players down to $75 for players ranked No. 401-500. That would work out to $317,500 a year. But that hardly seems as though it would cover legal fees, the full-time salaries of any of the “key hires” Pospisil mentions. Not to mention honoraria for the proposed board of trustees, which could number up to nine.

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At first, of course, the players would pay those fees on faith. The PTPA will have no immediate official role or designation within the ATP, no power to affect decision-making.

How the organization, when it does become an official entity, gains that influence will be the development to watch.

But as of Monday, both Djokovic and Pospisil will be doing it from the outside, not the inside.