April 21, 2024

It began with almost no fanfare.

Before play got underway at the spectator-less, pandemic-restricted 2020 US Open, No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic and fellow ATP player Vasek Pospisil announced the creation of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), first with a letter to their ATP peers, and then with a photo, posted by Pospisil to social media, featuring several dozens of players who supported the initiative.

The organization was not a union, as players are independent contractors and not ATP employees, but its central mission to “promote, protect and represent the interests of its players” made it seem similar to one.

Few other details were provided at the time, and the lack of involvement from women players drew strong and swift criticism. Ultimately, the announcement left more questions than answers about the PTPA.

But three years later, Djokovic and Pospisil are prouder than ever of the state of their once-fledgling organization.

“The PTPA is definitely making huge strides,” Djokovic told ESPN in an interview last month. “And we’re making sure that the players’ voices and needs are heard. … I mean for me personally, knowing that there’s now a serious team of people in our association working day and night tirelessly to build this association, [to] make sure players have a better livelihood from tennis, is something that relaxes me. … And I think the future is bright.”

The organization now has a full-time staff of 12, and hired Ahmad Nassar, the former president of NFL Players Inc., as the new executive director in August 2022. The team focuses on a wide range of issues players face on a daily basis, including advocating for a different pay structure, providing assistance with understanding and appealing various fines, and helping with the never-ending travel issues that frequently arise in a global sport.

So where exactly do things stand with the PTPA three years after its creation?

To get to that, one must start at the beginning. Djokovic and Pospisil admit their rollout was far from perfect and they would do some things differently if given the chance.

“Obviously the photo,” Pospisil told ESPN. “It was never going to be just men. From Day 1 the plan was to always include women. Actually, the first person I ever spoke to about this whole project, back in 2019, was Sloane Stephens because I really needed a counterpart on the women’s side to help recruit. And so it really was a bit upsetting because I saw how the establishment that really did not want us to succeed now had this ammunition.”

Pospisil said they had prematurely rushed the public announcement of the PTPA because they had been informed of some player mistreatment and felt the time was right. But, whether intentional or not, the hasty decision started the group on the defensive. Some players, including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and others on the ATP player council, as well as eventual 2020 US Open champion Dominic Thiem, outright questioned the need for the organization.

“I like what the ATP does,” Thiem said in November of that year. “Overall, it [does] a very good job. So from my perspective there is no need to join any other organization or anything like that.”

While professional team sport leagues such as the NBA, WNBA and NFL have well-established player unions representing their collective best interests, it’s more complicated for individual sports, especially one like tennis, which has multiple stakeholders with differing, and occasionally opposing, objectives. In addition to the ATP and the WTA, the ITF and all four of the Grand Slams have a say and a vested interest in the sport. According to Pospisil, Djokovic and others affiliated with the PTPA, that divided landscape has made their organization a threat to the status quo.

“Tennis has an incredible tradition and we are very proud of it,” Djokovic said. “But can we be at a better place collectively? Absolutely. We have future potential and players are a very integral part of it. And without players there’s no show. And we’ve been trying to obviously position ourselves in the ecosystem in such a way that will give more power and more representation to the players.”

While their initial two years saw limited outward progress, Pospisil said they were working diligently behind the scenes, developing an infrastructure and team to bring the group’s vision to light and recruiting players to get involved. There is no formal membership, nor are there dues or bylaws to sign, but Pospisil told ESPN in a previous interview he has personally spoken with “300 to 400 players” about the organization, and Djokovic said there are “a couple of hundred players on board.”

And things have started to move quickly for the organization since the hiring of Nassar, according to Pospisil and Djokovic. The group has increased its outreach, hosting events at all four Grand Slams, as well as smaller tournaments such as Indian Wells. The PTPA has also created dedicated means of communication, including staffing a WhatsApp channel in multiple languages, to help players with what matters most to them.

Nassar estimated the PTPA hears from “well over a hundred” players during majors. Many players, he said, don’t know where else to turn when they need help. While the players reach out about a range of issues, from complaints about tournament hotels to concerns about match scheduling, one question that has come up as of late is in regards to drug testing and what happens if one has a positive test.

“Not only do players not fully understand the process of what’s next, but it’s not entirely clear there even is a formal process,” Nassar said.

The PTPA made advocating for a “fair anti-doping program” part of its core principles and included the need for due process and “access to a clear and consistent appeals system.”

When it was announced last week that two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep would receive a four-year suspension for using a banned substance, the organization released a statement saying, “We staunchly support and protect players’ rights in all instances. That includes exercising their due process and appellate rights in anti-doping cases. The repeated and unexplained delays in Simona Halep’s case are both unfair and unacceptable.” It went on to say, “The PTPA is fully committed to supporting her in any future appeals, as well as all players who require assistance.”

In January of this year, the organization announced an eight-player executive committee, made up of four ATP players (including Djokovic and Pospisil) and four WTA players. For Ons Jabeur, a three-time major finalist and current world No. 7, it was an obvious decision to join.

“Before, if I talked, nobody would listen because I wasn’t in the top 10 and I wasn’t a top player, but now they listen,” Jabeur told ESPN. “Now they would [care about] my opinion. I feel like it’s wrong to only listen to the top players, but for me, I feel like I need to make a difference right now. I need to speak up for every woman about what’s wrong and what could be better.”

One of the organization’s biggest complaints from the start has been about the pay structure in tennis. While those contending for titles, specifically at majors, are making millions of dollars — Djokovic has made over $10 million in 2023 so far — many are struggling to get by financially. Pospisil, who was injured for a portion of the year, has made $168,000 — which comes out to significantly less after expenses are paid for things like travel, accommodations and coaching.

For Djokovic, despite his success, the fight is personal.

“I was in their shoes, I understand the struggle,” Djokovic said. “I understand the difficulties of paying the costs for travel if you don’t have the backing of a strong federation, which 90% or even more of the players around the world don’t have, and not having the budget to pay for coaches and physiotherapists. Coming from Serbia, I didn’t have any of that.

“And now I have influence, I have power, and I want to fight for better conditions. We talk so much about how much money the US Open winners make but we are not talking about how many players, both men and women, singles, doubles, all together, professionals live from this sport. It’s less than 400 [players] max for a sport that is super global and then it’s one of the most-watched sports on the planet. That’s poor. That’s a failure for our sport.”

In August, the ATP revealed a new initiative, called “Baseline,” that guarantees a minimum income for the top 250-ranked men’s singles players every season. Starting in 2024, if a player’s earnings fall under the stated amount at the end of the year, the ATP will cover the difference. For those in the top 100, the amount is $300,000 and less for those ranked outside of it. While Nassar said he didn’t believe the program went far enough, he felt encouraged by it, and believed the PTPA was at least partially responsible for it.

“People like to say that daylight is the best disinfectant,” Nassar said shortly after Baseline was announced. “I would say outside, independent pressure is good. I think this is hopefully the first of many signs that we’re really pushing the establishment to do more and do better.”

Using his experience working with the NFL Players Inc., the licensing and marketing arm of the NFL Players Association, Nassar created a similar for-profit division for the PTPA. Known as “Winners Alliance,” around 300 players have signed on for passive income opportunities. The group signed a trading card deal with Fanatics and Topps in March, and the move even generated some interest among previous naysayers, according to Nassar.

“I think people went quickly from, ‘That will never work in tennis’ to ‘Where do I sign up? How did you do that?'”

But there still are plenty of detractors of the PTPA. In a recent interview with Forbes, ATP executive chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said he “had sympathy” for what the organization was trying to achieve but ultimately found it divisive.

“Creating an association, I don’t think it’s bad in itself, but it’s just to create even more fragmentation,” Gaudenzi said. “It’s more seats at the table. While in reality, in my opinion, we have to have less seats at the table and converge into somebody that thinks for the interest of the sport.”

Those involved with the PTPA disagree with Gaudenzi’s assessment, but the criticism is nothing that they haven’t heard before. When asked what he would say to someone who remained opposed to the organization, Nassar pointed to the commercial partnerships the group had acquired, in addition to the formal principles they’ve established and the support they’ve been able to provide individual players during times of need.

Jabeur said the group’s influence was clear through the growing number of players simply “speaking up and having the courage to talk about things they’re not happy about and want changed.”

Pospisil, the co-founder, was adamant this is simply the beginning — calling their achievements “building blocks for the future” — but was proud of what the group had done so far. To Djokovic, the criticism is just proof that the PTPA’s demands and grievances are being heard. And for him, the PTPA and what the organization is trying to accomplish might be just as important as the record-making 24th major title he won this month at the US Open. He believes it’s as central as anything to his story.

“I want to leave a legacy on and off the court,” Djokovic said. “I would love my peers, my colleagues, to remember me as someone who had a lot of success in tennis, but didn’t only think about himself, but also thought of other players and making sure that while he’s at the top of the game, that he’s using his influence, he’s using his status and his profile and his contacts to create a better ecosystem for players and generally just for the sport.”

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