Michael Pavitt

Just wondering, perhaps Roger Federer had thought a lot more about a proposed merger between the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) than he let on before pressing send on a tweet earlier this week.

The 20-time Grand Slam winner mused on the subject to his follower base of nearly 13 million people in a string of tweets.

“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 posted.

“I am picturing a merger between the WTA and ATP.

“I am not talking about merging competition on the court, but merging the two governing bodies (ATP and WTA) that oversee the men’s and women’s professional tours….

“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."

As arguably the biggest name in the sport and the benefit of years of dealing with the media, Federer was unlikely to have posted a string of tweets on the subject due to boredom during the lockdown period.

Similarly, the responses from fellow greats of the game appeared to suggest discussion around a merger had not merely been a musing, but a premeditated decision.

Spain's Rafael Nadal and Simona Halep - ranked second in the world on the men's and women's rankings, respectively, were quick off the mark in backing a potential merger.

It is perhaps one of the benefits of the halting of sporting action due to the coronavirus pandemic that athletes have more time to consider ideas such as the mooted merger and the overall landscape of their sports, whereas normally they would be moving from one tournament to the next.

A merger would present benefits for fans to start with.

Among the points raised by Federer was how there was confusion for fans surrounding the ATP and WTA boasting different ranking systems, logos and websites.

There are also the varying tournament categories, with the ATP Tour boasting Masters 1000, 500 and 250 events, while the WTA have a series of Premier competitions. Marrying the competitions under a clear banner would certainly help.

With the tour coming together for Grand Slams and combined events at Miami, Indian Wells, and Rome, collaboration is clearly possible.

Another potential benefit of a merger for fans would surround television, with the theory that contracts would become simpler to negotiate for a streamlined single organisation. This could help to prevent a scenario where ATP and WTA tournaments are broadcast on different pay television providers, as was the case recently in the UK when Amazon and BT Sport held rights to the respective tours.

The potential to be attached to both the ATP and WTA tours would potentially also prove attractive to sponsors, you suspect.

The ATP and WTA are among organisations working even closer together to navigate the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, but it would be wrong to suggest talk of a merger is new or indeed Federer’s idea.

Billie Jean King has supported the prospect of 
a merger ©Getty Images
Billie Jean King has supported the prospect of a merger ©Getty Images

Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, a member of the ATP Players Council, responded to Federer and Nadal’s tweets by saying that the “ATP has been working on this since they brought the vision forward to us in January.”

The respective heads of the two organisations - Andrea Gaudenzi and Steve Simon - have also welcomed increased collaboration but have not publicly stated their full support for a merger. The former said the tours working closer together was a "no brainer".

“It is extremely important and I think it is one of our biggest advantages towards our competitors,” Gaudenzi said last week prior to Federer’s tweets.

“Not only do we have a great women’s product, but also our audience is fairly split among women and men.

“A combined event, I strongly believe, is a better event both on site and [through the] media. We have strong combined tournaments within the ATP and the WTA and the Grand Slams are combined.

“It is really a no-brainer and actually, we are lucky to be at the forefront in that regard. Other sports should be looking at what we have done so far.

“It is really important and it is a huge opportunity because it becomes very appealing content for the broadcasters."

American great Billie Jean King is among those to express support for a merger, in fact, highlighting how she had initially called for a unified body back in the 1970s and had only turned to establishing the WTA as a plan B.

Given that it is nearly 50 years after the WTA was formed, a year after the ATP, it is worth wondering that the maybe there is a reason the two governing bodies have not yet merged.

Having opposed a joint body before, could male players do so again now?

Australia’s Nick Kyrgios is among those to have spoken out against a merger, tweeting "Did anyone ask the majority of the ATP what they think about merging with the WTA and how it is good for us?"

Prize money at the Italian Open differs considerably between the men's and women's events ©Getty Images
Prize money at the Italian Open differs considerably between the men's and women's events ©Getty Images

There are suggestions that while a merger would potentially not have an impact on the likes of Federer and Nadal, those lower down the ATP rankings may be opposed due to how a merger could raise questions over prize money.

For instance, last year’s Italian Open saw a prize pool of €5.7 million (£4.9 million/$6.1 million) on the men’s side, compared to €3.4 million (£2.9 million/$3.6 million) on the women’s. Although it worth noting the prize money is equal at Indian Wells and the Miami Open.

Perhaps the success of the WTA is among the concerns with pursuing a merger, with tennis one of the best examples of where both the men’s and women’s game are both operating effectively on an even footing. 

Genuine equality would have to be achieved for a merger to be effective. Former British number one Laura Robson told the BBC that if a merger occurred, she hoped the WTA would "not be lost in the shuffle".

Amid the excitable talk of a merger, a unified organisation seems some way in the distance with numerous questions on how combining the existing bodies would work and finding ways to mitigate any concerns from players.

With the ATP and WTA leadership supportive of increased collaboration and several high-profile players now public in their support, perhaps the pandemic stopping play could one day be a key moment in the development of a joint body.