Top ATP Players Move Against de Villiers

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are turning political.

I was walking down the street this afternoon when a man walked up to me and said he was doing a survey for a college course and he wanted to ask me a few questions. Okay, I said and kept on walking – if he wanted to ask me questions, then he’d have to keep up with me. These are the questions he asked me:

When did you have your last haircut? One month ago.
Did people work harder 50 years ago? People work longer hours today with all the technical crap you have to deal with but people worked harder physically fifty years ago.
What’ was the first thing you noticed about the interviewer?

I wasn’t sure what to say to that last one because I was looking where I was going, not at the interviewer, but I finally decided that his Bermuda shorts were the first thing I noticed. I think that the first two questions he asked were distractions. The subject of his survey was probably perception – what was my perception of him? My first thought was preppy. He was probably middle or upper class. Poor people don’t wear Bermuda shorts.

But it’s that second question that interests me today because there is a labor problem with the ATP tour. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are all running for a seat on the ten member player council. The player council elects the three player representatives on the board of directors. There are also three tournament director representatives on the board. The CEO of the ATP, Etienne de Villiers, has the tiebreak vote.

If I’m the number one, two, or three tennis player in the world, all I want to do it practice, play, get in a few rounds of golf now and then, and spend the rest of my time doing a whole lot of nothing. Instead, Roger, Rafa, and Nole are getting political and that means the players are angry.

The player council recently jettisoned player rep Perry Rogers. Rogers was Andre Agassi’s longtime manager and agent so you’d think he’d do what’s best for the players. But he was a strong supporter of de Villiers and that made the players angry so they fired him.

What do the players want? They want to make as much money as possible for as little work as possible. We all do. What do the tournament directors want? They want sponsors for their tournaments, TV contracts, and record attendance at their events. What does de Villiers want? He wants to make everyone happy but, like most CEOs, his job is to make his company grow.

And that is at odds with the players wants. For instance, the tour has awarded a Masters level event, now known as a 1000 series event, to Shanghai. That means players will have to schlep off to Asia in the fall when they might otherwise have skipped it because 1000 series events are mandatory. It also means that the ATP had to dump a few of its current Masters series events because that was the deal – the players would only have to play in eight Masters series events if the ATP was going to make them schlep all over the place.

And here is the biggest problem of all. The ATP managed to get rid of the Masters event in Monte Carlo by allowing them to keep their Masters designation but removing it from the players required attendance list. They weren’t so lucky with Masters event in Hamburg. The Quatar tennis association owns part of the Hamburg Open and they have a lot more money that Monte Carlo so they weren’t willing to accept a deal. They also have a lot more money than the ATP.

Qatar and Dubai – two lucrative stops on the both the ATP and WTA tour – are transforming their oil-based economies to more dependence on tourism and sporting events bring tourists. According to my sources, the ATP has spent $8 million dollars fighting Hamburg in court. The New York Times reports the amount as $7 million. My sources put the ATP yearly budget at around $11 million so you can see the problem.

Villiers is in trouble no matter how the court case turns out – the case will be heard in a U.S. court in the state of Delaware next month. If the ATP wins the court case then the players are unhappy because that means there’ll be one less clay court Masters event. If Hamburg wins the case, the players are still unhappy because de Villiers will have spent a whole lot of the ATP’s money for naught and now there’ll be nine Masters events instead of eight.

De Villiers’ contract ends in December and clearly he hasn’t done his job because the players are very angry at him and one of the tournaments is dragging him through a lengthy court case. The three player reps and the three tournament director reps on the board of directors choose the CEO and they will decide de Villiers’ fate. According the Charlie Bricker at the Florida Sun-Sentinel, the other two player reps will also step down and all three player reps will be chosen at a meeting of the player council at Wimbledon.

Clearly the player council is putting itself into position to remove de Villiers. If the three player reps refuse to vote for him, the board of directors will have to choose someone else. It’s a rare show of power by the players and I welcome it. But if the player council is replacing all three player reps, that means the reps weren’t doing their job, and that means the player council wasn’t doing it’s job . If they’re going to the trouble of ousting de Villiers, the players might want to fix that before the next CEO comes on board.