Friday, December 8

Tennis’ top women say the sport is broken. This is why

For the better part of a decade, Tatjana Maria, the veteran German player, has been cramming into cramped hotel rooms with her husband/coach and children, or using her own money to pay for larger ones as she traveled the world with her family so she could be a full-time mom and professional tennis player.

In 2018, CoCo Vandeweghe played most of the season on a broken foot to avoid fines for missing mandatory tournaments. The injury led to a syndrome that left her unable to walk and nearly ended her career.

Without a guaranteed salary, in 2019, Danielle Collins shelled out money she didn’t really have and didn’t know she would earn back to help cover the costs of a full-time coach, physiotherapist and hitting partner to try to break into the upper echelon of a sport that has largely existed for 50 years with an eat-what-you-kill model.

Now, most of the best tennis players in the world have had it with all that, with feeling like they are being treated as the hired help for an organization, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), rather than the star attractions that fans are buying tickets and tuning in on television to see.

Long-simmering tensions between top players and leaders of their pro tour boiled over in Cancun, Mexico, at the WTA Tour Finals. The tipping point was a stadium court at what is supposedly their sport’s signature event that they have deemed unpredictable and unsafe. It also wasn’t ready for practice until the day before the start of the event. 


The players pose with the trophy in Cancun before the tournament (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

This battle, players say, is about the big ideas — respect, equality, being heard and being listened to — that are usually at the foundations of athlete rebellions. For three and a half weeks, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, blew off a request from top players for a written response to a lengthy list of requested improvements on everything from compensation and the tennis calendar to tournament operations and maternity coverage. 

“These questions have been brewing for years and now we are seeing the results of not answering them,” said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the doubles specialist and former member of the WTA Players’ Council, who is now a leader of the nascent players organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA). “We’re putting Band-Aids on things instead of creating real changes.”

Players have long resisted a significant collective action, but no more. The recent list of “requests” (not demands, for now) that 21 leading players, including a majority of those ranked in the top 20, submitted in early October covers four areas: the schedule, qualification rules and standards for tournaments, pay, and representation.

Some are easy gives, while others, especially those involving money, are less simple because there is a finite amount of it that needs to grow. The media rights fees for women’s tennis are roughly one-seventh of those for the men’s tour. That means the WTA contributes far less financial support for each tournament, resulting in lower prize money, which accounts for most of the income for all but the top players who enjoy expansive endorsement portfolios. At the Italian Open this year, men competed for $8.5million, while the women competed for $3.9million. At the ASB Classic in Auckland in January, the men’s champion, Richard Gasquet, received nearly $98,000. The women’s champion, Coco Gauff, received just over $34,000.

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Misogyny, a softer market, less exposure and less interest in women’s sports, as well as basic ineptitude, all share the blame for this to varying degrees depending on who you speak to.

On the schedule, the players are largely seeking more flexibility. They want more time between the biggest and medium-sized events. They want fewer mandatory events, which can lead to unhealthy pressure on injured players to participate. They want more opportunities to play in small events and exhibitions, which come with appearance fees. 

On the qualification rules and tournament standards, the players want the entry deadline for tournaments lowered to three weeks instead of four, more opportunities to withdraw from a tournament without a penalty, and lower fines for skipping mandatory events. They want an end to starting matches late at night or without sufficient recovery time and new rules on early-round byes and wild card entries. They want childcare services at all large and medium-sized tournaments, larger hotel rooms for players traveling with families, and a voice in evaluating a tournament’s operational performance. 


Elena Rybakina applauds the fans in Cancun (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

They are also seeking a shift from a strict pay-for-play format to a form of guaranteed compensation for the top 250 players: $500,000 for players in the top 100, $200,000 for the next 75, and $100,000 for the rest. The proposed compensation system would include injury protection, providing half of the minimum pay if a player misses six months.

In the case of pregnancy and childbirth, a player would receive the protection for two years. They want a bonus pool for top players, a guaranteed percentage of a tournament’s revenues, and the ability to examine every tournament’s financial records. They want a member of the PTPA present at all meetings of the organization’s Players’ Council, with full access to all player areas at all tournaments, so their needs and desires would no longer be neglected.

That neglect became public on Monday evening, along with details of two tense meetings between players and tour leaders. Finally, the tour’s embattled CEO wrote to the top 20 players late on Monday to convey the message that he understood the dissatisfaction with playing conditions in Cancun and that he was working on addressing their larger concerns.

The question now is whether Simon and other leaders can perform both the triage to quell this current uprising and commit to the kinds of changes the top players are demanding to ensure the survival of the WTA Tour.

“In my experience, when this has happened, it’s always been voice-related, with players not feeling like their voices are mattering, that they feel there is an imbalance of power that has been taken away,” said Pam Shriver, the retired player, coach and commentator who was the WTA’s president in the 1990s. “I get why they are upset.” 

The WTA declined to provide a copy of Simon’s letter. On Monday, the tour issued a statement saying: “Players have always been equal decision-makers to ensure a strong direction for women’s tennis.

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Players disagree. Earlier this year, Paula Badosa of Spain, who last year rose to No 2 in the world rankings, expressed her frustration over the lack of communication between the leadership of the WTA, which includes full-time staff, tournament directors, and player representatives, and the players themselves. Rule changes and financial decisions about basic issues, such as prize money, are rarely explained. 

“They don’t inform us,” said Badosa, who is on the board of the PTPA. “They say this is what you get and you have to play.”

Vandeweghe, who retired earlier this year and is now an analyst for the Tennis Channel, said she was heartened to see players feeling empowered to speak more freely to the leaders of their sport and demand the kind of transparency that will allow them to better understand their business and the roles they play in it. Her memories of the intense pain she played with — so she would have enough money to support her career and avoid being fined for withdrawing from mandatory tournaments — are raw and real.

She had reached No 9 in the world, then, in the snap of a finger, everything disappeared, including her income, as she tried to manage the financial burden of treatments, rehabilitation, and physical therapy. A restful layoff with a temporary disability payment might have changed everything, she said, and is something worth fighting for.

“This feels like a family fight,” she said of the rising conflict between the top players and tour leaders. “You have squabbles here or there, but now it’s getting to the nitty gritty.”

Mattek-Sands, the longtime pro and former member of the WTA Players Council who is now a leader of the PTPA, said she used to sit in meetings with the tour’s leaders and think about what pro tennis would look like if they could start all over again. The more she asked the question, the more she came to understand her sport required radical shifts.


Maria Sakkari in action in Cancun (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

In a letter to Simon last week, Ahmad Nassar, the executive director of the PTPA, said the organization “will explore all alternatives in our ceaseless efforts to do better on behalf of the players who make this game phenomenal”. Nassar was not more specific than that. He did not need to be.

Nassar went on to say the current system, with the same organization trying to accommodate the often dueling interests of tournament organizers and players, was doomed. 

“There is a broad athlete empowerment wave sweeping across sports,” Nassar wrote. “It would be wise for all of us to embrace and ride it rather than attempt to ward it off in vain.”

(Top photo: Getty Images)