The atomised sport of tennis is rarely united by anything or anyone, but Novak Djokovic has come close with his latest wheeze: the launch of a representative body for male players. A statement arrived on Saturday from Wimbledon, carrying the logos of all four slams and three tours, which called for the idea to be dropped.
Djokovic and his right-hand man - Vasek Pospisil, the world No 92 - have asked the male players in New York to sign a document sketching out the bones of something called the Professional Tennis Players' Association. According to the blurb, "the goal … is not to replace the ATP [Association of Tennis Professionals], but to provide players with a self-governance structure".
Even if a majority of the US Open player field do sign up to the PTPA - and on Saturday night was supposed to be the moment when they huddled in corners with pens and paper - then it is hard to work out its actual powers. Strictly speaking, this is an association, rather than a union, and according to antitrust law, it is illegal for a group of independent contractors to threaten a boycott or strike.
Without that option, what are these rebels going to do? Sit around and discuss the issues of the day, before referring them back to the ATP Tour? In which case, it is not clear why Djokovic, Pospisil and their supporter John Isner have all stepped down from the ATP Player Council this weekend. That was originally the forum in which such debates were supposed to happen.
Whatever the next phase, Djokovic's move has certainly alarmed the existing powers of the game. "It is a time for even greater collaboration, not division," the All England Club said yesterday in their statement. On Friday night, meanwhile, Andrea Gaudenzi, the ATP chairman, sent an imploring letter to all the players, asking them to stick with the old governance model.
"You have what other athletes in other sports would strive for - a seat at the boardroom table," Gaudenzi wrote. "It makes no sense why you would be better served by shifting your role from the inside to the outside of the governance structure."
While the ATP is supposed to be a 50-50 partnership, Djokovic has been agitating for an independent player union since 2018. That was the year when he stood up at the annual meeting of male players before the Australian Open and asked the ATP executives to leave the room, before inviting a lawyer to explain how the idea might work.
Djokovic was then linked to a boardroom coup that ousted Chris Kermode as ATP chairman last year, installing Gaudenzi as the replacement. But many players now seem to have turned against Gaudenzi, a former top-20 player who has kept a remarkably low profile since the start of the pandemic.
"A lot of us were kept in the dark by our leadership for six months," Milos Raonic, a supporter of the PTPA, said on Friday night. "I voiced my opinion on many things, such as executives in other sports taking pay cuts. Our executives were staying home and didn't feel it necessary to take any pay cuts."
Raonic's comments were representative of widespread ill-feeling in the men's locker room. The players have been thrown together in a bio-secure bubble in New York for weeks without the moderating influence of the absent Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who have generally opposed Djokovic's more radical ideas.
Nadal tweeted a similar message last night to the Wimbledon statement. "I personally believe these are times to be calm and work all of us together in the same direction," he said. "It is time for unity, not for separation."
Since arriving in the bubble, the men have been outraged by the treatment of Guido Pella and Hugo Dellien, who were barred from the Western & Southern Open after their physiotherapist tested positive for Covid-19 (a false positive, judging by later tests). There was also discontent in some quarters over the decision to suspend Thursday's play in support of Naomi Osaka's political protest.
In the background, the issue of relative pay between the men's and women's tours continues to bubble away. The men make more money outside the slams, but many have been spooked by the suggestion - mooted by Federer in April - of a merger between the ATP and WTA tours. They believe that Gaudenzi supports this idea, and fear that it could lead to a redistribution of resources.