Is tennis headed for an NBA-like players' revolt?

Growing player discontent over pay and conditions could herald a shake-up in professional tennis -- but there is little danger of an all-out strike, according to experts.

Updated: January 24, 2012 10:15 IST
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Melbourne: Growing player discontent over pay and conditions could herald a shake-up in professional tennis -- but there is little danger of an all-out strike, according to experts.

Fears of a major showdown grew at the Australian Open after a "passionate" men's players' meeting was followed by a string of top stars calling for change.

And while the threat of a basketball-style shut-down -- possibly at the French Open, or even the Olympics -- appears slight, there is no doubting the groundswell of opinion among players.

"I don't think I've seen as many angry players for a while and that, I think, tennis is going to have to face fairly soon," said Neil Harman, tennis correspondent for London's Times newspaper.

"I think it's largely to do with the discrepancy in what they get, the levels of prize money," he said.

"They look at the profits the grand slams make and they say 'don't you think we perhaps deserve a little bit more of the profits?"

Players have long complained about the packed tennis calendar, often blaming it for injuries, and are unhappy over Davis Cup scheduling and prize money at grand slams, among other issues.

The players are represented by a council, headed by Roger Federer, in the body that runs the men's tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP).

Separately, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) is the sport's governing body, while the Grand Slam Committee oversees the four major tournaments: the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open.

It's an arrangement in which the players feel their voices are not always heard.

"I don't necessarily like the system that's in place as far as, you know, the board and votes and all that," said former world number one Andy Roddick.

"The definition of insanity defined by the dictionary is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

"That's the process that's been in place since the late '80s or early '90s. We're still having some of the same discussions they had then."

Some players and observers feel their best chance of making headway is to form a union to give them greater strength in negotiations.

"I think it's inevitable," said US player Alex Bogomolov Jr. "As far as other sports, every sport has a players' union. I think eventually it will be a step in the right direction for the sport."

However, the problems are diverse and so are the players, who range from the big-name superstars to the journeymen whose prize money barely covers their travel and coaching costs.

"The problem with tennis, of course is that you have so many different players with so many different desires and demands and wants and needs," said Harman.

"And of course the problem they have is that the constitution of the ATP is that it's 50 percent tournaments and 50 percent players so while you've got that situation it's very hard to make any headway."

For example, elite players want to cut down on the number of compulsory tournaments, while lesser lights need all the ranking points they can get.

Veteran tennis writer Richard Evans, who works for, said scheduling of matches at the US Open is one area where progress could be made, but other problems are trickier to solve.

"The prize money issue is much more difficult," Evans said. "The grand slams don't like to be told what to do and they will always defend themselves with 'we give money to junior tennis, we support the game'."

He points out that tennis compares unfavourably with team sports such as basketball, where players receive about 50 percent of revenue, and golf, where players can pick up a paycheck of US$1 million for a regular win on tour.

"I think the grand slams are making a lot more than they're sharing with the players. I think that's a fact," women's legend Martina Navratilova said this week.

But Evans does not believe the disagreement will come to a strike because those at the top, including Federer and new ATP chief Brad Drewett, are voices of reason.

Drewett, only a few weeks into his new role, is certainly making the right noises, saying he heard the players "loud and clear".

He refused to be drawn on any initiatives he was planning but highlighted a shorter season in 2012, by two weeks, and a 20 percent increase in prize money for ATP World Tour events over the next three years.

So what next for the players, who are clearly agitating for change?

"Nothing's going to happen in the next couple of months," said Evans.

"They will probably come to some decision before the French (Open) as to what they're going to do but for the time being they've got a new leader on board and he's going to sit with the councils and the board. It's a process.

"They've got a beef but how they go about getting somewhere I don't know."

Harman says if players want real change they must agree on exactly what they want, a "defining A, B, C".

"If the current mood prevails, there's a meeting in Indian Wells... if they say this is what we want, we're prepared to do this to get it, I think the French Open would get a bit twitchy because they're the next grand slam.

"To my mind the only thing that players could do, what would really impact would be to boycott a grand slam or say we won't play the Olympics, and I wonder if they're quite ready to do that."

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