July 10, 2020

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Next Monday, the United States Tennis Association is scheduled to announce whether the US Open will go ahead, and in what form.

Five days out, it appears that decision is a long way away from being made.

So far, it appears the ATP Tour players are mostly against it – from the Player Council right down to the rank and file – with the issues concerning the restricted entourages, player safety and also that ranking points are set to be awarded.

On the ATP’s videoconference call with players Wednesday, the USTA put three basic options on the table.

1) Centralizing Cincinnati and the US Open in New York within a four-week bubble, but with no US Open qualifying

2) Cancelling Cincinnati (which the USTA owns, but only on the men’s side) and adding more playing opportunities at the US Open with qualifying added back in.

3) Calling the whole thing off.

Regardless of how things shake out in Flushing Meadows this year, one thing we do know: we won’t have scenes like this.

Absent at any point in a 3 1/2-hour call was a single mention of … the WTA. WTA player council member Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova told l’Équipe that they’ve tried to have joint calls with the ATP, but it has yet to happen.

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the top two players in the world on the ATP side, have been public that they don’t think it can go ahead – not for the same reasons.

Djokovic, the best male player in the world, is in a difficult spot. He speaks for himself – but he’s also the president of the Player Council, where he has to try to take the needs and wants of a huge spectrum of players into account.

And the trick here, of course, is that you would think the same parameters apply to both the men and the women. And in the case of Cincinnati, the women’s side of the event is owned by the Octagon agency, not the USTA. The women are having different discussions, and have different challenges – not to mention different points of view.

And, as is too often the case, the WTA has been fairly quiet on the issue so far.

One, American Danielle Collins (currently ranked No. 51), has already made it clear she doesn’t agree with Djokovic. And you know many on both sides, after months of no income, will feel similarly.

Compensation on par with recent years, despite revenue losses

The total compensation that would be offered by the USTA to the men would be $30 million US for a Cincinnati/US Open combination, despite the tournament preparing to lose between 50-70 per cent of its revenues this year and needing to take on more debt to do it.

That’s 95 per cent of what was paid out last year with a full house and maximized revenue, and more than was paid out in 2018.

It’s a lot.

The relocated Cincinnati tournament would have the regular draw sizes, including the 56-player singles draw and 28-team doubles draw (and qualifying). The US Open would have the regular 128-player singles draw, no qualifying, and 24-team doubles draws (and no mixed doubles).

Without the Cincinnati option, the total compensation would drop by $4 million.

The USTA would offer up $2 million of that – divided evenly between singles and doubles – to compensate the qualifiers and doubles players who would be unable to make the cut under the reduced parameters. It could be given directly to the athletes, or used to fund some Challengers in Europe to allow those players to prepare for the proposed fall clay-court swing through Madrid, Rome and the French Open. They are also willing to be flexible on the overall distribution of the money to potentially give a bigger share to those left out, if what’s what the ATP wanted to do.

UPDATE: A Tweet from Lukas Lacko updates the offer, which has moved a little.

A big tennis bubble

The conditions around the tournament would be quite different, obviously. Djokovic and others have already spoken out publicly against the plan to reduce player entourages to a “plus one”, and to house the players in a single hotel that is not located in Manhattan.

One possibility for that hotel was revealed on the videoconference call to be the brand-new TWA Hotel, near JFK Airport. The hotel has a massive fitness center (the biggest hotel fitness centre in the world, it proudly claims) and plenty of open spaces.

The avant-garde TWA hotel, located right next to JFK Airport, boasts the biggest hotel fitness centre on the planet (Photo: TWA Hotel website).

The USTA would completely buy out that hotel (or another) to be the exclusive domain of the players during the period. And because it only has 512 rooms in total, the restrictions on player team members were necessary.

With additional physical distancing measures, masks worn off the court, and a lot of coronavirus testing, the USTA has come to numbers it feels are the maximum amount of humankind it can accommodate and still keep the players safe.

The TWA Hotel is located almost exactly the same distance away from the USTA National Tennis Center as midtown Manhattam – about 10 miles, with the commute anywhere from 20 minutes to … infinity when coming from midtown. But it’s on the other side, next to the airport. And as fabulous a facility as it is, it’s a long way from being able to have dinner in downtown Manhattan, or even finding activities to do on days off.

But there are extraordinary times.

With no fans on the US Open site, the USTA would build facilities like a soccer field and a basketball court, to try to make the experience as comfortable and fun as possible for the players.

But in the end, it’s a numbers game. If the tournament allocated a second hotel room per player, could that player’s coach and physio share it, even if only one of them could be present on the tournament site? Possible.

And obviously, as the tournament advances, half the players would be eliminated after the first couple of days. That might leave open the possibility that player entourages could grow for those still in the tournament. But the direct connection the USTA made was this: the more entourage members the top players have, the fewer players the tournament can have.

And the doubles players in the reduced draws would be staggered in after that first-round elimination cut, perhaps by Thursday or Friday of the first week. So what bodies the tournament loses, it very quickly adds on again.

Meanwhile, all of this is being game-planned upon shifting sands. What’s true now, and what may be true in the New York City area 2 1/2 months from now when the tournament begins, may be two different universes. It might be worse; it might be better.

Best-of-three sets, ranking points unlikely negotiating points

The challenges of starting back up on the circuit and heading directly into a best-of-five format are not inconsiderable, which is why the USTA said they felt holding the Cincinnati tournament would make sense.

If the ATP Tour players came back to the USTA and unilaterally said they wanted to play best-of-three sets, new US Open tournament Stacey Allaster said on the video call they would look at it. She said it was a fundamental piece of the competition, and their input was important. The best-of-five format did not appear to be much of a sticking point with the players who spoke up, many of whom were concerned about other matters because they might be shut out of the US Open entirely.

Stacey Allaster’s first official duty as the new US Open tournament director put her right in the crosshairs of an ATP videoconference call on which many of the players didn’t appear to have full confidence in the tournament’s motives for getting them on court.

As for the option of turning it into a cash tournament with no ranking points available, that also seems to be a non-starter. Or, at the very least, if the tournament went ahead with no ranking points, the likelihood is that compensation would drop.

And that, according to our source, was a major point of contention with many players on the call. Many appeared to want no ranking points for the foreseeable future – until a year from the stoppage of play in March 2020 in some cases, to ensure a level playing field.

It was difficult for our source to discern how many top players were among the more than 400 people on the call at its peak. But it didn’t appear that there were many – at all. The vast majority were Challenger players and doubles players, many of whom would be directly impacted by the loss of job opportunities in New York.

The takeaway

The ATP finds itself between a rock and a hard place in this situation, which can only exacerbate the gap between the haves and the have-lesses who all fall under their purview.

Roland Garros will no doubt have to deal with the same issues the US Open is grappling with at the moment, in a few weeks’ time.

The tour wants to deliver some $75-$80 million in prize money to its players in 2020, despite the challenging times. But it doesn’t hand out the cheques; its member tournaments do. And the bulk of the ATP’s work in this area is to try to get tournaments of all sizes to jump on board even though most of them would lose less money by just cancelling their events.

And while that dollar figure sounds large, three-quarters of it would come from the US Open and French Open, if they go ahead. And those revenues mostly only flow to the top 100-plus players in the world, and the best doubles players.

Having both Cincinnati and the US Open (but without qualifying) would ensure that both events essentially compensate the same group of players – as it happens, the ones who have earned more money and have been relatively less affected by the shutdown.

Uneven ranking points playing field

Concurrent with that is the very real issue of ranking points.

If the top 100 players can continue to earn big chunks of ranking points at Masters 1000 tournaments in Cincinnati, Rome and Madrid and two Grand Slams while so many others are left out, that could potentially create an even bigger rankings gap between the top tier of players and the lower players – a gap that will be even more challenging to bridge even if things returned to normal.

But practically speaking, the ATP is powerless in this decision. The USTA executives have told the ATP that their decision will be based upon the recommendations of the ATP and WTA Tours. But from the USTA’s side, if the entire Player Council were unanimous that the US Open shouldn’t be played, they say it probably wouldn’t be played. Whether that happens in actuality remains to be determined; you’d have to interpret whether that means that BOTH sides would have to not be on board, for them to cancel the tournament.

An intriguing thought, but one frought with spinoff consequences.

The USTA is not offering up a level of prize money almost equivalent to previous years, despite a massive drop in revenue, because of an altruistic love and concern for the professional players. They might indeed care; but they are doing it because it makes business sense, given their broadcast revenues from ESPN. Whether that can survive a massive defection from the top players, which seems at the very least a possibility at this point, is yet another unknown among many.

Fracturing the fraternity

Meanwhile, the ATP tour is having trouble speaking as one.

New chairman Andrea Gaudenzi sounded confident that even if the ATP came back to the USTA and said, “we are opposed to the US Open being played under the current conditions”, there would be a large group of its players who would play regardless.

That doesn’t include the Big 3, with whom the tournament has had direct discussions, and reportedly heard back that they are not interested in playing. (Obviously Roger Federer’s announcement Wednesday that he was having a second arthroscopic surgery on his knee makes that a done deal for him).

There will be no Roger Federer at the US Open this year – if there is a US Open. The question is whether Nadal and Djokovic and other top-10 players will make the date.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the tournament would reach out to other players individually, despite a recommendation from the ATP that their players don’t want to participate.

The struggle of not earning any income for months on end, and the money (and ranking points) available in New York, would be far too tempting for most to pass up. And that’s understandable. While it’s one company, it is made up of hundreds of independent businessmen at various income levels who must look out for their own fortunes and futures.

The Asian swing, from all accounts, seems to still be very much in question. And no one can predict how the ATP Tour Finals – in their final year in London – can be properly and profitably held in an indoor venue which would necessarily have more stringent requirements than an outdoor tournament.

The takeaway seems to be this: instead of the return to Grand Slam tennis being something that unites the game, the situation could very well devolve into one that splinters the ATP even more than it already seems to be.

And ALL of this is dependant on whether the event, in the end, can go ahead. The coronavirus is the one that decides that.

Another issue is this: if the WTA membership feels significantly differently about the issue than its ATP brethren, that won’t help the tours as they take baby steps towards more collaboration going forward. What if the ATP Tour’s recommendation was that they not play, and the WTA Tour’s recommendation is that they accept the conditions and will?

In five days, we hopefully will have the answer. Well, at least SOME answers.