Professional tennis players have gained significant control over their sport since the 1970s. The reason for this increased control is very simple. Both men and women tennis players formed associations: the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), respectively.
Before professional tennis players joined together to take control of their sport, tennis tournaments were open exclusively to amateurs and players did not earn money for competing. Although some players opted to turn professional and travel the globe putting on exhibition matches, the high-profile, traditional tournaments for amateurs, such as Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, drew the most interest from fans.
During this time, tournaments were governed and organized by national federations, which were members of the overarching International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF, now the ITF). Players were invited to tournaments based not purely on their skill but on other factors, such as reputation or nationality. According to former tennis professional Mike Estep, “It was totally subjective; there was no transparency and the livelihood of the players was at the whim of politics.”
In 1968, facing competition from the newly formed World Championship Tennis, Wimbledon officials opened the tournament to amateurs and professionals alike. Other national associations soon followed this model and the era of “Open Tennis” began. This shift led to an increase in prize money, which in turn lengthened the careers of competitive tennis players who now had an opportunity to earn a living from playing tennis professionally.
Even with Open Tennis, athletes were still at the mercy of the national federations and the ILTF. This all changed in 1972 “when a handful of the game’s leading players met in a secluded stairwell at the US Open to discuss the need for a players’ association.” The ATP was born and one of its first actions was the development of a computer ranking system that would serve as an objective way to determine tournament entries. Within one year the ATP Rankings took hold and to this day still serve as the official rankings of men’s professional tennis.
In 1973, women tennis players, led by Billie Jean King, met in a room at the Gloucester Hotel in London one week before Wimbledon to found the WTA. That same year, the U.S. Open offered equal prize money to men and women for the first time. By 1975, the WTA had created the official ranking system for women’s tennis.
The ATP and WTA achieved much success through collective action. For example, to protest the unfair treatment of a fellow player, the ATP organized a 1973 strike on Wimbledon in which 81 of the top-ranked players refused to play. The ATP also standardized prize distribution and established a player pension fund. In 1988, ATP held the famous “Tennis at the Crossroads” press conference in the parking lot outside the U.S. Open to draw attention to long-standing issues in their sport and to propose that players form a tour of their own. Within weeks, 85 of the top 100 players had signed on to the new tour and the first official ATP Tour was held two years later with a major sponsorship from IBM.
The WTA also achieved major advances for its members. The WTA secured its first television contract with CBS in 1974 and over the years sponsors such as Colgate, Avon, and Kraft supported the women professional tour circuits. In the 1984 season, Martina Navratilova earned over $2 million dollars – an amount more than the total earnings of then-world No. 1 men’s player John McEnroe. That same year the Australian Open began offering women and men the same prize money, after years of advocacy by the WTA. By 1995 the WTA merged with the Women’s Tennis Council to form the WTA tour. In 2005 the WTA secured a six-year, $88 million dollar sponsorship from Sony Ericsson – the biggest sponsorship deal in women’s professional sport and the richest in tennis history, for either men or women. That same year Kim Clijsters earned a single payday of $2.2 million for winning the US Open, more than any man in tennis history and more than any woman athlete.
Tennis, of course, is not MMA, and professional MMA athletes today face a unique set of challenges because of their lack of a collective voice. From this brief historical overview, we see how, even in an individual sport like tennis, athletes can assert greater control of their careers by working together to establish objective rankings, advance gender equality, and raise their individual and collective earnings.
These are only some of the successes these professional tennis players’ associations have achieved. For more examples, check out the ATP and WTA websites.
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