Roger Federer called for merger of the governing bodies of men's and women's tennis via Twitter on Wednesday.
In a series of tweets, the 20-time Grand Slam champion responded to fans saying that the merger could help the ‘two weakened bodies’ become ‘one strong body’ to overcome the crisis caused due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
"Just wondering…..am I the only one thinking that now is the time for men’s and women’s tennis to be united and come together as one?" Federer wrote.
Federer later clarified that he wasn’t recommending a change in the competition format but just the merging of the two governing bodies -- the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) that oversee the men's and women's professional tours.
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"It probably should have happened a long time ago, but maybe now is really the time. These are tough times in every sport and we can come out of this with two weakened bodies or one stronger body," he added.
Rafael Nadal, doubled down on Federer’s suggestions and insisted that it was the way ahead for professional tennis. “As you know per our discussions I completely agree that it would be great to get out of this world crisis with the union of men’s and women’s tennis in one only organisation,” Nadal wrote.
WTA founder Billie Jean King also responded to Federer and Nadal and suggested “now is the time” to merge the men's ATP and women's body into one umbrella organisation to oversee the two professional tennis tours.
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King was a key person in establishing the WTA in 1973 and was also one of the ‘Original 9” on the tour.
“I agree, and have been saying so since the early 1970s. One voice, women and men together, has long been my vision for tennis. The WTA on its own was always Plan B. I'm glad we are on the same page. Let's make it happen. #OneVoice,” she tweeted.
Tennis’ four fold governance structure often creates huge conflict within its own organisation and leaves players high and dry -- and out of the discussion very often. The ATP and WTA run their respective tours, sanctioning tournaments that provide constituents with playing and earning opportunities, rankings, marketing and media outreach. Neither is a labor union and players are not employees of the tours (or the game in general) but are individual contractors who, if they tried to unionize, would violate antitrust laws.
The International Tennis Federation meanwhile is the governing body of the global recreational game as well as the owner and promoter of various professional competitions, including a circuit for aspiring ATP and WTA pros and the Davis and Fed Cups. National federations like the All India Tennis Association (AITA) are affiliates of the ITF. The fourth power structure is the GRand Slam Board, which speaks for the four majors when they need to act in unison.
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This though isn’t the first time the idea of a merger has been floated about -- albeit tennis’ greatest player lending support to the cause ever gives it more credence. Historically the opposition to the merger has come from the ATP -- which has been more economically profitable -- to lend its resources to the women’s tour.
Combining the different ranking systems, schedules and rules of the ATP and the WTA while superficially appealing, will pose challenges of their own. Additionally, merging the two organisations means merging their hierarchy who will take persuading to vote themselves out of office.
The biggest concerns though will be financial. Merging the tours may lead to reductions in prize money across the board, primarily to finance the lower rated women tour events. These concerns may not be shared at the top of the ladder but will provoke objections from less wealthy rank-and-file male players.
Nick Kyrgios, one of the most outspoken young players on the Tour has already tweeted his concerns over the idea with a fairly innocuous: “Did anyone ask the majority of the ATP what they think about merging with the WTA and how it is good for us?”
Last week the ATP’s new chief executive, Andrea Gaudenzi, held back from agreeing to combine the administrative capacity of both organisations, but agreed closer cooperation was a good idea. “It is extremely important and I think it is one of our biggest advantages towards our competitors,” he said. “Not only do we have a great women’s product, but also our audience is fairly split among women and men.”
Former WTA CEO Anne Worcester had also called for a merger of the men's and women's tours in an interview with Forbes this month. Reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Argentine Diego Schwartzman and two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza are among the other high-profile tennis players who voiced their agreement to Federer’s idea.
While the benefits of merging the tours and advancing the game into a new era without gender-based imbalances is appealing, the truth is that it has only arisen because of the compromised position professional tennis finds itself in -- with no play scheduled for the next few months. Once things go back to normal, the politics of the power structures will wrest back control and ensure things go on as they always have.
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