The best women in tennis say the sport is broken. This is the reason why | ET REALITY


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 rooms while traveling the world with her family. so I could be a full-time mother and professional tennis player.

In 2018, CoCo Vandeweghe played most of the season with a broken foot to avoid fines for missing mandatory tournaments. Her injury caused 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’d get back to help cover the costs of a full-time coach, a physical therapist, and a hitting partner to try to break into the market. upper echelon of a sport that has largely existed for 50 years with an “eat what you kill” model.

Now, most of the world’s best tennis players are tired of all that, of feeling like they are treated like hired help for an organization, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), rather than star attractions that fans buy into. tickets and tune in to the TV to watch.

ta slow fireTensions between the top players and the leaders of their professional circuit erupted in Cancun, Mexico, at the WTA Tour Finals. The turning point was a stadium court in what is supposedly the emblematic event of their sport and which they have considered unpredictable and unsafe. He also wasn’t ready for practice until the day before the event started.

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

This battle, the players say, has to do with the big ideas (respect, equality, being listened to and listened to) that are usually at the base of athletes’ rebellions. For three and a half weeks, Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, rejected a request from top players for a written response to a long list of requested improvements in 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, a doubles specialist and former member of the WTA Player Council who is now leader of the nascent players’ organization. . , the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA). “We’re putting Band-Aids on things instead of creating real change.”

Players have long resisted meaningful collective action, but not anymore. The recent list of “requests” (not demands, for now) that 21 prominent players, including most of those ranked in the top 20, submitted in early October covers four areas: the schedule, the ranking rules and the standards for tournaments, salaries, and representation.

Some are easy donations, while others, especially those involving money, are less simple. because there is a finite amount that needs to grow. Broadcasting rights for women’s tennis are approximately one-seventh of those for the men’s circuit. That means the WTA provides much less financial support for each tournament, resulting in lower prize money, which accounts for the majority of income for all but the top players who enjoy expansive sponsorship portfolios. At this year’s Italian Open, the men competed for $8.5 million, while the women competed for $3.9 million. At the ASB Classic in Auckland in January, men’s champion Richard Gasquet received almost $98,000. Women’s champion Coco Gauff received just over $34,000.

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

When it comes to scheduling, players are largely looking for more flexibility. They want more time between larger and medium-sized events. They want fewer mandatory events, which can put unhealthy pressure on injured players to participate. They want more opportunities to play small events and exhibitions, which come with appearance fees.

Regarding qualifying rules and tournament standards, players want the registration period for tournaments to be reduced to three weeks instead of four, more opportunities to withdraw from a tournament without penalty, and lower fines for skipping mandatory events. They want an end to matches starting late at night or without enough recovery time and new rules on early round breaks 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 say in evaluating a tournament’s operational performance.

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

They are also seeking a change from a strict pay-per-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 the minimum salary if a player misses six months.

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

That negligence became public Monday night, 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 to address their most pressing concerns.

The question now is whether Simon and other leaders can make the selection to quell this current uprising and commit to the types of changes that 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, players don’t feel like their voices matter, they feel like there’s an imbalance of power that’s been taken away from them,” said Pam Shriver, the retired player. , a coach and commentator who was president of the WTA in the 90s. “I understand why they are upset.”

The WTA declined to provide a copy of Simon’s letter. On Monday, the tour released a statement saying: “PThe layers have always made decisions on equal terms to ensure a solid direction for women’s tennis.

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The players do not agree. Earlier this year, Paula Badosa of Spain, who rose to No. 2 in the world rankings last year, expressed frustration at the lack of communication between WTA officials, which includes full-time staff, tournament directors and representatives. of the players. and the players themselves. Rule changes and financial decisions on basic issues such as prize money are rarely explained.

“They don’t inform us,” said Badosa, who is on the PTPA board of directors. “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 encouraged to see that players felt empowered to speak more freely with the leaders of their sport and demand the kind of transparency that will allow them better understand their business and the role they play in it. Her memories of the intense pain she played through, to have enough money to support her career and avoid being fined for withdrawing from mandatory tournaments, are raw and real.

He had reached number 9 in the world and, in the blink of an eye, everything disappeared, including his income, while he tried to manage the financial burden of treatments, rehabilitation and physiotherapy. A restorative layoff with temporary disability pay could have changed everything, she said, and it’s something worth fighting for.

“This feels like a family feud,” he said of the growing conflict between the best players and the leaders of the circuit. “There are disputes here or there, but now we are getting to the heart of the matter.”

Mattek-Sands, a longtime pro and former WTA Player Council member who is now a leader of the PTPA, said she used to sit in meetings with tour leaders and think about what professional tennis would be like if they could start over. new. again. The more he asked the question, the more he realized that his sport required radical changes.

María Sakkari in action in Cancún (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

In a letter to Simon last week, Ahmad Nassar, executive director of the PTPA, said the organization “will explore all alternatives in our relentless efforts to improve on behalf of the players who make this game phenomenal.” Nassar was no more specific than that. He didn’t need to be.

Nassar went on to say that the current system, in which the same organization tries to accommodate the often opposing interests of tournament organizers and players, was doomed to failure.

“There is a broad wave of athlete empowerment sweeping across all sports,” Nassar wrote. “It would be wise for us all to embrace it and ride it instead of trying in vain to protect ourselves from it.”

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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