A marriage made in quarantine

WTA Tour/ATP Tour merger?

By TennisReporters.net staff writers

Roger Federer started (restarted) the conversation. Now the debate is on.

Last week, the most TV commentators said that they were all in favor of an ATP Tour & WTA Tour merger. In a sense, that would be wonderful, but even if they make the effort, it will take years to complete.

They should start right now to pull it off ASAP, while the coronavirus has managed to stop all play. For months. With the players not playing each week all over the world, they might have talked about it only occasionally. Then, they couldn’t sit down and have a real conversation. But right now, they cannot get on a plane or play matches. It was time to “Stay at Home.’”

So now, because of that, they can really discuss the issues, perhaps for the first time ever. That is exciting and very real. No B.S., just talk and see if you can really figure it out.

After Federer threw out his now famous tweet suggesting the merger, Nick Kyrgios retweeted, wondering if he or others had consulted with ATP players. But, there are more votes siding with the merger. So far, both tour leaders have said they do see enough merit in the concept to explore it. Positive responses came from obviously Billie Jean King (who proposed the idea when the tours were born) and Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza. There are two votes, from the men’s side: Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka.

Here’s a quiz:

• I am a fan of men’s tennis only.

• I am a fan of women’s tennis only.

• I am a fan of tennis, both genders.

What answer do you think would prevail? No doubt that “both genders” would win hands down. The tennis world agrees.

The tours should merge, gradually. Why? Because most tennis fans watch both tours. Sure, the ATP gets more attention and some fans are more focused on the men. But, TV ratings show that interest in women’s tennis is growing: Tennis.com cited a ESPN report that the 2018 Wimbledon women’s final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber drew a 2.1 rating, peaking at 2.4 during the final quarter. The men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Kevin Anderson was “0.9, down from 1.5 in 2017 and the lowest since ESPN began broadcasting the finals in 2012.” Agreed that Anderson — who is a very nice person off court — but that doesn’t have great star power. But, Kerber doesn’t have the clout, however, the famous Serena has.
The entire tennis world is coed, except for the pro tours. National governing bodies regulate boys’ and girls’ junior tournaments and follow through into adult championships. In the majority of college tennis, schools have men’s and women’s teams, some lead by one coach. The ITF also oversees both genders.

So, why is there a split into ATP/WTA when players get to the highest level?

Let’s look at history. The world of the 1970s was in a vastly different place when it came to acceptance of equality between the genders. In the famous Battle of the Sexes between King and Bobby Riggs, the admitted “sexist pig” Riggs was able to flout his disregard for King’s talent. While King went along with the promotion, there was no doubt that this was not just a battle on the court. Following the emergence of a strong women’s lib movement in the 1960s, King’s goal was not to defeat Riggs as to prove that women can roar, and win.

The ATP was established in 1972 and the WTA was established in 1973. Is there any doubt that there was no “separate and equal” or even equal at that time, in tennis or the world in general. The tours were not comparable, in star or financial power. As James Brown sang, “It’s a Man’s World.”

Now we are in 2020. When women and men compete in the same tournaments, equal pay is expected. While the dominance of the Big 3 in the men’s game has helped keep the ATP Tour ahead in the public eye, Serena and Venus Williams and a cast of top players can draw larger TV ratings.

There has been a comparison to the golf world where men and women’s tours are different. Men and women golfers (in almost all tournaments) don’t play on the same golf course at the same time. But, in tennis, men and women regularly compete at the same location at the same time. Plus, at the Grand Slams, they play mixed doubles together.

There isn’t much discussion about the merger in conjunction with the Slams and the top tournaments where men and women already compete together. But, the question is around the lower level pro tournaments: Should a merged tour always have both genders at the same facility at the same time?

We see two different paths.

Play together

The Tennis Channel commentators like Lindsay Davenport have backed the concept of a merged tour means merger events. While there are many positives to this approach, there are challenges.

Currently, men and women play at the same time at many events: the four Grand Slams, Brisbane, Acapulco, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Eastbourne, Washington, Cincinnati and Beijing. And a few more. However, in 2020, the ATP has 63 events, and the WTA has 69 events. If some of these tournaments have both fields, will all of the tournaments survive? Who will stay and who will go?

Can these lower-level tournaments fit an event during a week? For example, at the beginning of April, the women have Stuttgart and Istanbul, and then the men have Houston and Marrakech. How would you merge those fields? Will there be enough courts together? In Houston, there are enough courts for the men’s in singles and doubles, but if you throw in the same thing with the women, that means double of everything. That is almost impossible.

Play apart at smaller tournaments

Many smaller tournaments (ATP 250s and WTA Internationals) play in facilities that couldn’t accommodate twice the players and matches at the same time.  Besides tennis courts, the tournament would need to find twice the hotel rooms and more volunteers. Is that financially possible, especially for these tournaments that have to pay player appearance fees to offset small purses?

The unique arrangement used by Tennis Canada – playing during different weeks – could work for the smaller tournaments. One solution is to run women one week and men right after. Then the tournament could keep up temporary stands, concessions and sponsor booth. Staff, volunteers, officials, etc. would be onsite for two weeks, instead of one.

So, a merger doesn’t have to mean a combined event every week at every city.

The final analysis
We have learned that the Winston-Salem Open [which is the week before the U.S. Open begins] has tried to get a WTA event merged into their tournament. But, the ATP shot it down. The ATP is in a position of dominance and they will need to use a real financial motivation to give up the top spot.

We hate to down to the nitty, gritty, but: It’s all about the money. If tennis can grow, if more fans will watch in person and on TV, then there will be some movement here. For the long-term good of the sport, serious work should continue to make this happen.

Because a tennis fan is a fan of all players, male or female.

Bring it on.