After Novak Djokovic met with a large group of reporters on media day at the U.S. Open on Aug. 25, he walked to a nearby conference room underneath Arthur Ashe Stadium to chat with four journalists to discuss a cause close to his heart.
Wearing a gray Lacoste hoodie and blue tennis shorts, Djokovic, the 36-year-old Serbian tennis star, wanted to talk about the Professional Tennis Players Association, an organization he and Canadian Vasek Pospisil created in 2020. The PTPA calls itself “an organization created BY the players FOR the players” to “support, protect and advance players’ well being on and off the court.”
As he chases a record-tying 24th Grand Slam title in Friday’s semifinal against American Ben Shelton — and then potentially in Sunday’s final against world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz — Djokovic is also chasing something bigger for his fellow players and for his legacy: he wants to improve the quality of life for players who don’t have 23 major titles, players who struggle to earn a living while being ranked closer to 150 or 200 in the world.
“I personally am not here with PTPA sitting with you because I want more money for myself,” said Djokovic, who has career pre-tax earnings of more than $510 million, according to Forbes estimates, including an ATP-best $172 million in prize money, and who stays on part of a 40-acre $40-million wooded estate in N.J. during the Open.
“That’s not the case,” Djokovic added. “I’m fine for this life and many other lives. We all definitely want to see a change at the base level because the 150th player on the planet struggles and often has to travel without a coach. People don’t realize how expensive this sport is.”
The PTPA says it has “onboarded” 250+ players since January and lists John Isner, the recently retired American star, world No. 5 Ons Jabeur, former American player Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Pospisil among its executive committee members. Djokovic said he would like to speak to his main rival Alcaraz about supporting the PTPA as well.
“I haven’t done it with Carlos yet, but I’ve been planning to,” he said with a smile. “We’ve been facing each other too much on the court and we haven’t had a chance to relax a little bit. We did kind of have a funny little talk after the finals of Cincinnati and we’re going to play a golf round together eventually so maybe that’s going to be an ideal few hours for me to spend with him and have a little chat.”
Djokovic and the PTPA believe that the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body for men’s tennis, is operating under a major conflict of interest because it is a single organization managing both the players and the tournaments.
How can it do right by both sides?
“The problem that we have both on [the] men’s and women’s sides in the governance is that we’re too fragmented,” said Djokovic. “Both the ATP and WTA, 50 percent belongs to the players and 50 percent belongs to the tournaments and most of the cases you’re always going to have a conflict of interest.”
Ahmad Nassar, the executive director of the PTPA, believes tennis players desperately need a players-only association.
“Tennis players have really been left behind over the last 25-30 years,” he said recently. “We don’t have a players association that is independent the way basketball, football, baseball, soccer have. We’re really trying to build an independent and self-sustaining players association that can really be here for the next 50 years.”
Some wonder whether Djokovic and the PTPA could eventually support a “breakaway tour” similar to the LIV Golf tour that attracted top golfers like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau and eventually merged with the PGA.
“We’re not trying to do that,” Nassar said on Aug. 25. “I can’t apparently rebut that enough.”
Not everyone supports Djokovic and the PTPA. When he announced it in 2020, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal expressed reservations, and Andy Murray eventually joined them. All three are part of the ATP Player Council.
“The world is living a difficult and complicated situation,” Nadal wrote on social media at the time. “I personally believe these are times to be calm and work all of us together in the same direction. It is time for unity, not for separation.”
“These are moments where big things can be achieved as long as the world of tennis is united. We all, players, tournaments and governing bodies, have to work together. We have a bigger problem and separation and disunion is definitely not the solution.”
In a one-on-one interview with me during the Open, ATP executive chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, a former Italian No. 1, said he sympathized with Djokovic and Pospisil but doesn’t believe that the PTPA is helpful to tennis as a whole.
“I have sympathy and I recognize obviously that there is no perfect organization, perfect structure,” Gaudenzi said. “I know for a fact that the ATP, we are trying to do the best and I think we’ve shown in the last three years what we are doing for the players and the improvements starting from transparency in the economics, the Profit sSharing, Baseline, doubling the prize money at Challengers. We’re doing a lot of things and we do the best we can.”
Gaudenzi pointed to several specific things the ATP has done to improve the financial situation for players, including the ATP’s Baseline and Profit Sharing initiatives.
The Baseline initiative was announced in August — just before the Open — and guarantees minimum income levels for the Top 250-ranked singles players each season. In case a player’s prize money earnings finishes below the guaranteed threshold, the ATP will step in to cover the shortfall. For the 2024 season, these levels are $300,000 (Top 100), $150,000 (101-175) and $75,000 (176-250).
“Well, I think it’s a step in the right direction, no doubt,” Djokovic said. “I definitely salute that kind of announcement and decision from ATP and I think the bottom line is that we all [who are] involved in the tennis ecosystem have to try to collectively create an environment in the future where more tennis players both male and female will be able to live from this sport.
“So that’s in the core of PTPA, that’s our biggest mission. And if we contributed to this announcement of ATP, great. I think we did. We were talking about this actually three years ago, Vasek and I when we founded the PTPA at 2020 U.S. Open.”
He added: “We’re trying to raise the awareness of how little the number of players who live from this sport is globally. And we have 450 players maybe I think, male, female, singles, doubles, that live from tennis that is by some statistics the third-most watched sport, popular sport, on the planet, followed by 1.3 or 1.4 billion people on the planet so that’s for me concerning. There’s a very long way to go but it is a step in the right direction.”
Under the Profit Sharing initiative, the Masters 1000 tournaments will allow fully independent auditing and grant the players a share of profits on top of the base prize money.
“For 30 years the players never had access to the financial determinants,” Gaudenzi told me. “When I stepped in there were these divisive fights and I always told the tournament, ‘They’re right [the players]. They are right….
“So we fixed that. Now the players have full visibility.”
As he pursues a 24th major — which would surpass Serena Williams and tie him at the top with Margaret Court — Djokovic is juggling a lot. He is married with two children. His family stays with him at his friend Gordon Uehling’s estate in Alpine, N.J. during the Open.
“I have to have an approach that is different from what it was 10 years ago,” he said after beating American Taylor Fritz in straight sets in the quarterfinals. “I have to adapt to my life and changes. I’m the father of two children, a lot of things are happening off the court that are obviously part of my life that affects me in one way or another, my mental state, my emotional state. You know, I need to know how to handle all of these things and create a formula that works. So far, so good.”
On top of his tennis and his family, the PTPA is a major part of his life and requires a time commitment for recruiting, meetings, planning, etc.
Sometimes recruiting can be tough because, as Nadal, Federer and Murray have shown, the top players don’t always want to join his cause.
“[With] the top players its toughest because you can imagine there’s more layers to [go through to get to] them than any other lower ranked player and they feel they have a lot to lose, which is really what we’ve been trying to explain that that’s not the case,” he said. “The players really have more to gain.”
As always, Djokovic, arguably the GOAT of men’s tennis, will keep moving toward his goals — both on the court and off. And getting the PTPA a seat at the proverbial decision-making table is among his priorities.
“I think the more we are active as an association for players, the more this kind of announcements from the ATP will come out and hopefully and I think ultimately we want to have a seat on the decision-making table,” he said.
“I think that’s going to happen sooner or later. How long it will take, we don’t know. It just depends on how quickly they will accept us and embrace us and will speak to us and live with us.”