The possibility of unity | Sports


Billie Jean King had a dream. Okay, Billie Jean King had many desires, as many as a centipede has legs. However the one that basically stands out within the midst of the brand new American tennis growth is one which she has nurtured, with out redress, for the reason that time she performed the pivotal function in creating the Ladies’s Tennis Affiliation and its subsequent tour.“I agree [about the need to merge the ATP and WTA], and have been saying so for the reason that early 1970s,” King tweeted in April 2020. “One voice, ladies and men collectively, has lengthy been my imaginative and prescient for tennis. The WTA by itself was at all times Plan B.”

Considerably, King was responding to a easy, provocative tweet by Roger Federer within the very early days of the lockdowns triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic: “Simply questioning… am I the one one considering that now’s the time for males’s and girls’s tennis to be united and are available collectively as one?”

Maybe Federer was simply speculating. However even the mildest “what if?” cogitations of the Swiss icon will launch headlines and dialogue at each stage within the sport. Now, virtually two years later, King’s imaginative and prescient – and Federer’s implicit endorsement of a single entity representing professional gamers – is just a few steps nearer to changing into a actuality.

Name it one other sudden byproduct of the pandemic, however this time a promising one. The WTA took the lead on bringing the excursions nearer. Late final 12 months, it deserted its extremely complicated tournament-rating system (thereby eliminating the excellence between, amongst different issues, a Premier Necessary WTA occasion and Premier 5 WTA occasion) and adopted the ATP’s simply understood, three-tier system of 250, 500 and 1,000-grade occasions.

The excursions have additionally embraced a brand new, considerably formal spirit of cooperation, as evidenced by the #CrossCourt advertising marketing campaign, which options ATP and WTA gamers in promotional materials. One of many multi-episode digital exhibits featured newlyweds Gaël Monfils and Elina Svitolina; one other options player-parents Fabio Fognini and Elena Vesnina. Advertising and marketing specialists employed collectively by the excursions are tasked with arising with methods to meld branding.

A shift in considering additionally turned manifest when Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil rolled out their plan to create a brand new participant group, the Skilled Tennis Gamers’ Affiliation. The co-founders initially lobbied for help solely amongst their ATP cohorts, and have been known as out for it after they formally launched the PTPA on the 2020 US Open. Djokovic and his backers swiftly pivoted and started to recruit girls to their trigger as nicely.

This new spirit of cooperation is a far cry from the essential indifference and typically aggressive relationship that animated each excursions for a very long time. The ATP was fashioned in September 1972; the WTA was created simply 9 months later. In these days, the boys by no means dreamed that ladies’s tennis may rival their very own product.

All different variations apart, prize cash for girls at mixed occasions was a borderline honourarium. Ilie Nastase took house $3,500 for successful the 1970 Italian Open; the ladies’s champion-King-received $600. The disparity proved to be the tipping level in King’s drive to create a viable girls’s skilled tour.

Thus, the 2 organisations went their separate methods, prevented from even considering an alliance attributable to sensible concerns. The key stumbling block was the good chasm in general income in excursions’ early days. The lads have been leery about underwriting the ladies’s sport. Equal prize cash on the Grand Slams and the rising recognition of mixed occasions like Miami and Indian Wells progressively made a better working relationship between the 2 excursions appear extra enticing.

But it surely was the pandemic that finally offered impetus for change. Dealing with the prospect of prolonged shutdowns, the suspension of occasions in Asia, a prohibition towards spectators and well being protocols and legal guidelines that turned the worldwide character of the sport-long considered an asset-into an infinite legal responsibility, tour executives started to see the fantastic thing about larger cooperation.

“When issues are going very nicely nobody desires to surrender something, in any enterprise,” Chris Kermode, who was the extremely profitable government chairman and president of the ATP between 2014 and the top of 2019, instructed me when it turned apparent that the calendars of each excursions have been going to be decimated by Covid-19. “You possibly can’t get anybody to give attention to change.

“You are inclined to get individuals specializing in completely different concepts and potential modifications when there’s a disaster. So necessity drives a number of these selections.”

The urgency created by the pandemic dovetailed properly with some new priorities on the ATP within the post-Kermode period, and on the WTA beneath Steve Simon. Andrea Gaudenzi, the previous ATP professional who took over from Kermode in January 2020, got here to his job with the mandate to make the ATP much less reliant on ticket gross sales, a mission that included boosting revenues derived from media, and pursuing larger engagement with social media and companions. What higher place to begin than with the WTA, which has been extra vigorous in selling its social media presence.

On the Australian Open, simply weeks into his new function, Gaudenzi met with WTA president Micky Lawler and Tennis Australia officers to debate varied methods to create a better working relationship between the excursions. The appearance of the multi-city, multi-week ATP Cup wrought havoc with the tennis calendar Down Beneath, leading to a giant hit to the WTA. Some Australian Open tune-up tournaments misplaced their viability due to the brand new ATP occasion.

Excessive on the agenda for the tour officers gathered in Australia: making a girls’s companion occasion to the season- opening ATP Cup, with as many factors of commonality as potential.

“We’re speaking a couple of WTA Cup to launch in 2022,” Lawler wrote to me in an e-mail weeks after these discussions. “It’s within the works.”

The destiny of that occasion remains to be up within the air, as Australia continues to grapple with the COVID-19 disaster, but when the 2 excursions can pull off complimentary mega-events to kick off the brand new 12 months, can becoming a member of season-ending finals be far behind? Each excursions already maintain their season finales in indoor arenas within the fall, and the format-featuring simply eight singles gamers and eight doubles teams-would be manageable.

True, up till the pandemic hit, the WTA season ended a couple of month sooner than did the ATP’s, however that doesn’t appear an insurmountable impediment. However there are different challenges that will maintain King’s dream within the realm of wishful considering for some time.

The principle stumbling block to bringing the excursions beneath one umbrella stays the identical: the larger revenues generated by the boys. However that hole is smaller, and should proceed to shrink in a post-Huge Three period. And with equal prize cash on the Grand Slam tournaments, in addition to the massive mixed occasions the place the WTA is in a greater place to demand equal pay, the income hole will develop even narrower.

An inevitable post-pandemic shakeout might go away room for the creation of extra mixed events-bringing King’s dream of 1 tour one step nearer to changing into actuality. –