Professional tennis is broken. Here’s how to fix it

Professional tennis is broken. Here’s how to fix it

Tennis is doing what it does every 10-15 years or so — having a reckoning with its endless schedule, its nonsensical governing structure, and a competitive format that even devout fans struggle to understand.

The sport is played across the world, with countries on every continent except Antarctica producing top players. No major sport integrates men and women more successfully, or has come as close to pay equality, though there is work to be done on those fronts. Nearly every day of the year, an enticing professional match unfolds somewhere on the planet.

And yet, the nearly unanimous opinion of everyone involved in the game — its leaders, its players, tournament organizers, sponsors, media executives, coaches — is that professional tennis is broken, a structural mess that exhausts its players, cannibalizes its business with dueling events and exists in a constant state of civil war among its alphabet soup of governing bodies. There are seven of them, or maybe nine or 10, depending on who is doing the counting.

“Such an amazing sport and so screwed up,” said Pam Shriver, the former star player who is now a commentator and a coach.

Marketa Vondrousova celebrates winning Wimbledon (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

“I can’t even get quoted about it anymore without using bad language,” said another former player who has been involved in tennis for decades. She was right. She couldn’t.

Phil de Picciotto, the chief executive and founder of Octagon, the sports marketing firm with deep roots in professional tennis, has been in conference rooms filled with leaders of the sport trying to fix it on and off for more than 30 years. What often happens, he said, is that everyone gravitates toward one of two opposite poles.

At one end are those who favor developing the most players, which requires giving as many people as possible an opportunity to progress with tournaments all the time all over the world. At the other end is the Grand Slams – singular events that target the elite of the elite and attract the most casual of sports fans.

“Both are really important,” de Picciotto said. “People can adopt both of those bookends and they do. The battleground becomes everything in between.”

As the 2024 tennis season gets underway in Australia, what might make this reckoning different from all the previous reckonings is the near unanimity on what tennis needs to fix itself. Ask nearly anyone involved in nearly any facet of the sport how to fix it, which we did, and the same answer almost always comes back: a clearly defined, premium tennis tour built around the game’s most valuable legacy events and its best players that is easy to follow, includes both men and women and doesn’t overtax stars.

Even those who have to be against that commonly prescribed solution because there is a chance it might harm their investments — namely the owners of small and mid-sized tournaments — essentially agree this is what tennis needs. They are sports executives and they understand that nearly every other successful sport uses some version of that same formula.

No one knows exactly how to manage all the details. What jobs and events to eliminate. How to unwind all the conflicting contracts. The algorithm to divvy up the loot from a combined premium tour so that the lesser competitions that are essential for the sport’s development don’t become extinct remains a work in progress — and probably always will be.

Djokovic now plays fewer tournaments (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Tennis has tried to create versions of this before, only to have the plans fall apart due to battles over territory, power and money. This time, veterans of the sport say, it feels different, a result of both desire and necessity, as leaders face a combination of internal and external pressure to change or be changed.

Fixing everything in tennis in one fell swoop may be beyond anyone’s reach, but smart, experienced people like John Morris, who represents several top players for his company, 72 Sports Group, and is a longtime tennis executive, say establishing a premier tour would represent a significant start.

“If this can happen,” Morris said, “a lot of the things that need to be corrected can be corrected.”

How we got here

The tennis world comes together each year at Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tournament in the sport.

As the tennis unfolds on the grass courts, the sport’s movers and shakers, including leaders of the tours, the four Grand Slams, the International Tennis Federation, and scores of media executives, agents and corporate leaders, cut deals over glasses of Champagne and catered lunches, cocktail hours and dinners inside the corporate suites at the All England Lawn Tennis Club and the stately homes on the hilly streets nearby.

This is where, in early July, word began to circulate that Andrea Gaudenzi, the former player who is the chairman of the men’s circuit, the ATP Tour, was on the verge of a big one. Gaudenzi was closing in on a deal with Saudi Arabia to deliver a top tournament to the kingdom as soon as January 2025.

Saudi Arabia had upended golf the previous year by launching a rival tour. Gaudenzi wanted to do everything in his power to prevent that from happening in tennis.

Inviting the Saudis into the clubby upper echelon of the game by allowing them to launch a major new event seemed like the best strategy. A top Saudi event at the start of the year would likely doom the series of small and mid-sized tournaments in Australia and New Zealand during those weeks, but they weren’t Gaudenzi’s priority. Placating the Saudis was.

Tournaments like Madrid, where Sabalenka won this year, would be part of a premier tour (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Then word of the deal made its way to Craig Tiley, the leader of Tennis Australia. Tiley and Tennis Australia’s other leaders were staying in a handsome brick home on a quiet block between the All England Club and Wimbledon Village. From his perch a few streets from the tournament, Tiley, a South African who played professionally before becoming a top college coach in the U.S. and evolving into a leading tennis executive, swung into action.

If Gaudenzi was going to treat key events of Tennis Australia’s annual “summer of tennis” as collateral damage, Tiley, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was going right back at him.

Long recognized as among the most innovative minds in tennis, Tiley began working the phones and the power centers at Wimbledon to get the leaders of the other three Grand Slams to support his effort to cleave the top tournaments from men’s and women’s tours, known as the “Masters” and “1,000s” to launch the premium tennis circuit that so many in the game craved.

Through the summer and fall, Tiley’s push for a tennis tour that resembled Formula One continued to gain momentum, especially within the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), the nascent players group that Novak Djokovic co-founded three years ago. A formal proposal is expected in the coming weeks.

Why now is different

“We are closer than we ever have been,” said one longtime industry executive involved with the discussions, both this year and in the past. Like several others, he requested anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details of internal discussions.

He then explained why he was optimistic that change was on the way.

“You have external forces in the form of Saudi Arabia and the PTPA that you didn’t have before.”

Let’s unpack that.

LIV Golf changed everything.

When Saudi Arabia launched its quest last year to upend professional golf by paying top players hundreds of millions of dollars to compete on a new rival tour, leaders of the organizations that have controlled professional tennis for the last half-century knew their supremacy could soon be under threat.

Tennis players receive roughly a quarter of the sport’s revenues, compared with about 50 per cent in major team sports. It would not take much for a deep-pocketed investor to offer the best ones a higher-paying, less demanding alternative.

Buenos Aires, where Alcaraz won, could end up outside the top tour (Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images)

Also, during the past three years, the PTPA has grown into something the sport has never had — a viable and well-financed independent platform for players to attack the status quo.

The men’s and women’s tours, the WTA and the ATP, have largely treated the PTPA as an outside agitator. In October, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, refused to allow a PTPA representative to take part in a meeting between him and the top 20 players, more than half of whom are members of the PTPA.

The Grand Slams took another tack, using the PTPA to work with players to try to meet their workplace needs. That has helped establish a respectful management-labor dynamic and a level of trust in the Grand Slams as they work to change the competitive structure of the sport.

“A players association is here now and they understand that as something that needs to be accepted,” Vasek Pospisil, a veteran player from Canada and a founding member of the PTPA, said of the Grand Slams. “They want the players to have a seat at the table.”

It also helps that the Grand Slams share more money with the players than the regular tour events.

Finally, the Grand Slams learned in 2022 that they don’t need the tours. The tours withheld rankings points from Wimbledon last year when the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees tennis in Great Britain, refused to allow players from Belarus and Russia to participate as a punishment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The rest of the players came anyway. Stadiums were packed. Television ratings remained sky-high. No one really cared whether players received ranking points.

What would tennis look like under the new framework?

The details are still being worked out, but the broad outline is built around a premier tour for top-level players — say, roughly the top 100.

They would play at least the 14 biggest tournaments on the schedule: the Grand Slams, the 10-12 biggest and most successful tour events, and the two tour finals. They could drop down and play a few smaller tournaments, but anything that happens in those tournaments is separate from the main tour.

The premier events would include Wimbledon, the U.S., Australian and French Opens; mixed events in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Toronto/Montreal, and Cincinnati; men’s tournaments in Monte Carlo, Paris and Shanghai; Women’s events in Dubai, Doha and Beijing. Other top candidates for inclusion would include events in Washington D.C., Tokyo, and possibly the men’s event in Beijing, since they are world capitals.

All the other events would be part of a developmental tour, with players outside the top 100 competing to make the premier tour. Higher-ranked players who need matches or want to collect an appearance fee could play in a few of those events each year, but the results would not count toward the premier tour standings and rankings.

A Saudi masters would put tournaments such as Auckland under threat (Michael Bradley/AFP via Getty Images)

The tour would be managed by a board with representatives of the Grand Slams, the other big tournaments, and representatives of the ATP and the WTA. The players would sit on the labor side of the negotiating table and collectively bargain for their share of the revenues as they do in other successful sports.

It’s unclear how the International Tennis Federation, which controls international team competitions like the Davis Cup, the Billie Jean King Cup and the Olympic tournaments, would fit into this structure, if at all. That said, the ITF is reexamining the format of its competitions right now and needs to get its own house in order first.

Why does a premier tour have so much support?

Everyone in tennis believes the season is too long and disparate. It is.

It lasts 11 months and is impossible to manage, with the seven different governing bodies constantly fighting with one another about the schedule. It is also too complicated for lay fans to keep track of.

“It’s like having a calendar with seven different discussions in seven different rooms,” Gaudenzi said in November during a meeting with a small group of journalists in Italy. “I’m trying to convince everybody we’re managing one product. We’re all part of the same book. We might write different chapters, but we’re part of the same book and we can’t sell different chapters in different bookstores.”

Selling just one “book”, to use Gaudenzi’s metaphor, would make the sport simpler to follow and likely drive up the price for media rights and sponsorships. Right now, tournaments and the different governing bodies compete with one another. That drives down prices since buyers can play one off against the other. Bundling a collection of premier tournaments, selling them together and partnering with networks dedicated to exploiting all the content the sport produces instead of just the final rounds would likely drive up investment substantially.

That would be a boon to organizers of the top tournaments and to players. They want to play less, earn more money and eliminate any incentive to play every week.

“Right now the system is structured so that if I don’t play every week I can’t get to the ranking I need,” Pospisil said. “To go up the rankings, you’ve got to play non-stop.”

Raemon Sluiter, a veteran coach, said the birth of Elina Svitolina’s first child last year gave the star from Ukraine an advantage — before she returned, she finally had the opportunity to practice for more than two months straight, far longer than the usual gruelling schedule permits. Top tennis players generally enjoy an off-season that lasts about two weeks, which isn’t enough time to make any significant changes. A slimmed-down tour could make a big difference.

The winners

“It is very good to be a 1,000 event right now,” said a top executive at a company that owns one.

Indeed, the biggest tournaments in tennis outside the Grand Slams are the belles of the ball at the moment. Tiley and the Grand Slams want them for their premier tour. The ATP and the WTA want to maintain their associations with these historic tour stops, such as Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome, so they aren’t relegated to operating the tennis minor leagues.

Also, consider a tennis investor like Ben Navarro, who recently purchased the Cincinnati Masters for roughly $300million. If Cincinnati lands a spot on the premier tour, his event is now a part of the same circuit and business operation as Wimbledon rather than, say, Delray Beach. Not bad.

The same goes for CVC Capital Partners, the private equity firm that bought a 20 per cent stake in the WTA Tour in 2023 for $150million. If the WTA can negotiate an ownership stake and a seat on the board in the premier tour, CVC is now in business with the biggest events in the sport.

The losers — but perhaps not so much

The small and medium-sized tournaments, competitions in places like Dallas, Basel, and Buenos Aires, are going to have a hard time swallowing the prospect of relegation to the minor leagues. They have spent millions of dollars on license agreements to be a part of the ATP and the WTA. Also, there is a question of whether narrowing the scope of big-time tennis to a premier tour is good for the long-term health of the professional game.

“The big difference between tennis and nearly every other sport is that tennis events are tied to participation,” said the owner of a mid-sized tournament. “F1 is a spectacle. You can’t grow a global participation sport with 14 tournaments around the world.”

That line of thinking, however, relies on the premise that interest will automatically diminish in the small and mid-sized tournaments with the advent of a premier tour, rather than understanding the appeal of a cohesive system built around promotion and relegation.

“There isn’t really a tour right now,” said John Morris, the industry veteran at the helm of 72 Sports. “It’s a circus made up of individual promoters and I say that with all due respect.”

Morris said the small- and mid-sized tournaments might be more appealing than they are now if the sport organized them into regional circuits, with players competing to make the premier tour for the following season and coveted spots throughout the season in the Grand Slams and other top events.

In other words, whoever wins in Estoril, Portugal, Charleston, S.C. or Auckland could have new import, in addition to the limited star attractions they now enjoy. Play well for six weeks on lower-tier tours and receive a wild card entry into, say, the French Open.

Most importantly, Morris said, players outside the top 100 wouldn’t go broke funding their travel around the world since they would largely play within their regions on a circuit with far more cohesion and perhaps even a minimum salary. Prize money would not necessarily have to rise all that much because the costs for players would fall.

“Finding a one-size-fits-all solution that fixes everything all at once is difficult,” Pospisil said. “As for lower-tier tournaments, I don’t think it would be worse. Maybe this results in a much bigger place for them.”

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Sean Reilly)