Professional tennis players’ union, maybe? Maybe not?
South Korea's Chung Hyeon, right, is congratulated by Serbia's Novak Djokovic after winning their fourth round match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Jan. 22. | Dita Alangkara / AP

Let me start this off by admitting that I am not an avid fan of professional tennis. I have nothing against the sport—occasionally I’ll watch tournaments while waiting for my flight at the airport sports bar—I just don’t understand it, honestly.

But this was a story we could not miss.

Former world No. 1 and 12-time grand slam winner Novak Djokovic shocked tennis officials by calling for players to form their own union and fight for a higher percentage of pay from tournaments during the annual meeting of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Jan. 12.

The unexpected organizing call came after players were given a presentation by the Australian Open, which explained its plan to almost double the overall profit for the Melbourne tournament from the current take  of AUS$55 million to AUS$100 million in the next five to six years.

Djokovic was accompanied by an attorney specializing in labor and employment law, who pointed out that it would be easier to withhold labor (boycott) in Australia than the other grand slam nations of the UK, U.S., and France.

Kevin Anderson, vice-president of the ATP Player Council, confirmed Monday January 14 that Djokovic made a surprise address to the meeting, and that others responded from the floor. His confirmation, however, was kept short and with few details.

According to Djokovic, players receive seven percent of the revenue brought in by the four grand slam tournaments. That’s pennies compared to the National Basketball Association’s union contract that ensures players are paid 50 percent of the league’s revenue and are guaranteed at least 16 days off during the regular season.

If tennis players are able to organize and win, it would put them right next to soccer, cricket, basketball, baseball, and most other major professional sports who have organized and won: player-friendly work schedules, better pay, better health coverage, and long term care—take a look at the NFL concussion protocol.

You would think tennis players would have organized sooner, but technically, the ATP is a players’ association. Technically is a loose term here, as the association coordinates all of the tournaments except for the big four, meaning that it represents both sides: management and players.

I’ll call it what it is: a company union.

And while some players are guardedly behind Djokovic’s call to organize, players still have a fight ahead of them.

But that’s not where the story ends—though I wish it was.

As quick as this call to organize went out on the sports newswire, the denial came even quicker.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, January 16, after his Australian open first round win, Djokovic denied calling for a separate players union, a boycott of next year’s Australian Open, or an end to equal pay for men and women in the majors.

“Not much of what you have wrote is true and was a little bit exaggerated,” Djokovic said. “I saw that you’ve portrayed me as someone who is very greedy, asks for more money, and wants to boycott. What happened is that we, players, just wanted to have us players talk about certain topics. I don’t think there is anything unhealthy about that.”

Djokovic also denied that any attorney was with him.

“Obviously you’re talking about union, you’re talking about boycott, you’re talking about radical decisions to make…so we can get financial compensations the way we deserve it. But there was no talks about that,” he said.

At this point, we can only speculate as to what really happened in-between the meeting and Tuesday’s press conference. Maybe he did have an honest change of heart. Personally, I think the tennis bosses got to him. It would be pretty easy for them to get him in a captive audience meeting and force him to drop support for a union—those answers did seem pretty scripted.

This isn’t the first time a league has engaged in union busting, and it won’t be the last. Just take a look at what happens to private sector workers when they try to organize.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.