Andy Murray and Dan Evans led a strong British rebuttal on Saturday night to Novak Djokovic’s plans to form a breakaway union that threatens to split tennis down the middle.
“I won’t be signing it today,” Murray said of the now infamous email circulating the locker room, which asks players to join a new union that would leave their long-time governing body, the Association of Tennis Professionals, distinctly vulnerable.
“I’m not totally against a player union, or players’ association, but right now there’s a couple of things: one is I feel like the current management should be given some time to implement their vision. Whether that works out or not would potentially influence me in the future as to which way I would go.
“Also, the fact that the women aren’t part of [the new plans]. I feel like that would send a significantly much more powerful message, if the WTA were on board as well. That’s not currently the case. If those things changed in the future, it’s something that I would certainly consider.”
Djokovic insisted later he respected that leading players might not agree with him – notably Murray, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – but that this was no threat to the game, but, “the time was right”.
Evans, who has replaced Murray as British No 1 in his enforced lay-off and could meet him in the third round of the US Open, which starts on Monday, put a slightly different case to the Scot’s. “I’ve received the emails on the player union,” he said before preparing for his first-round match against the Brazilian world No 113, Thiago Seyboth Wild. “Now is horrible timing to be talking about that sort of thing. For what it’s worth, I think the ATP do a great job for us and I won’t be signing the sheet of paper they want.”
Murray, who moved well on his rebuilt hip in two of his three matches at the Western & Southern Open over the past week, starts against the world No 48, Yoshihito Nishioka, on the Arthur Ashe Court on Tuesday. But the locker-room talk at Flushing Meadows on Saturday – the last day of the relocated Cincinnati Open – remained focused on the breakaway rebels. There is bad feeling on both sides.
“I had a conversation yesterday with someone in the changing room, and I played devil’s advocate on the ATP side,” Evans said. “It wasn’t taken very well. Those people who think the union should [happen] are set on it, and I must say they are quite passive aggressive towards anyone who doesn’t want to be involved in it. It is all about having a vote, but it seems that, if they don’t like it, they don’t like you very much.
“I don’t understand what the vote is, what are they getting in power for. They have just made a new group. But what do they do? It’s not like they have any standing in the game. If the top 10 players don’t sign, are they not going to play because of the [new] union? It is not really a vote. It is signing a piece of paper that doesn’t really stand for much.”
The rebellion began in 2018 when Djokovic, president of the players’ council since August 2016, led a push that eventually unseated Chris Kermode, who had been an excellent ATP executive chairman and president for five years. Djokovic wanted a new more influential players’ union, accusing the tournament owners of a conflict of interest, as they controlled the schedule and the prize money.
When the Italian former player Andrea Gaudenzi succeeded Kermode in January, there was a period of detente, but that, too, seems to have evaporated.
One of the leading rebels, Milos Raonic – who lost to Djokovic in Saturday’s Cincinnati final – said that, while fringe players were out of work during the suspension of the Tour because of the pandemic and, “weren’t making a dime, our executives were staying home and didn’t feel it necessary to take any pay cuts. I hope they step up and they work a bit more with the players – like we would have expected from a former player coming in as a CEO.”
The ATP replied: “The governance structure of the ATP Tour provides players with equal seats at the table on every major decision affecting the circuit. We recognise the challenges that our members face in today’s circumstances. However, we strongly believe that now is a time for unity, rather than internal division.”
Djokovic later said: “The ATP and hopefully this players’ association can coexist and should coexist. Where that’s going to take us, time will tell. Whether we want to negotiate prize money, I have no answer. We are not focusing on that at the moment. We just want to have our own organisation that is 100% ours. I’ve been hearing over the past 10, 15 years on the Tour a lot of discontent of players, especially outside the top 100.”
None of this is new, sadly. It is nearly 30 years since Mats Wilander as world No 1 led his colleagues out of bondage during the Nabisco Masters at Madison Square Garden, when they tore up their agreement with tournament owners and set out on the road to freedom … and increased pay cheques.
In 1990, the players’ rebellion attracted 85 of the top 100 to the new ATP tour. The old Men’s Tennis Council was beaten, and a golden age of apparently mutual benefit had begun. That dream would seem to be fading, too. Asked how he thought a players’ vote on a new association would go, Raonic was adamant: it would get a majority.
Murray and Evans are not so sure.