Professional Tennis Players Association co-founder Billie Jean King recently admitted that last year’s Women’s Tennis Association Strike Force, organized to improve pay equality in tennis, had not achieved as much of its goal as it had wanted. But she did not soften in her advocacy for action.
“The striking tennis players were strong advocates for women in tennis who deserved better,” she said. “I’m proud of what they accomplished and look forward to many more years of organizing for equality in tennis.”
For one star tennis player, her advocacy has another purpose.
Novak Djokovic is not only one of the leading draws on the men’s tour, but he is also one of the largest names among the new players’ union members, a group made up largely of rising stars. When he joined the association’s Board of Directors in June, the nine-time Grand Slam champion said that he felt he could help bridge the gap between the players who have dominated the men’s game for more than a decade and those hoping to reclaim their place in the sport’s history books.
Djokovic has said that he was motivated to step forward with the new players’ union after he helped write a letter to the ATP, tennis’s governing body, calling for a reformed salary structure that would address player concerns, including better access to courts and services and minimum amount of guaranteed income.
While the players’ union’s first meeting focused on developing strategies for the future, the new organization has seen some major victories this year, even before the first meeting. In July, the players’ union earned two new endorsements from two of the biggest names in tennis — Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The New York Times reported that the endorsements, announced at a U.S. Open press conference, could bring the new union $24 million in ad sales over the next three years.
The ANTO was formed more than a year ago, inspired by the Women’s Tennis Association Strike Force, in which seven current or former women’s Tour players protested an economic proposal that would lower salaries for women to men’s levels. After consultations with at least 13 major players, who most of the year are the main draw in the Grand Slams, the group held its first public meeting in May in San Diego.
“It’s very unusual for a tennis union, a group with a direct impact on major tournaments, to even exist,” King told the Times last year, referring to the absence of a women’s tennis union.
The players’ association eventually said it wanted an overall jump in pay, from an annual $4.7 million at the Grand Slams to $4.8 million at the majors. The players’ union has since presented proposals to ATP, proposing significant increases in tournament prize money, increased coaching and travel support and more opportunities for coaching.
The organization’s biggest success so far may have been a meeting this past June, featuring 23 current and former players, at the St. Louis Cardinals baseball stadium. Even though it was the players’ union’s first meeting, the players said it was an unprecedented opportunity for them to discuss and strategize.
“It was a success for all players and, I’m sure, the ATP as well,” a player advisory board member told the Associated Press. “It was such a step-forward event, that we were able to show the ATP we’re ready for the future, and we will not settle for anything less than what we think is fair for women.”
Several issues including the new owners’ contracts and the players’ share of competition revenue, which comes from tournaments and ATP events, remains to be negotiated. Tennis’ organizing body said that the players’ association and ATP Tennis Tours directors have scheduled a meeting for Oct. 4 in London, but the new players’ union has said that the goal is to iron out terms directly with ATP officials.
This is not the first time that a group of players have taken a serious look at creating a union. Previously, from 1996 to 2011, players had been trying to form a women’s players union, before disbanding it following disagreements over the matter.
Now, after years of uncertainty surrounding women’s tennis, there’s a palpable sense of hope among those involved that the time is right for change.
“It’s definitely unique and significant to have the current young players, a generation of players coming up, wanting to step forward and lead by example,” King told Tennis.com. “They’re speaking out.”