Roger Federer's merger proposal is thrilling but needs to be treated with caution
‘Stronger together’ is a lovely sentiment but Reem Abulleil hopes the women get a fair share
It was the tweet that launched a thousand more; millions more actually.
Roger Federer singlehandedly sent the tennis ecosystem into frenzy by posting on social media that it was time the men’s and women’s tours merged into one.
Rafael Nadal endorsed him shortly after. Vasek Pospisil jumped in on the action and revealed that the subject has been on the table since January, brought forward to the men’s players by the ATP.
It wasn’t long before many of the WTA’s top players backed Federer’s sentiments, including the likes of Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza and WTA Player Council members Sloane Stephens and Donna Vekic.
Even Billie Jean King herself – the founder of the WTA and the woman who fought tooth and nail to create a tour worthy of her and her peers, and help make women’s tennis the most successful female sport in the world – voiced her approval.
“I agree, and have been saying so since the early 1970s. One voice, women and men together, has long been my vision for tennis. The WTA on its own was always Plan B. I’m glad we are on the same page. Let’s make it happen,” tweeted King on Wednesday.
The reaction from the tennis world hit meteoric levels of excitement at such an unexpectedly rapid rate, that it left no room for scepticism. Almost no room for scepticism!
While the big win here is that a compelling conversation has started that could possibly result in a stronger and less fragmented structure in professional tennis, it’s important to analyse the various factors that come into play, and revisit the relevant historical facts that led to the existing divisions that are so deep-rooted in tennis.
King has always maintained that her initial plan was to have the men’s and women’s tours under one umbrella. In the early ‘70s, the men wouldn’t accept that and turned her away.
“They still don't want us, but some day, I don't know if it's before I die or not, but if they were smart we would have been together from day one, because we should have owned the Grand Slams too,” King told reporters in Singapore at the end of the 2018 season.
“If I had had my vision, it's very different from what I envisioned, but we were pretty good with Plan B, I think.”
Since King’s early days fighting for this cause, the subject has been brought up many times but a merger never materialised. In the late ‘90s, the then ATP CEO Mark Miles proposed a seven-stop combined tour in efforts to create a unified product that would be stronger in the marketplace. The women’s tour snubbed his proposal worrying it would weaken their identity.
In 2009, Larry Scott, who was the WTA’s chairman and CEO at the time, resigned from his position citing frustration over failed merger talks as one of the reasons behind his decision.
“What I really thought the sport needed to do to unlock its full potential was for the WTA and the ATP to merge,” Scott told Tennis.com. “I have a deep belief that that needs to happen. It’s obviously not going to happen on my watch.”
More recently, ex-world No 1 Halep told reporters in 2018 at the combined ATP/WTA tournament in Madrid that she wished the men’s and women’s tours weren’t separate circuits.
“If one day it's going to be one tour, it's going to be nice to be together every tournament. I like that. I think it's much better to have that,” the Romanian said.
At last year’s Australian Open, when Nadal was asked if he fancied the idea of the tours joining forces, the Spaniard was unsure if that would be beneficial.
“Why? I don't know. I don't get the point,” said Nadal. When the reporter suggested that it might result in a stronger product, Nadal responded: “Why is a stronger product? I don't know.
“I don't know. I don't have the whole information to know if that would be a stronger product or not.”
Squash provides a decent example to look at. At the end of 2014, the men’s and women’s squash tours were brought together under one governing body – the PSA (Professional Squash Association). The women were making far less money on their tour, compared to the men, and the WSA (Women’s Squash Association) was barely sustainable.
PSA chairman Ziad Al-Turki was adamant on changing that and believed in having both tours unified as one.
“You cannot develop a sport just concentrating on one sex,” the Saudi supremo told The National.
According to Al-Turki, the people running the women’s tour were not keen on the merger (“they were narrow-minded”), which forced the female players themselves to step up and lead the discussions with the PSA. Eventually the WSA was dissolved and became part of the PSA.
“It’s been very good for both sexes. Prize money went up, more tournaments emerged, social media went up 258 per cent in three years,” added Al-Turki. “It’s a perfect example why the two should be working side by side.”
Al-Turki says the majority of the male players were behind the unification of the tours, although a few of the top women’s players would tell you otherwise.
All the top-tier events were required to have both men’s and women’s tournaments and were told they had three years to figure out a way to offer equal prize money, without lowering the prize pot that was initially dedicated to the men. Events like the World Championships and the World Tour Finals hit parity from the get-go.
“We showed the men that we’re not going to take anything away from them. And after two or three years, they all agreed this was a great move,” insists Al-Turki.
“It also became the buzz word. We were going after this before it became fashionable to have parity.”
Within three years, the PSA’s revenues had gone up by 68.4% compared to pre-merger figures. The sport was getting more air time because there were more tournaments on offer to broadcasters through their TV rights deals.
The women’s prize fund increased by 52.9 per cent within that period, while the men’s went up by 19.4 per cent.
Women’s world No 5 Nour El Tayeb, who is married to men’s world No 2 Ali Farag, admits there has been resentment among the male players about the merger but believes they will all reap the rewards in the long run.
“They’re definitely not on board and they’re not hiding it. So many of the men’s players are unhappy about equal prize money, and in a way they have a valid reason.
"The PSA said that combining the tours would be beneficial for both the men and the women, but because our tour was originally smaller than the men’s, most of the money that came into the sport went to the women so we can have equal prize money compared to the men,” El Tayeb told The National in an interview last year.
Should a tennis merger actually happen, the women must make sure they have an equal voice at the table. It’s not just about equal prize money – which is obviously a must and still hasn’t been fully achieved in tennis – but there needs to be genuine buy-in from the ATP side, and belief in what the women will bring to the equation.
Cutting a cheque is easy, but being respectful and fair, and advocating for each other equally is a different story.
At times, the men’s tour has taken a superior or dismissive stance when it comes to the WTA. Just three and a half months ago, the ATP Cup that debuted in Australia relegated the women’s WTA Premier event in Brisbane to the outside courts in the early rounds, giving the men of the ATP Cup sole access to Centre Court for the first few days.
Few male players have openly supported equal pay in the sport, which makes you wonder whether that will change if the tours combine.
The tours have been operating so independently in many different ways, that we were shocked when we started receiving joint statements from them when the sport was hit by the coronavirus.
Another unprecedented move was the launch of the new show, Tennis United, co-hosted by the ATP and the WTA. It’s great to see those early signs of unity, but jumping into a merger sounds like a gigantic leap in comparison. It feels like such a sudden change of heart from the men who spent most of their time resisting this very notion.
With tennis now facing a crisis in the form of this global pandemic that has suspended the season for no less than five months, it’s definitely the right time to reflect, form new opinions, and examine a concept like a merger. If done the right way, the benefits could be substantial.
Combining the tours could help save costs, would give the unified circuit higher negotiating power with broadcasters and sponsors, and would eliminate a lot of confusion among fans who are currently struggling with the different rules for each tour, the numerous platforms they have to subscribe to in order to watch tennis, and the varying tournament structures and ranking systems.
‘Stronger together’ is a lovely sentiment and one we can all get behind. Let’s just hope the women get a fair shake out of it.
Updated: April 23, 2020 10:06 AM