As the season’s third major kicks off Saturday at Wimbledon, a group of first-time players has put together a start-up group hoping to “unite the sport.”
Their champions? Tennis greats such as Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The Association of Tennis Professionals and ATP professional tennis tours have been plagued by infighting over the years. This year’s fighting boiled over on the eve of the Australian Open in January, when a court case over prize money was settled by the appeals court, which asked the ATP to negotiate with its rival and forge a deal before the 2018 season.
But Novak Djokovic has been at the forefront of efforts to bring both unions together.
Three weeks ago, he co-founded the World Tennis Foundation in partnership with Tennis Australia and Wimbledon. Djokovic released a statement calling it a “collective of tennis’s leading figures that will influence the sport in the future.”
“It’s obvious that player power and voice is going to be key to grow the sport,” Djokovic said. “That’s why we are putting great emphasis on training and investing in our athletes’ health and training for the future.”
Later, the federation launched a Youtube video, “Together: The Future of Tennis,” featuring current and former players like Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and more.
The video, released by the ATP Tour, depicts what appeared to be a united front between the pro tours.
“The ATP and WTA are the best of the best tennis organizations in the world,” Murray says in the video. “That’s why we, as a group, believe that you need to join forces and create one entity.”
But OpenSecrets.org, following up on a recent New York Times story, found that the athletes’ unions have been in conflict with one another over the years.
“We do not seek to overlap positions of power with traditional union leadership,” the WTF’s website states. “Our goal is to empower every player with the ability to lead their own individual on-court movements and community involvement, and to be financially empowered to pursue a higher purpose in their own lives and athletics careers.”
In 1995, the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) and the ATP disbanded. Two years later, the U.S. Tennis Professional Womens Association (USTPWAA) was born. According to OpenSecrets, it has raised $490,382 from individual donors and has a 672-member board. It was created for professional tennis players, and while professional players make up the vast majority of contributors, a sizeable number of corporations have also been on the board.
In addition to Williams, WTF board members include Andre Agassi, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Martina Navratilova, Li Na, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Jim Courier, Chrissie Evert, and Jimmy Connors.
Besides support from players, The WTF is receiving backing from two corporate donors: Adidas and Papa John’s. Adidas is the WTF’s main corporate sponsor, while Papa John’s has been a prominent partner of Federer and Nadal.
Also on board: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. “Tennis is the pinnacle of athletic achievement in the world, and I’m thrilled about the possibilities for this campaign,” Clinton wrote in a statement announcing the launch of the OpenSecrets.org investigation last week.
Beyond pros, some tennis stars aren’t convinced the world is ready for a top-to-bottom union.
“There are differing opinions on what the best structure for tennis players to make sure they’re getting a fair deal,” said Jhonjana Jankovic, the former No. 1 in the world, in a recent interview with reporters at a Stuttgart event. “But I think probably at the moment it’s a bit wrong to say that we need the union because we are ready to negotiate how we want our next contract to be.”