Even as the on-court tennis action heats up at the first Masters 1000 tournament of the year at Indian Wells, the spotlight has been trained on the off-court politics with the men’s game’s three biggest names on apparent odds with each other. Since the start of the season, most notably at the Australian Open, there seems to have been increasing disquiet on the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour over extending the term of current executive chairman and president Chris Kermode.
Novak Djokovic, as ATP Player Council chairman, has been ambiguous on where he stands on the issue but with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal publicly saying that there is no communication between the players and player council, there seems to be a lot more than meets the eye.
The matter came to a head last Friday when it was officially when decision not to extend Kermode’s tenure was made at a meeting of the ATP Board. It came on divided opinion among players as to whether the Briton was the best person to take the game forward.
Here’s an explainer on what the issue brewing on the ATP Tour is and how the game’s three players are involved
The issue over Chris Kermode
At the heart of the entire controversy was the vote to decide if Kermode should stay or no.
In his six-year reign as chief, men’s tennis has seen a lot of positive changes, such as the ATP Next Gen Finals and an increase in prize money. However, this increase has been top-heavy and several lower-ranked players have complained about the inequitable distribution of wealth.
In January, Britain’s Daily Telegraph said a move was underway to remove Kermode citing a strongly worded and leaked email sent by ATP player council member Vasek Pospisil to players ranked between 50 and 100.
The mail reportedly called for the workforce to “start acting and running like a business not like a bunch of scared kids ... we need a CEO that first and foremost represents OUR interests”.
The email added that “the governance structure of the ATP favours the interests of the tournaments and its (their) owners ... It’s time for a change and it can be achieved by staying unified and demanding what we deserve for our hard work”.
Typically, the ATP executive chairman and president is the deciding vote when the reps of players and tournaments are deadlocked.
According to Peter Bodo in ESPN, “The disgruntled players basically feel that Kermode sides too often with the tournament reps and their desires” and want “more money and more job opportunities for more players. “
However, Kermode also received the support from many elite players, along with Federer and Nadal, as well as Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov, and Nick Kyrgios, illustrating the divided nature of the men’s game. Both Federer and Nadal used their voice to insist that if there is to be a change, players must be consulted with, something that they say wasn’t done.
But irrespective of the words exchanged, the ATP voted to part ways with Kermode which has sparked this new round of unrest.
What is the role of the ATP Player Council?
The ATP players council, headed by Novak Djokovic, had met in Melbourne and reportedly voted 5-4 against Kermode continuing in his role when his contract expires later this year, according to Telegraph.
However, the player council is not the one who would vote on the issue, it just selects the three player representatives on the ATP Board, which comprises of three tournament representatives and three player representatives. Kermode needed two of the three board members from each side of the ATP to support him as it turns out he got none from the player representatives.
It should be noted that at present, neither Federer nor Nadal are involved with the player council but both have been prior heads.
What Djokovic said (or didn’t say)
Novak Djokovic, president of the player council, has not been very forthcoming on which side he was on or how the vote went or why he didn’t communicate with Federer and Nadal.
But the underlying issue is the apparent lack of communication between the Big three and the fact that Djokovic was willing to meet with Federer before the vote. Even before the March mess, Djokovic had said in Melbourne that Federer, Nadal or anyone who wishes to talk about this should come talk to the council.
However, the comments in Indian Wells suggest that he has not given Federer the time to meet and discuss this before. In fact, the Swiss player mentioned that he and world No 2 Nadal had met in California to discuss this issue itself.
What Federer said
“I tried to meet Novak before the decision. Unfortunately, he had no time. That’s hard for me... to understand. But that is okay. He definitely had a lot to do with the whole story. I asked if he had time to meet me.... He suggested we meet the next day, but then everything had been decided. We have not met yet, and in the meantime, the tournament has started,” he was quoted as saying by Swiss media.
What Nadal said
“Nobody came to me to explain why this stuff happened,” Nadal told the press at Indian Wells. “I have my phone with me. So nobody text me to speak about or to ask me about what’s my thoughts about that decision. Being the same time I can say nothing, because was my decision to [stop being involved] of the politics. But at the same time, of course, I am disappointed that nobody came and explained why, what’s the real reason of [why] we don’t have Chris continuing running our sport. Probably somebody have a different plans for our sport, but is true that the guys who are in the council represent the rest of the players. They don’t represent their opinions only.”
The Gimelstob issue
There is also the controversial matter of council member Justin Gimelstob pleading not guilty last month to a felony battery charge in a Los Angeles court.
The two-time Grand Slam mixed doubles champion was accused of attacking one-time friend Randall Kaplan. He pleaded not guilty.
“With the board member [Gimelstob], we know the situation. It’s pending. But it’s definitely interesting times, I’d like to call it, not bad times in our sport. think it’s maybe also a bit of a transition time. So it will be interesting to see what’s going to happen,” Federer had said is in Melbourne.
Djokovic said the players council was “comfortable” with Gimelstob remaining a board member despite the charges against him.
“If he is not proven guilty, he stays innocent, or he’s proven guilty, that’s a completely different situation for us and we have to address it,” he said.