The faults in tennis – The Hindu

The power struggles are partly due to the lack of a cohesive organisational structure

The power struggles are partly due to the lack of a cohesive organisational structure

Even as a real war rages on, tennis seems to be at war with itself. The recent Wimbledon row has opened a wide fissure in an already fractured sport. The removal of ranking points at Wimbledon by tennis tour operators is a scalding rebuke to the intransigence displayed by the oldest Slam in banning Russian and Belarusian players. Reports have now emerged that the All England Club is likely to take the issue to court. Such a move would bring to a boil a deep-rooted disharmony that sits at the very core of the sport.

As political experts grapple over moral questions of whether citizens (in this case, players) should be punished for the actions of a state, tennis fans are left to wonder whether this fiasco could have been avoided if only there was better communication.

The fiefdoms in an empire

Infighting is not new in tennis. Players and tournament organizers have constantly disagreed over issues such as prize money and playing schedules. But there are battles constantly waged within the upper echelons too. The power struggles are partly due to the lack of a cohesive organisational structure. Instead of one overarching governing body, there are seven predominant powers: the International Tennis Federation (ITF); the ATP (for men) and WTA (women); and the four Grand Slams. And there exist other fiefdoms in this sprawling empire, like national tennis federations, which can wield power at will. Each has its own interests to fulfill and, in the case of Wimbledon, archaic traditions to preserve. Communication channels between them have been awkward at best and combative at worst. As former ATP chairman Etienne de Villiers once said, “Everyone distrusts everyone else.”

The Majors have a history of acting unilaterally, without consulting the tours or the players. The most recent example of this played out in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, at a time when organizers and stakeholders were expected to work together. The French Tennis Federation decided to postpone the French Open from the usual May-June schedule to October, merely two weeks after the US Open, without consulting the other Slams or tours. Players were thrust into a chaotic autumn season. It was a case of one body singularly turning the tennis calendar on its head.

There have been rare cases of the Slams putting on a united front too. When former World No. 1 Naomi Osaka decided to boycott press conferences at Roland-Garros last year, the Grand Slam organizers came down on her, warning her of fines and suspensions. That decision was taken to protect their own purses is another matter.

The ATP and WTA too have run solo at several junctures. Most notably, when tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared after making explosive sexual assault revelations against Chinese Communist Party officials, the ATP expressed concern but stopped short of joining the WTA in suspending tournaments in China. Ideas to merge the tours, as floated by the likes of Roger Federer and Billie Jean King, never came to fruition.

Fighting the good fight

At this point, when the Russia-Ukraine conflict shows no signs of ceasing, the powers that be in tennis find themselves faced with a question: how do you convince the world that you are fighting the good fight, especially when there is little evidence to prove that measures like sporting sanctions do anything at all to affect the war? The question is especially pertinent in tennis, where patriotic sentiments rarely exert any influence and fans are drawn to players less because of the boxed flag next to their name and more because of how they play the game and carry themselves on and off the court.

Staying in synchrony could be a possible first step. Reuters reported in 2021 that a ‘T7 working group’ involving the seven governing bodies was established to examine areas such as a unified calendar, shared commercial offerings, sponsorships and TV deals. The fact that such a grouping exists is an accomplishment in itself, but there is no better time to invigorate it than now. Apart from trying to just fix the economics of the sport, the group would do well to focus on other pressing matters too.

Perhaps what tennis also needs is one director or commissioner who can solicit feedback from all stakeholders and put forth a plan of action during a crisis like the one it is facing now.

The foundation of tennis was laid more than a century ago. The sport has always prided itself as being progressive. The with-us-or-against-us stance maintained by the top order only pushes it backward. What it needs now is more collaboration and less rancor. As Center Court at SW19 celebrates its centenary year at the current residence, the drama should be strictly on court.

Preethi Ramamoorthy, formerly with The Hindu, is a journalist based in Bengaluru

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