For nearly a decade, Tatjana Maria, the veteran German player, has crammed into cramped hotel rooms with her husband/coach and children, or used her own money to pay for bigger rooms as she travels the world with his family. she could be a full-time mom and a professional tennis player.
In 2018, CoCo Vandeweghe played most of the season with a broken foot to avoid fines for missing mandatory tournaments. The injury led to a syndrome that left her unable to walk and nearly ended her career.
Without a guaranteed salary, in 2019 Danielle Collins forked over money she didn’t really have and didn’t know she’d get back to help cover the costs of a full-time trainer, physical therapist and of a striking partner in an attempt to break into the upper echelon of a sport that has largely existed for 50 years with an eat-what-you-kill model.
Today, most of the world’s top tennis players have had enough of it all, feeling like they are being treated like employees of an organization, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), rather than star attractions that fans buy. tickets and listen to TV to see.
Long simmerTensions between top players and their professional tour leaders boiled over in Cancun, Mexico, during the WTA Tour Finals. The tipping point was a stadium on the field of what is supposed to be the flagship event of their sport, which they consider unpredictable and dangerous. It was also only ready for testing the day before the event started.
This battle, players say, is about the big ideas — respect, equality, being heard and listened to — that are usually at the root of athletes’ rebellions. For three and a half weeks, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, has rejected top players’ request to respond in writing to a long list of requested improvements on everything from compensation and tennis scheduling to operations tournaments and maternity coverage.
“These questions have been asked for years and now we are seeing the results of the lack of answers,” said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a doubles specialist and former member of the WTA Players Council who is now head of the emerging organization of players. , the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA). “We’re putting band-aids on things instead of creating real change.”
The actors have long resisted significant collective action, but nothing more. The recent list of “demands” (no demands, yet) that 21 top players, including a majority of those ranked in the top 20, submitted in early October covers four areas: schedule, rules and Tournament qualification standards, compensation, and representation.
Some are easy to give, while others, especially those that involve money, are less straightforward. because there is a limited quantity that must grow. Media rights for women’s tennis represent approximately one-seventh of those for the men’s circuit. This means that the WTA provides much less financial support to each tournament, resulting in lower prize money, which accounts for the bulk of everyone’s income except the top players who benefit from large wallets. of sponsors. At this year’s Italian Open, men competed for $8.5 million, while women competed for $3.9 million. At the ASB Classic in Auckland in January, the men’s champion, Richard Gasquet, received almost $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, and fundamental incompetence are all to blame for this to varying degrees depending on who you talk to.
On the calendar, players are largely looking for more flexibility. They want more time between large and medium-sized events. They want fewer mandatory events, which can lead to unhealthy pressure on injured players to participate. They want more opportunities to perform at small events and exhibitions, for a fee to participate.
When it comes to qualification rules and tournament standards, players want the tournament registration deadline reduced to three weeks instead of four, more opportunities to withdraw from a tournament without penalty and fines lower to skip mandatory events. They want matches to start late at night or without sufficient recovery time and new rules on early round byes and wild card entries. They want child care at all large and mid-sized tournaments, larger hotel rooms for players traveling with family and a voice in evaluating a tournament’s operational performance.
They also want to move from a strict pay-for-play format to a form of guaranteed remuneration for the top 250 players: $500,000 for the top 100 players, $200,000 for the next 75 and $100,000 for the top 100 players. stay. The proposed compensation system would include injury protection, providing half the minimum salary if a player misses six months.
In the event of pregnancy and childbirth, a player would benefit from protection for two years. They want a bonus pool for top players, a guaranteed percentage of a tournament’s revenue, and the ability to review financial records for each tournament. They want a member of the PTPA to be 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.
This negligence became public Monday evening, along with the details of two tense meetings between players and circuit management. Finally, the embattled tour’s CEO wrote to the top 20 players Monday evening with a message that he understood the dissatisfaction with playing conditions in Cancun and was working to address their broader concerns.
The question now is whether Simon and other leaders can both sort out the current uprising and commit to the kind of changes top players are demanding to ensure the WTA Tour survives.
“In my experience, when this happens, it’s always been about voice, with players not feeling like their voice matters, they feel like there’s a power imbalance that was removed,” said Pam Shriver, the retired player. , coach and commentator who served as president of the WTA 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 different layers have always been equal decision-makers in ensuring strong direction in women’s tennis.»
The players disagree. Earlier this year, Spain’s Paula Badosa, who last year rose to second place in the world rankings, expressed frustration with the lack of communication between WTA management, which includes time staff full, tournament directors and player representatives, and the players themselves. Rule changes and financial decisions on fundamental issues, such as prize money, are rarely explained.
“They don’t inform us,” said Badosa, who serves on the PTPA board. “They say this is what you get and you have to play.”
Vandeweghe, who retired earlier this year and is now an analyst for Tennis Channel, said she was heartened to see players feel empowered to speak more freely to their sport’s leaders and demand the kind of transparency that will allow them to better understand their company and the roles they play within it. Her memories of the intense pain she played through – so she would have enough money to support her career and avoid being fined for withdrawing from mandatory tournaments – are raw and real.
She reached No. 9 in the world, then, in the blink of an eye, everything disappeared, including her income, as she tried to manage the financial burden of treatment, rehabilitation and physiotherapy. A restorative layoff with temporary disability pay could have changed everything, she said, and that’s worth fighting for.
“It looks like a family fight,” she said of the growing conflict between top players and tour leaders. “There are arguments here and there, but now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.”
Mattek-Sands, a longtime professional and former member of the WTA Players Council and now a PTPA executive, said she used to sit in on meetings with tour executives and think about what professional tennis would be like if they could do it all over again. 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, executive director of the PTPA, said the organization “will explore all alternatives in our relentless efforts to do better on behalf of the players who make this game phenomenal.” Nassar wasn’t any more specific than that. He didn’t need to be.
Nassar went on to say that the current system, with the same organization trying to reconcile the often conflicting interests of tournament organizers and players, was doomed to failure.
“There is a vast wave of athlete empowerment sweeping across all sports,” Nassar wrote. “It would be wise for all of us to embrace him and ride him rather than try to push him away in vain.”
(Top photo: Getty Images)