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Players must look out for themselves
It doesn't look good when super-rich athletes who travel the world for work, with supermodel wives or girlfriends, are complaining about working conditions, publicly talking about the need for a union because they were expected to compete when it was misting outside.
I mean, boo hoo.
But Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick went into the US Open tournament referee’s office Wednesday to stand side by side and complain after they had been forced to play. And despite appearances, this was important.
"They know it’s a lot of money, and we are just part of the show," Nadal said later, on ESPN. "They are working for that (show), not for us."
The thing is, the players were right. And it’s a much bigger issue than the player mini-revolt suggested. It might be a turning-point moment in tennis.
It might be, but I doubt it. That would take untangling the world's biggest ball of yarn first.
You can't play tennis in the rain. Players can't wear cleats or spikes, and they spend hours running full speed, stopping short and changing directions. The courts were too wet, and the players were put in position to get hurt.
It continued Thursday when Roddick refused to continue a match against David Ferrer because water was seeping up behind one baseline in Louis Armstrong Stadium. The match was delayed and moved to an outlying court.
Who is to blame for putting them out there? It’s impossible for tennis to point fingers. Everyone is blurred together as one.
Tennis is an incestuous sport, even worse than golf. Multiple governing bodies overlap tournaments overlap agents overlap sponsors overlap TV networks. It’s not that these different groups fight one another for power so much as they are all in bed together.
The flowchart of tennis is impossible to follow, as even Nadal was confused, complaining about the ATP, the men’s tour. But the ATP doesn’t run the US Open. The ITF and USTA do. Also IMG. And ESPN.
Too many alphabet organizations, and no one, really, representing the players.
Tennis needs a commissioner. Tennis players need a union. I would suggest John McEnroe as tennis’ commissioner, but that would work well for the first 30 days. By the next 30, everyone would hate one another and McEnroe would hate them back. By the final 30, he would be out.
It’s just too complicated to detail, but know this: It was lack of concern for player interests that put the players onto the court in the wrong conditions Wednesday. It was concern, as Nadal said, for money.
And lack of representation is jeopardizing them in an even bigger way. With rain backing up play, the only way to get this tournament done on time, on Sunday, was to make some of the men, including Nadal and Murray, play four matches in four days. The decision was made Thursday, though, to extend the tournament one day to Monday.
"That’s not fair," Nadal said Thursday. "But that’s what it is. For TV . . . it is better to have the finals on Sunday. For them, but not for the players.
"We don’t have the right representation in these tournaments. I don’t know why. It’s something that in my opinion cannot happen. The players are an important part of the show, in my opinion."
In the majors, they play longer matches, three out of five sets and typically play every other day.
There is no way Nadal’s knees can hold up for four long matches in four days. Novak Djokovic’s shoulder will fall off if he has to play three long matches in four days.
Nadal’s body is already wearing down. The grind of the tennis tour is too much, and the players have been complaining about the schedule and the lack of an offseason.
They can’t get major changes in the schedule because the tournament directors won’t have it. The players either don’t have the power or the solidarity.
Imagine football without Roger Goodell, baseball without Bud Selig. Yes, that might sound good in some ways, but someone has to be sitting in the chair.
The most powerful person in tennis is actually IMG CEO Ted Forstmann. IMG owns tournaments, manages players, cuts deals for the majors.
Coincidentally, a current IMG vice president sits on the ATP board. Also a past IMG employee. And a former player, who is represented by — you guessed it — IMG.
The ATP is supposed to be an even mix of power among players and tournaments. So who would stand up for the players if they wanted to demand changes?
"It’s a little idealistic," Roddick said, "to think you can have one person representing both sides."
I asked Roddick last year at the Australian Open why the players don’t just form a union. He said it had been talked about, but that wanted to give new ATP CEO Adam Helfant a chance to make changes. Helfant is gone now. The union never formed.
And players were put out in the rain.
Nadal was going down to the tournament office to complain Wednesday, and Murray and Roddick, decided to join him. Strength in numbers, you know. See how that worked?
Later in the evening, with TV cameras on and Serena Williams about to play, the same tourney official the men had complained to told Williams to sit down while they checked out the court. Then, they canceled the match for the night.
Williams said it was a good thing, as she really didn’t feel like breaking her neck Wednesday.
To have a union or a commissioner, the entire structure, intentionally balled up in knots, would have to come undone first.
It would be hard to know where to start. That’s the genius of a mishmash.