Boycotts and the PTPA: Inside tennis’ week of disarray

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 10: Novak Djokovic of Serbia holds a press conference at the Rolex Shanghai Masters at the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre on October 10, 2019 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Zhe Ji/Getty Images)
SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 10: Novak Djokovic of Serbia holds a press conference at the Rolex Shanghai Masters at the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre on October 10, 2019 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Zhe Ji/Getty Images) /

Tennis has experienced an extremely tumultuous week. From boycotts to the PTPA, here is an inside look at the sport’s disarray from the top down.

The tennis world has been turned on its head since restarting the ATP season last week. After months of speculation on whether or not the Western & Southern Open would be able to function due to COVID-19, it began without a hitch. Through four rounds of the tournament, the biggest story surrounding the event was the shocking amount of early upsets. Good tennis aside, there weren’t any major issues.

All would change following Naomi Osaka’s quarterfinal match. The eventual finalist decided to boycott her semifinal match in protest of the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin. An admirable move, yes, but not one without its many questions. The media immediately spun it as a withdrawal and a walkover, meaning Elise Mertens would move onto the finals and face Victoria Azarenka.

After the news of Osaka broke out, all semifinal matches were postponed this past Thursday in wake of the decision. It was then that Osaka decided, after a lengthy consultation with the WTA, that she’ll agree to resume play in order to compete in her semifinal match.

"“After my announcement and lengthy consultation with the WTA and USTA, I have agreed at their request to play on Friday,” she told The Guardian. “They offered to postpone all matches until Friday and in my mind that brings more attention to the movement. I want to thank the WTA and the tournament for their support.”"

After taking down Mertens in her Friday match, she moved onto the final but withdrew shortly prior to her bout with Victoria Azarenka due to a nagging hamstring injury, thus concluded what could be called the most confusing three days of tennis that the sport has seen in while.

Little did anyone know what was about to bubble up onto the surface just one day later. 

Following the results of the event, World #1, Novak Djokovic, and Vasek Pospisil announced their formation of the ‘Professional Tennis Players Association’ (PTPA) with their intention to give power to players only instead of having them operate under the governing body of the ATP. In their efforts to have a larger role in the decision-making process after the tour had gone rogue over the last few months, Pospisil and Djokovic, along with John Isner, all resigned from their posts on the ATP Players Council.

While the formation of the tour wasn’t a split-second decision, the decision for it to go public following the tournament was most likely due to the postponement of Friday’s matches without prior consultation with the player’s council. That, combined with the growing tension between players and the governing body of the ATP (led by Pospisil) in regards to the prize money fund and the ATP-WTA merger, led to the announcement.

Of course, it would be a completely different discussion if all players were on board. This isn’t the case; leading the way for the pro-ATP regime are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, as well as Andy Murray.

"“The world is living a difficult and complicated situation. I personally believe these are times to be calm and work all of us together in the same direction. It is time for unity, not for separation,” Nadal tweeted."

The idea of unity is something that pro-ATP players are defending. While the decision to form the PTPA was necessarily done to disrupt the ATP or create a parallel tour to butt heads, it’s crucial to have players united as the sport moves through the effects of COVID-19 while adequately supporting the BLM movement.

The largest criticism of the PTPA is the fact that it stresses a general “players-only union” but doesn’t include women’s tennis. Many argue that the new organization might have significant value for the future of tennis if it were able to effectively merge ATP and WTA players under one group (led by players, of course).

Due to talks surrounding an ATP-WTA merger that were eventually swept under the rug as tennis neared its August return, unity would be a key step in appealing to the two tours as a positive change for the game.

As of now, a general player association with only men’s tennis doesn’t hold a ton of weight in the tennis community. It divides the sport into three different “unions” (ATP, WTA, PTPA) instead of the possibility of shaping the new union into either a replacement for the governing ATP/WTA body or as a subdivision for the existing tours.

It’s clear that the formation of the PTPA alone puts the last few months in perspective for the ATP. The slow-moving player fund, a failed merger, and a player-led revolt only show that, despite the fact that the PTPA as a whole isn’t coming into fruition at the right time, the tour has some work to do in uniting players under a common goal.

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As Pospisil continues to say, the PTPA is in its infancy. In the coming weeks, it’ll make constant headlines and prove to either be a huge step in the right direction for tennis or a costly mistake that sets progress for change back by months and possibly years. As for everyone on the outside, it becomes a waiting game.