Nancy Gillen

For a period of time where the majority of sport has been suspended, Novak Djokovic has been in the headlines an awful lot.

Whether it is his views on vaccinations or the disastrous Adria Tour, the Serbian has been one of the most talked about sport stars during the coronavirus pandemic.

He is now back in the limelight, and not just because the US Open, which Djokovic is expected to win, is getting underway tomorrow. On the eve of the tournament, the world number one has resigned as Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) chairman and launched a new players’ association.  

Djokovic claims the Professional Tennis Players' Association, set up with Canadian Vasek Pospisil, will be able to "co-exist" alongside the ATP. It is set to tackle issues such as revenue sharing, disciplinary actions, player pensions, travel, insurance, and amenities at tournaments. Djokovic and Pospisil will serve a two-year term as co-Presidents, with there being plans for an elected Board of up to nine people in the future.

Around 60 players have signed up so far, with the new members gathering at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre in New York to take a photo for social media.  

The picture in question has ended up being unintentionally ironic, however. The backdrop is a venue named after someone synonymous with the promotion of gender equality in sport. Billie Jean King was a key figure in the creation of the first professional women's tennis tour in the 1970s and the founding of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973.  

Unfortunately, the Professional Tennis Players' Association will not include female players, and the photo shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram does not feature a single woman.

It seems a far cry from just a few months ago, when top players were calling for a merger of the ATP and WTA. Both organisations were deemed to have worked well together during the global health crisis, prompting Rafael Nadal to suggest the unification. He argued that such a move would result in a "stronger body" governing tennis.

The Professional Tennis Players' Association does not include female tennis players ©Twitter
The Professional Tennis Players' Association does not include female tennis players ©Twitter

This is seemingly something that Djokovic did not consider. Other players have picked up on it though, including Andy Murray, ever the proponent of women’s tennis. The Briton cited the lack of female inclusion as one of the reasons that he will not currently be joining the Professional Tennis Players' Association.

"I'm not totally against a player union or player association, but right now there's a couple of things," he said.

"One is I feel like the current management that are in place 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 it, I feel like that would send a much more powerful message if the WTA were onboard with it, as well. That's not currently the case." 

The Professional Tennis Players' Association is essentially a pressure group, set up to represent the interests of male players independent of the ATP. Having such a group which excludes female tennis players could mean the gap between the men and women’s games widens further. 

Of course, player representation is already separate due to the existence of Players’ Councils on both the ATP and WTA, but Djokovic had the opportunity to bring male and female players together. As Murray said, player representation could be a lot stronger if it was not as fragmented.

There have been reports that a group involving female players, including American player Sloane Stephens, is reportedly interested in a collaboration with the PTPA. This would not necessarily result in a unified approach, however, and is yet to materialise as a serious proposition.

Indeed, it is worth considering just who the Professional Tennis Players' Association will benefit. It is set to focus on the top 500 men's singles players and top 200 doubles players, but there are currently 1972 players in the ATP rankings.

Is the Professional Tennis Players' Association subsequently just looking out for those who are already at the top of tennis? Arguably it is those in the lower echelons of the ATP rankings who are in more need of representation. The same can be said for women’s tennis. Again, it is the female players who are more in need of help in tackling issues such as equal prize money at tournaments.

Andy Murray claimed he would not join the Professional Tennis Players' Association if female tennis players were not part of it ©Getty Images
Andy Murray claimed he would not join the Professional Tennis Players' Association if female tennis players were not part of it ©Getty Images

It seems as if the Professional Tennis Players' Association could just end up being divisive, which is exactly what the ATP, WTA, International Tennis Federation (ITF) and Grand Slam organisers argued in a joint statement.  

"Now more than ever we need collaboration and strong relationships, and we fully support the ATP in its role in representing the best interests of players throughout this process," read the statement.

"It is our responsibility to ensure that our sport emerges from this crisis with strong foundations on which we can build. It is a time for even greater collaboration, not division; a time to consider and act in the best interests of the sport, now and for the future.

"When we work together, we are a stronger sport."

Nadal and Roger Federer are also opposed to the Professional Tennis Players' Association, again pleading for unity. 

"These are uncertain and challenging times, but I believe it’s critical for us to stand united as players, and as a sport, to pave the best way forward," Federer said. 

With the ATP, WTA and ITF all involved in the governance of tennis, the sport is not exactly known for being unified anyway. In addition, there is nothing wrong with players wanting increased representation which is independent of the ruling body. The creation of the Professional Tennis Players' Association follows a recent trend of athletes acknowledging their own power, and many believe this is a good thing. 

Djokovic's player association seems too exclusionary, however, and does not seem to have garnered the support of many of the key figures in the world of tennis. It may be the case that the Professional Tennis Players' Association ends up being mainly alienating, with little real impact.