When Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil launched a breakaway players’ association in 2020, it proved divisive. Almost a year on and the issue is still proving contentious.
The Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) was launched as a body separate to the ATP Tour and tennis’ first player-only council since 1972.
The concept is supposed to give players more of a say and greater control over their careers both on and off the court.
So far, the plans have been rejected by the ATP as well as by many high profile players — such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — but there are hopes the newly launched structure will convince many in the sport to get involved.
“We feel this is the right moment,” Djokovic told CNN Sport over the phone ahead of the US Open. “Right now, Covid has unfortunately further revealed a lot of malfunctions in the system.
“I’ve been part of the player council for almost 10 years and have been president of the council for over five years. I’ve seen everything from the inside.
“I’ve experienced politics from the inside of the structure. I know the way the hierarchy works. And unfortunately, players always pick the shorter end of the stick and that’s why we feel a player organization is necessary.”
The PTPA can now boast a more professional infrastructure and has this week launched new partnerships that will provide its members — said to be 500 — with guidance and advice about building brands and business decisions.
One of the new projects, Courtside Curriculum, will offer players personal and professional development provided by leading global experts.
The other of its new initiatives is a partnership with sports technology company Opendorse to offer its members access to tools to help build brands and help with sponsorship opportunities.
Partly, these are in order to help the hundreds of tennis players who struggle to make a living playing the game.
The low prize money on offer at smaller events and traveling costs mean players outside the top 100 often live hand to mouth. According to some, a player would have to earn around $200,000 a year to make a living wage.
Djokovic, of course, is one of the few who has earned a comfortable life from tennis but says his desire to help in this organization is not about “individual legacy” but about improving the sport as a whole.
“The players’ voices are not heard enough and I’m talking about the lower ranked players,” he said. “Obviously, what you hear and see in the media is top players and their prize money earnings.
“But the thing that probably 95% of the people who follow tennis, and particularly the ones that are not avid tennis fans, […] do not know is, as I mentioned, only around one hundred players on both the women’s and men’s side live out of this sport and we want to change that.”
Top players would be ‘massive help’
While Djokovic has been a driving force behind this project, a lot of the day-to-day business has been conducted by co-founder Vasek Pospisil.
The Canadian, ranked 58th in the world, says he hopes more players will get on board with the project, including the bigger names such as Federer, Nadal and Serena Williams.
“It would be a massive help, absolutely,” he told CNN Sport.
“I think maybe — maybe they feel like it’s a big step to take. You know, it’s obviously something that could be transformational in the sport and there’s always a question mark.
“So I totally respect that they haven’t got on board to support us yet. I’m very optimistic. I’m very optimistic that they will at some point.
“I just believe that what we’re doing is, you know, it’s all for the right reasons. I truly believe that it’s critical for our sport.”
While the ATP has released negative statements about the breakaway group, those at the PTPA believe a time will come when the sport’s existing governing bodies will have to work with them.
Pospisil says that time could be a matter of months away with the organization gaining momentum but said it would stop short of boycotting tournaments in order to get itself heard.
“We are here to be an additional help to what they already have within the ATP and WTA structure,” Djokovic added.
“We feel like the ATP and WTA are doing a very good job with many different things and they’re trying constantly to upgrade the services that they provide to their players.
“We are not here to only criticize and point out the negatives. But, you know, looking at the larger picture and the long run, we feel like the PTPA can contribute to even better business and even better operations and functionality of the entire system and structure in both women’s and men’s tennis.”
Last year, the ATP said the plans were divisive and said it remained “committed to working closely with the other governing bodies of tennis as we look to fulfill the true potential of our sport.”
When asked its thoughts on the PTPA, the WTA — organizers of the women’s tour — said it would continue looking out for its players.
“The viewpoint of our members is paramount to the culture and decision making process of the WTA,” a statement to CNN read this week.
“All decisions are made with the players and tournaments together, being equally represented. Players are at the table where the decision making takes place and their voice is well represented in all decisions that the WTA makes.”
It added: “It is paramount for all of us to continue to work together, as we truly believe, and have witnessed since the inception of the WTA, that we are stronger together.”
In addition to financial and educational guidance, the PTPA will provide its members with mental health advice, a topic which has been a huge talking point within sport as a whole — sparked by the honesty shown by Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles this year.
Amid the pandemic, the organization will also have to deal with the issue of player vaccinations.
The vaccine is not yet mandatory for players on the tour but conditions for those fully vaccinated are far more comfortable during tournaments and grand slams.
Djokovic has made headlines for his stance over the last year, saying he doesn’t want the vaccine to become compulsory for players.
Other top stars, such as Andy Murray, have said it is the players’ responsibility to get vaccinated in order to keep the wider population safe.
When asked how the PTPA plans on approaching the topic, Djokovic said it was still a work in progress.
“I’m not an expert, of course, and I’m not going to talk about what are the pros and cons of getting vaccinated,” he said. “But I am a proponent of freedom of choice.”
He added: “So I really believe that it should be left to a player to make a decision.
“We don’t know what the future holds. I don’t think any industry is really certain what the future brings.
“We are going to make sure that we gather as much as expert information on this and work with players and provide whatever information is needed for them to make a conscious choice.”