By Giri Nathan
Most racquet smashes are worth laughing at; some are worth cherishing for posterity. Some classics I’ll look up on YouTube—I’m thinking of Grigor Dimitrov’s 2016 Istanbul final, which saw him obliterate three sticks to concede the last game. Usually they’re just the outcome of a bad day. Wednesday’s big blow-up at the Miami Open was historic, but for reasons that are slightly more … loaded. For the first six games, Vasek Pospisil was playing a competitive first-round match, until, suddenly, he wasn’t. On a routine return of serve, he smashed the ball clean out of the court. Then he gave an exploratory racquet smack to the metal box that held his towel. Then he spiked it on the ground—code violation, racquet abuse. Then he tanked a couple points to go down 15-40, added on a little muffled profanity—code violation, verbal abuse—to earn the point penalty and concede the set.
Things got substantially spicier than your average meltdown once Pospisil sat in his chair for the break. Umpire Arnaud Gabas, reasonably, asked him what was up. (This ump mode always amuses me. Usually its damage control, but sometimes they genuinely seem to care about the players. Maybe instead of having their patients lie down on long chairs, shrinks should sit up on high ones.) He was blindsided by Pospisil’s reply: “An hour and a half yesterday, the chairman of the ATP fucking screaming at me in a player meeting, for trying to unite the players. For an hour and a half! The leader of the ATP. Get him out of here,” he raged. “Fucking asshole.” A baffled Gabas mumbled something like, “What does that have to do with…?” and appealed to the fact that this was all on TV, and told him to take it up with the chairman off the court.
“Why am I supporting this fucking…”
“Please, please, again—”
“If you want to default me I’ll gladly sue this whole organization.”
So yes, this has deeper ideological roots than your average Benoit Paire tantrum. (Those ideological roots pretty much culminate here.) The syrup-loving Canadian apologized for his language and on-court behavior the next day, but not the substance of his message, and it’s worth understanding the recent history behind his outburst. Pospisil has been something of a labor agitator. He was a founder of the Professional Tennis Player Association, which launched last fall as a well-intentioned if loosely defined attempt to organize the men’s tour. Pospisil and Novak Djokovic led the charge, amassing dozens of signatures of support from top-ranked men. There were several conspicuous holdouts, including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray—in fairness, anyone who has made eight to nine figures off tennis is probably cool with the existing arrangement. While the PTPA’s messaging was often muddled, and they didn’t coordinate with the women’s tour before launching—per Bloomberg, they have since sought to bring them on board—it looked from the outside like a radical attempt to consolidate and defend players’ interests against all the moneyed powers in tennis.
To understand the kinds of structural problems they’re responding to, check out this week’s excellent Bloomberg story, but here’s the shorthand: Tennis has tons of global fans, but is awful at monetizing them; it still brings in $2.3 billion in annual revenue, but the players see only a tiny fraction of it. Tennis players take some 15 percent of revenue generated by the Slams, a pittance compared to the roughly 50 percent of revenue raked in by NBA players backed by a strong players’ union. That’s how you see players talented enough to win main-draw matches at Slams going broke covering their overhead. The PTPA thus put a big emphasis on tournament prize money—more of it, shared further down the rankings—but Pospisil also discussed player pensions, the grueling calendar, and insurance. Another major critique was the basic structure of the ATP board, which consists of three player reps, three tournament reps, and a swing vote from the ATP chairman. Pospisil’s camp believes that this balance of votes, along with rampant conflict of interest, puts a cap on how effective the players can be at the bargaining table. Both Djokovic and Pospisil left their positions on the ATP players’ council and founded this new players’ association on the explicit belief that the existing bodies couldn’t get it done.
This move to organize did not please Tennis’ Powers That Be. Every big governing body in this wildly decentralized sport got together to write a joint statement on the one thing they could agree on: condemning the PTPA. Andrea Gaudenzi, former player, present ATP chairman, and the “fucking asshole” described in Pospisil’s tirade, has had a rough time at the helm. He took over right before the Australian bushfires, went straight into the pandemic, and feels like he hasn’t had the time to implement his vision, which also calls for change. “Guys, can you wait?” he asked Pospisil and Djokovic, per Bloomberg, when they shared their intentions to organize in early 2020. “This is our plan. We want to change.” They did not wait, of course. That could not have helped their relationship, so it’s not all that surprising that Gaudenzi might have chewed out Pospisil. And while it would be bold to say Pospisil was throwing away first-round prize money just to make a scene—he ended up losing in three sets, and refused to do press afterward—it did attract a lot of attention to his plight. I don’t know about you, but I would like to know a lot more about the leader of men’s tennis allegedly shouting at a player in front of his peers because he attempted to organize! That’s almost more interesting than the racquet smashes.
Above: Vasek winds up (Getty Images)
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