MADRID — The golden age of men’s tennis has lost some luster lately.
Internal discord has pitted player against player. The tour’s executive chairman is being forced out of his job. And the powerful ATP board member Justin Gimelstob, a divisive back-room figure, finally resigned his seat on the ATP board on May 1 in the wake of his battery conviction for a violent attack on a friend of his ex-wife in October.
This week would be a fine time for the ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, to start getting its act back together.
The first step comes Tuesday, in Rome, when the ATP player council, led by its president, Novak Djokovic, is set to select Gimelstob’s replacement from a field of six candidates with vastly different degrees of experience in tennis politics. That election should have a big impact on the next big decision: choosing who will lead the men’s tour. The ATP board has begun formally searching for a replacement for Chris Kermode, the ATP’s executive chairman and president, whose contract was not extended in March, in large part because of robust opposition from Gimelstob and Djokovic.
With Gimelstob out, Djokovic looks more isolated in his attempt to drive regime change. He also is, for now, short on high-profile allies after failing to keep Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the sport’s two other essential men, in the loop during the Kermode tussle. Neither Federer nor Nadal is a part of the 10-member player council, but they have hard-earned and undeniable clout when they decide to weigh in.
“I am only here to help, but I would like to know what his plan is,” Federer said of Djokovic in an interview last month in Switzerland. “Because I’m hearing rumors he has big plans, and I might really enjoy his plans. Who knows? But maybe I’m against him, and then it’s O.K., too, because let’s have a debate about it.”
There is much to discuss. Kermode’s contract runs until the end of the year, and he remains in his post. If the player council chooses a new board member more appreciative of his abilities than Gimelstob was, there is a chance Kermode could get a second chance at a contract extension. He would need at least two votes from the three player representatives on the board; in March, with Djokovic and Gimelstob aligned against him, he got none.
When asked if he would seek, or welcome, a new contract after all the acrimony of recent months, Kermode made it clear that the door was open.
“I respect the vote and the process the board went through in March,” he said. “If the board chooses or decides to reassess its options at any point, that can become a matter of further discussion. They know where I am.”
While some players question the strength of Kermode’s leadership and have expressed concerns that he, a former tournament director, has leaned toward the tournaments on prize money issues, he still has considerable support. Nadal and Stan Wawrinka made it clear between matches this week at the Madrid Open that they would be in favor of Kermode’s renewal.
Wawrinka has been the rare outspoken star of late, calling for Gimelstob’s resignation and even publishing a first-person piece in The Times of London that decried “a worrying decline in moral standards” in the men’s game and expressing the view that this was “a situation where silence amounts to complicity.”
Kermode seems similarly concerned. When I spoke with him about Gimelstob on Thursday night, he said “this whole incident has been highly unfortunate and regrettable and embarrassing.”
At this tense stage, his pledge, in the meantime, to finish his term “in the strongest way possible” should mean more than record financial figures or increased prize money. It should mean improved governance to avoid a repeat of the Gimelstob fiasco, for which the board also shares blame.
No board rules obliged Gimelstob to take a leave of absence after his arrest on felony charges, and in December the board did not summon the unanimous vote it needed to remove him.
Djokovic has continued to resist the kind of transparency that Federer and others have called for. But he has acknowledged that communication between the council, which also includes the players John Isner and Kevin Anderson, and board members and the rest of the players needs to improve. He also points out that many players are too concerned with managing their own careers and day-to-day needs to focus on political issues. Even Wawrinka, despite his activism, seems resistant to running for the council again.
“There are a lot of times where players don’t give you much space to approach them,” Djokovic said.
But the changes in governance that the ATP needs are going to require player buy-in. Kermode said an internal review — tennis seems to specialize in these at this stage — was begun last year.
“So the timing of this was quite apt, because we’re looking at everything for the moment anyway,” he said. “We’ve had a first stab at it. We are reviewing it at Wimbledon, but it’s literally the beginning, almost the skeleton, and then we need to put some meat on the bones.”
Tim Mayotte, the former top 10 player from the United States who did not make the final list of ATP board candidates, was adamant that conflicts of interest for board members also need to be curtailed. (Gimelstob’s production company, for example, continues to produce a television show for the ATP.) But Mayotte’s strong stand and long-overdue suggestion got him nowhere. “Looks bad, but not much will change,” he told me last week.
Kermode believes more transparency is desirable, but rather than trying to eliminate all conflicts, he said, the priority should be adding independent members to the board from outside the tennis community to bring a broader, more neutral perspective.
A thorough governance overhaul might even create a way to relieve the tour leader of some of the enemy-generating burden of casting the deciding vote whenever the tournament side and the player side are split. But whether Kermode stays, or more likely goes, many of the most influential tour decisions have already been made. They include the contentious relaunch of the ATP Cup team event in Australia to start the 2020 season, and the decision to end the ATP Finals’ long run in London and move the event to Turin, Italy, for at least five years in 2021. The switch in venue will come with a big jump in prize money: to $14.5 million per year from $8 million.
Kermode said he and David Haggerty, the International Tennis Federation president, would meet in Rome next week to try to resolve more of the issues plaguing the so-called transition tour, the route up to the main ATP circuit, which has become too narrow a pathway for the men with reduced ranking points and opportunities this season.
“I wouldn’t call tennis dysfunctional,” Gimelstob told me before he stepped aside. “But I certainly don’t think it’s maximizing.”
It has certainly looked dysfunctional too often in the last year. It is time to get back on track: time for the players and the tournaments to develop a more productive relationship for the good of the sport; time for the tour to head for higher moral ground and work toward a day when the duels in the board room are not more intriguing than the duels on the court.