Tennis is a viper’s nest – and latest ATP pay plans proves it

Nick Kyrgios listens during a pre-tournament press conference at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, south west London, Sunday July 2, 2023, ahead of the Wimbledon tennis championships

Nick Kyrgios called the ATP’s initiative ‘still not enough’ – AP/Florian Eisele

A new system designed to offer a financial security blanket for ATP tour players – by setting a guaranteed minimum income for the year – has threatened to cause a split within the game.

Nick Kyrgios, last year’s Wimbledon finalist, described the Baseline initiative as “still not enough,” while the British coach Calvin Betton told Telegraph Sport: “It’s aimed at the wrong people: it’s those ranked outside the top 250 who really need help.”

Meanwhile, the chief executive of Novak Djokovic’s rival player union, the Professional Tennis Players Association, claimed credit for the development, suggesting it was the result of pressure applied by his organisation. As ever, tennis remains a viper’s nest of competing interests, making it impossible to satisfy everyone.

Staff at the Association of Tennis Professionals have spent much of the summer working out the terms of the Baseline project, which offers a guaranteed minimum annual income of $300,000 (£237,000) to players ranked in the top 100. There are two more bands, stretching down to No 250 in the world, with respective minimum payments of $150,000 and $75,000.

While some might argue that any support for tour professionals is a benefit, there will always be arguments about who deserves the most support. Speaking to Telegraph Sport, Betton said: “You really need money if you’re ranked between 250 and 600. I also think it’s quite funny that the ATP announcement featured a quote from Grigor Dimitrov [the former world No3]. That’s like asking Tom Cruise to give a quote about the difficulties of being a struggling actor.”

Another coach, who preferred not to be named, said that the sums on offer were unlikely to change much – because “You would have to have a horrendous year to be eligible for a payment”. The same coach also questioned whether the ATP was looking for positive optics to head off the PTPA – the rival player union founded in 2019 by Djokovic and Canadian professional Vasek Pospisil, which is looking to expand its public profile.

But the coach did also acknowledge that the Baseline is still an exploratory move. “This is a three-year trial,” they said, “so I’m hoping that after running the numbers for a season or two, the ATP will find that they can afford to be a little more generous with the scheme.”

Telegraph Sport originally disclosed the plans behind the Baseline project in late April. The idea is similar to a system recently introduced by the PGA golf tour, and as we reported then, “The two sports are increasingly pooling ideas about how to look after their players, especially after the wake-up call that is the LIV Golf breakaway”.

Yet the prospect of a dramatic middle-eastern intervention in tennis has receded since the spring, despite – or perhaps because of – the likelihood that the Next Gen ATP Finals will end up in Jeddah this year. Telegraph Sport understands that an announcement on this is due in the coming days.

A more immediate threat, from the ATP’s perspective, is the possibility that a majority of tour players might decide to join the PTPA. Were this to happen, these players could potentially ask this PTPA to negotiate on their behalf with the four grand slams, thus chipping away at the ATP’s authority.

In a message on X, formerly Twitter, the PTPA’s chief executive Ahmad Nassar wrote: “In light of today’s news about the ATP’s Baseline program… outside pressure from an independent players’ association is good for the players and the sport!”

As for the question of players ranked too low for Baseline support, Betton said: “Tennis has fewer professionals making a living than any other major sport – probably only 250, which makes it surprising to me that the ATP would guarantee money to those ranked inside 250, and no one outside.”

But the ATP could reasonably respond that the world’s top 250 are the ones who play its events – whether that is on the Challenger tour or the full ATP circuit. Those ranked below 250 are more likely to be involved with the International Tennis Federation’s Futures tour. As ever, the fragmentation of tennis’s governance creates difficulties across the board.

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