Tennis is doing what it does each 10-15 years or so — having a reckoning with its infinite schedule, its nonsensical governing construction, and a aggressive format that even religious followers battle to perceive.

The game is performed the world over, with international locations on each continent besides Antarctica producing prime gamers. No main sport integrates women and men extra efficiently, or has come as shut to pay equality, although there is work to be carried out on these fronts. Practically day by day of the yr, an attractive skilled match unfolds someplace on the planet.

And but, the almost unanimous opinion of everybody concerned within the recreation — its leaders, its gamers, match organizers, sponsors, media executives, coaches — is that skilled tennis is damaged, a structural mess that exhausts its gamers, cannibalizes its enterprise with dueling occasions and exists in a continuing state of civil conflict amongst its alphabet soup of governing our bodies. There are seven of them, or possibly 9 or 10, relying on who is doing the counting.

“Such an amazing sport and so screwed up,” stated Pam Shriver, the previous star participant who is now a commentator and a coach.

Marketa Vondrousova celebrates successful Wimbledon (Glyn Kirk/AFP through Getty Photos)

“I can’t even get quoted about it anymore without using bad language,” stated one other former participant who has been concerned in tennis for many years. She was proper. She couldn’t.

Phil de Picciotto, the chief govt and founding father of Octagon, the sports activities advertising and marketing agency with deep roots in skilled tennis, has been in convention rooms full of leaders of the game attempting to fix it on and off for greater than 30 years. What usually occurs, he stated, is that everybody gravitates towards considered one of two reverse poles.

At one finish are those that favor growing essentially the most gamers, which requires giving as many individuals as attainable a possibility to progress with tournaments on a regular basis all around the world. On the different finish is the Grand Slams – singular occasions that focus on the elite of the elite and entice essentially the most informal of sports activities followers.

“Both are really important,” de Picciotto stated. “People can adopt both of those bookends and they do. The battleground becomes everything in between.”

Because the 2024 tennis season will get underway in Australia, what would possibly make this reckoning totally different from all of the earlier reckonings is the close to unanimity on what tennis wants to fix itself. Ask almost anybody concerned in almost any aspect of the game how to fix it, which we did, and the identical reply nearly all the time comes again: a clearly outlined, premium tennis tour constructed across the recreation’s most beneficial legacy occasions and its greatest gamers that is straightforward to observe, consists of each women and men and doesn’t overtax stars.

Even those that have to be towards that generally prescribed resolution as a result of there is an opportunity it would possibly hurt their investments — particularly the homeowners of small and mid-sized tournaments — primarily agree this is what tennis wants. They’re sports activities executives they usually perceive that just about each different profitable sport makes use of some model of that very same formulation.

Nobody is aware of precisely how to handle all the main points. What jobs and occasions to eradicate. How to unwind all of the conflicting contracts. The algorithm to divvy up the loot from a mixed premium tour in order that the lesser competitions which can be important for the game’s growth don’t turn into extinct stays a piece in progress — and possibly all the time will probably be.

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Djokovic now performs fewer tournaments (Matthew Stockman/Getty Photos)

Tennis has tried to create variations of this earlier than, solely to have the plans collapse due to battles over territory, energy and cash. This time, veterans of the game say, it feels totally different, a results of each want and necessity, as leaders face a mix of inner and exterior strain to change or be modified.

Fixing every thing in tennis in a single fell swoop could also be past anybody’s attain, however good, skilled folks like John Morris, who represents a number of prime gamers for his firm, 72 Sports activities Group, and is a longtime tennis govt, say establishing a premier tour would symbolize a big begin.

“If this can happen,” Morris stated, “a lot of the things that need to be corrected can be corrected.”

How we bought right here

The tennis world comes collectively annually at Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious match within the sport.

Because the tennis unfolds on the grass courts, the game’s movers and shakers, together with leaders of the excursions, the 4 Grand Slams, the Worldwide Tennis Federation, and scores of media executives, brokers and company leaders, reduce offers over glasses of Champagne and catered lunches, cocktail hours and dinners inside the company suites on the All England Garden Tennis Membership and the stately houses on the hilly streets close by.

This is the place, in early July, phrase started to flow into that Andrea Gaudenzi, the previous participant who is the chairman of the lads’s circuit, the ATP Tour, was on the verge of a giant one. Gaudenzi was closing in on a cope with Saudi Arabia to ship a prime match to the dominion as quickly as January 2025.

Saudi Arabia had upended golf the earlier yr by launching a rival tour. Gaudenzi wished to do every thing in his energy to stop that from taking place in tennis.

Inviting the Saudis into the clubby higher echelon of the sport by permitting them to launch a serious new occasion appeared like one of the best technique. A prime Saudi occasion at first of the yr would seemingly doom the sequence of small and mid-sized tournaments in Australia and New Zealand throughout these weeks, however they weren’t Gaudenzi’s precedence. Placating the Saudis was.

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Tournaments like Madrid, the place Sabalenka received this yr, could be a part of a premier tour (Julian Finney/Getty Photos)

Then phrase of the deal made its method to Craig Tiley, the chief of Tennis Australia. Tiley and Tennis Australia’s different leaders have been staying in a good-looking brick house on a quiet block between the All England Membership and Wimbledon Village. From his perch a couple of streets from the match, Tiley, a South African who performed professionally earlier than changing into a prime faculty coach within the U.S. and evolving into a number one tennis govt, swung into motion.

If Gaudenzi was going to deal with key occasions of Tennis Australia’s annual “summer of tennis” as collateral harm, Tiley, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was going proper again at him.

Lengthy acknowledged as among the many most modern minds in tennis, Tiley started working the telephones and the facility facilities at Wimbledon to get the leaders of the opposite three Grand Slams to assist his effort to cleave the highest tournaments from males’s and ladies’s excursions, often called the “Masters” and “1,000s” to launch the premium tennis circuit that so many within the recreation craved.

By means of the summer time and fall, Tiley’s push for a tennis tour that resembled System One continued to achieve momentum, particularly inside the Professional Tennis Gamers Affiliation (PTPA), the nascent gamers group that Novak Djokovic co-founded three years in the past. A proper proposal is anticipated within the coming weeks.

Why now is totally different

“We are closer than we ever have been,” stated one longtime trade govt concerned with the discussions, each this yr and previously. Like a number of others, he requested anonymity as a result of he was not licensed to reveal particulars of inner discussions.

He then defined why he was optimistic that change was on the way in which.

“You have external forces in the form of Saudi Arabia and the PTPA that you didn’t have before.”

Let’s unpack that.

LIV Golf modified every thing.

When Saudi Arabia launched its quest final yr to upend skilled golf by paying prime gamers tons of of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} to compete on a brand new rival tour, leaders of the organizations which have managed skilled tennis for the final half-century knew their supremacy may quickly be below risk.

Tennis gamers obtain roughly 1 / 4 of the game’s revenues, in contrast with about 50 per cent in main workforce sports activities. It might not take a lot for a deep-pocketed investor to supply one of the best ones a higher-paying, much less demanding various.

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Buenos Aires, the place Alcaraz received, may find yourself exterior the highest tour (Luis Robayo/AFP through Getty Photos)

Additionally, through the previous three years, the PTPA has grown into one thing the game has by no means had — a viable and well-financed unbiased platform for gamers to assault the established order.

The lads’s and ladies’s excursions, the WTA and the ATP, have largely handled the PTPA as an outdoor agitator. In October, Steve Simon, the chief govt of the WTA Tour, refused to permit a PTPA consultant to participate in a gathering between him and the highest 20 gamers, greater than half of whom are members of the PTPA.

The Grand Slams took one other tack, utilizing the PTPA to work with gamers to strive to meet their office wants. That has helped set up a respectful management-labor dynamic and a stage of belief within the Grand Slams as they work to change the aggressive construction of the game.

“A players association is here now and they understand that as something that needs to be accepted,” Vasek Pospisil, a veteran participant from Canada and a founding member of the PTPA, stated of the Grand Slams. “They want the players to have a seat at the table.”

It additionally helps that the Grand Slams share extra money with the gamers than the common tour occasions.

Lastly, the Grand Slams discovered in 2022 that they don’t want the excursions. The excursions withheld rankings factors from Wimbledon final yr when the All England Membership and the Garden Tennis Affiliation, which oversees tennis in Nice Britain, refused to permit gamers from Belarus and Russia to take part as a punishment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The remainder of the gamers got here anyway. Stadiums have been packed. Tv rankings remained sky-high. Nobody actually cared whether or not gamers acquired rating factors.

What would tennis seem like below the brand new framework?

The main points are nonetheless being labored out, however the broad define is constructed round a premier tour for top-level gamers — say, roughly the highest 100.

They’d play a minimum of the 14 greatest tournaments on the schedule: the Grand Slams, the 10-12 greatest and most profitable tour occasions, and the 2 tour finals. They might drop down and play a couple of smaller tournaments, however something that occurs in these tournaments is separate from the principle tour.

The premier occasions would come with Wimbledon, the U.S., Australian and French Opens; blended occasions in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Toronto/Montreal, and Cincinnati; males’s tournaments in Monte Carlo, Paris and Shanghai; Ladies’s occasions in Dubai, Doha and Beijing. Different prime candidates for inclusion would come with occasions in Washington D.C., Tokyo, and presumably the lads’s occasion in Beijing, since they’re world capitals.

All the opposite occasions could be a part of a developmental tour, with gamers exterior the highest 100 competing to make the premier tour. Larger-ranked gamers who want matches or need to accumulate an look charge may play in a couple of of these occasions annually, however the outcomes wouldn’t rely towards the premier tour standings and rankings.

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A Saudi masters would put tournaments comparable to Auckland below risk (Michael Bradley/AFP through Getty Photos)

The tour could be managed by a board with representatives of the Grand Slams, the opposite massive tournaments, and representatives of the ATP and the WTA. The gamers would sit on the labor facet of the negotiating desk and collectively cut price for his or her share of the revenues as they do in different profitable sports activities.

It’s unclear how the Worldwide Tennis Federation, which controls worldwide workforce competitions just like the Davis Cup, the Billie Jean King Cup and the Olympic tournaments, would match into this construction, if in any respect. That stated, the ITF is reexamining the format of its competitions proper now and desires to get its personal home so as first.

Why does a premier tour have a lot assist?

Everybody in tennis believes the season is too lengthy and disparate. It is.

It lasts 11 months and is inconceivable to handle, with the seven totally different governing our bodies continually preventing with each other concerning the schedule. It is additionally too sophisticated for lay followers to maintain monitor of.

“It’s like having a calendar with seven different discussions in seven different rooms,” Gaudenzi stated in November throughout a gathering with a small group of journalists in Italy. “I’m trying to convince everybody we’re managing one product. We’re all part of the same book. We might write different chapters, but we’re part of the same book and we can’t sell different chapters in different bookstores.”

Promoting only one “book”, to use Gaudenzi’s metaphor, would make the game less complicated to observe and certain drive up the value for media rights and sponsorships. Proper now, tournaments and the totally different governing our bodies compete with each other. That drives down costs since consumers can play one off towards the opposite. Bundling a set of premier tournaments, promoting them collectively and partnering with networks devoted to exploiting all of the content material the game produces as a substitute of simply the ultimate rounds would seemingly drive up funding considerably.

That might be a boon to organizers of the highest tournaments and to gamers. They need to play much less, earn extra money and eradicate any incentive to play each week.

“Right now the system is structured so that if I don’t play every week I can’t get to the ranking I need,” Pospisil stated. “To go up the rankings, you’ve got to play non-stop.”

Raemon Sluiter, a veteran coach, stated the delivery of Elina Svitolina’s first baby final yr gave the star from Ukraine a bonus — earlier than she returned, she lastly had the chance to follow for greater than two months straight, far longer than the standard gruelling schedule permits. Prime tennis gamers usually get pleasure from an low season that lasts about two weeks, which isn’t sufficient time to make any important modifications. A slimmed-down tour may make a giant distinction.

The winners

“It is very good to be a 1,000 event right now,” stated a prime govt at an organization that owns one.

Certainly, the largest tournaments in tennis exterior the Grand Slams are the belles of the ball in the intervening time. Tiley and the Grand Slams need them for his or her premier tour. The ATP and the WTA need to preserve their associations with these historic tour stops, comparable to Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome, in order that they aren’t relegated to working the tennis minor leagues.

Additionally, contemplate a tennis investor like Ben Navarro, who just lately bought the Cincinnati Masters for roughly $300million. If Cincinnati lands a spot on the premier tour, his occasion is now part of the identical circuit and enterprise operation as Wimbledon reasonably than, say, Delray Seashore. Not dangerous.

The identical goes for CVC Capital Companions, the non-public fairness agency that purchased a 20 per cent stake within the WTA Tour in 2023 for $150million. If the WTA can negotiate an possession stake and a seat on the board within the premier tour, CVC is now in enterprise with the largest occasions within the sport.

The losers — however maybe not a lot

The small and medium-sized tournaments, competitions in locations like Dallas, Basel, and Buenos Aires, are going to have a tough time swallowing the prospect of relegation to the minor leagues. They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of {dollars} on license agreements to be part of the ATP and the WTA. Additionally, there is a query of whether or not narrowing the scope of big-time tennis to a premier tour is good for the long-term well being of the skilled recreation.

“The big difference between tennis and nearly every other sport is that tennis events are tied to participation,” stated the proprietor of a mid-sized match. “F1 is a spectacle. You can’t grow a global participation sport with 14 tournaments around the world.”

That line of considering, nevertheless, depends on the premise that curiosity will robotically diminish within the small and mid-sized tournaments with the arrival of a premier tour, reasonably than understanding the attraction of a cohesive system constructed round promotion and relegation.

“There isn’t really a tour right now,” stated John Morris, the trade veteran on the helm of 72 Sports activities. “It’s a circus made up of individual promoters and I say that with all due respect.”

Morris stated the small- and mid-sized tournaments could be extra interesting than they’re now if the game organized them into regional circuits, with gamers competing to make the premier tour for the next season and coveted spots all through the season within the Grand Slams and different prime occasions.

In different phrases, whoever wins in Estoril, Portugal, Charleston, S.C. or Auckland may have new import, as well as to the restricted star sights they now get pleasure from. Play nicely for six weeks on lower-tier excursions and obtain a wild card entry into, say, the French Open.

Most significantly, Morris stated, gamers exterior the highest 100 wouldn’t go broke funding their journey world wide since they might largely play inside their areas on a circuit with way more cohesion and even perhaps a minimal wage. Prize cash wouldn’t essentially have to rise all that a lot as a result of the prices for gamers would fall.

“Finding a one-size-fits-all solution that fixes everything all at once is difficult,” Pospisil stated. “As for lower-tier tournaments, I don’t think it would be worse. Maybe this results in a much bigger place for them.”

(Prime picture: Getty Photos; design: Sean Reilly)