Tuesday 10 December 2019

Players could call strike over Grand Slam pay - Djokovic

Novak Djokovic Photo: Reuters
Novak Djokovic Photo: Reuters

Simon Briggs

Novak Djokovic has shocked tennis officials by floating the possibility of a player boycott of next year's Australian Open.

The former world No 1 delivered his dramatic suggestion on Friday night, as the annual men's player meeting in Melbourne - which is attended by about 150 of the world's best - was drawing to a close. It was part of an unexpected speech, intended to apply pressure to the tour - and especially the Grand Slams - to deliver bigger pay packets.

Djokovic had clearly been preparing his ambush for some time, as he invited a professor of labour law to join him on the podium and discuss the finer points of trade unions.

In order to organise a boycott, the argument went, it would be necessary to set up a new union that represented only the players. Because the Association of Tennis Professionals - which is constituted of equal parts players and tournaments - is legally unable to call a strike.

It is not that the Australian Open is less popular with the players than other Grand Slams; quite the reverse, in fact. Only an hour earlier, tournament director Craig Tiley had been telling the meeting that he intended to raise the total prize pot from A$55 million (€35m) this year to more than A$100m (€65m) in the next five years. Rather, there are thought to be legal reasons why a strike might be easier to organise here than in London, Paris or New York.

Djokovic's argument is that the Grand Slams only pay out about seven per cent of their income, whereas the equivalent figure in American basketball, which was cited as a point of comparison in the meeting, is about 50pc.

It is understood that Andy Murray, who attended the meeting despite his recent hip surgery, is supportive of the principle that players should be better paid. Roger Federer, however, is believed to favour the status quo in which one body - the ATP - represents the main interests of men's tennis. Approached after his practice session yesterday, Djokovic declined to comment on his stance. But his old friend and ally Viktor Troicki was more outspoken in a briefing with Serbian journalists.

"Novak is right," Troicki said. "The Grand Slams are raising the prize money, but their income gets bigger and bigger. A Players' Union is a good idea, only united will we have the power to really achieve something. When you look at what Grand Slams earn, what players are getting paid is ridiculous."

Bank account

This point was backed up in more temperate terms by Ryan Harrison, the American No 4, who told reporters: "I think there's a big case to be made as far as percentage goes. If you see an NBA player or an NFL player you think seven figures in their bank account and I don't think that's the case even for (some players who) make the main draw at Grand Slams."

Djokovic, who was elected as president of the ATP Player Council in 2016, is believed to have significant support from Gilles Simon, also an elected member of the ATP player council, and the fast-rising world No 4 Alexander Zverev.

As well as calling for better redistribution of tournaments' income streams, these players are thought to resent the Grand Slams' insistence on paying equal prize money to men and women.

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