Dan Evans says players pressing for a breakaway union in the middle of a pandemic on the eve of the US Open are guilty of ”horrible timing” and some of the rebels are openly hostile towards anyone who disagrees with them.
“I’ve received the emails on the player union,” the British No 1 said on Saturday as he prepared for his first-round match against the Brazilian world No 113, Thiago Seyboth Wild. “I think now is horrible timing to be talking about that sort of thing. For what it’s worth, I think the ATP do a great job for us and I won’t be signing the sheet of paper they want.
“I had a conversation yesterday with someone in the changing room, and I played devil’s advocate on the ATP side. It wasn’t taken very well. Those people who think the union should [happen] are set on it, and I must say they are quite passive aggressive towards anyone who doesn’t want to be involved in it. It is all about having a vote, but it seems that, if they don’t like it, they don’t like you very much.”
Evans, who is in excellent form, could meet Andy Murray in the third round of the US Open, which starts on Monday, but would not be drawn on the prospect. “We both know better than that, there are two tough matches in front of us.”
Murray, who moved well on his rebuilt hip in two of his three matches at the Cincinnati Open over the past week, starts against the world No 48, Yoshihito Nishioka, at the same venue. But the locker-room talk on Saturday remained focused on the rebels – and Evans was not happy with them.
“I don’t understand what the vote is, what are they getting in power for. They have just made a new group. But what do they do? It’s not like they have any standing in the game. If the top 10 players don’t sign, are they not going to play because of the [new] union? It is not really a vote. It is signing a piece of paper that doesn’t really stand for much.”
The rebellion began in 2018 when Novak Djokovic, president of the players’ council since August, 2016, led a push that eventually unseated the ATP executive chairman and president, Chris Kermode, after five years. Djokovic wanted a new players’ union, accusing the tournament owners of a conflict of interest, as they controlled the schedule and the prize money.
Evans said of Djokovic: “He has got his views on it. He has seen a lot more than I have seen. We get good opportunities to earn and play: that is my reasoning. It is not great timing. We have all been off for such a long time and the US Open has done such a great job to put this on. Now we are talking about other stuff, where we should be focusing on what a good job the ATP are doing getting a schedule for the end of the year, what a good job the USTA have done, what a good job the French Open are going to do [next month]. It is difficult to comment on Novak.”
When the former Italian player Andrea Gaudenzi succeeded Kermode in January, there was a period of detente, but that, too, seems to have evaporated. One of the leading rebels, Milos Raonic, said: “We would have expected more [support] from a former player coming in as a CEO.”
The ATP replied: “The governance structure of the ATP Tour provides players with equal seats at the table on every major decision affecting the circuit. We recognise the challenges that our members face in today’s circumstances. However, we strongly believe that now is a time for unity, rather than internal division.”
The All England Club agreed: “Now more than ever we need collaboration and strong relationships, and we fully support the ATP in its role in representing the best interests of players throughout this process. It is a time for even greater collaboration, not division.”
None of this is new, sadly. It is nearly 30 years since Mats Wilander led his colleagues out of bondage during the Nabisco Masters at Madison Square Garden, when they tore up their agreement with tournament owners and set out on the road to freedom … and increased pay cheques. As an pioneer insurrectionist, Donald Dell, said at the time: “Basically, they are fighting over control of the game. You can talk about circuits and dates and money, but what both sides really are saying is they want to control the game.” In the hothouse of locked-down Flushing Meadows the past week, it became obvious the game has completed a circle. Dell was half-right in 1990: it is about power – but it’s about money too.
The players point out they bring the product and the excitement, and deserve more of the spoils, a familiar tale in the modern sports entertainment industry. But not all tournaments make money. Some barely attract any media or fan interest, although betting syndicates are keen followers of minor scores. And not all players are millionaires, as has been confirmed during the inactivity brought on by the pandemic.
In 1990, the players’ rebellion attracted 85 of the top 100 to the new ATP tour. The old Men’s Tennis Council was beaten and a golden age of apparently mutual benefit had begun. That dream would seem to be fading, too. Asked how he thought a players’ vote on a new association would go, Raonic was adamant: it would get a majority. Evans is not so sure.