May 1, 2020 - Sports

Roger Federer reignites push for unification of men's and women's tennis

Illustration of a split tennis racket

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Roger Federer made headlines last week when he came out in support of merging the men's (ATP) and women's (WTA) tennis governing bodies into one, unified organization.

Why it matters: This has been a long-gestating issue within tennis, but having a voice as powerful as Federer's chime in — joined by the likes of Rafael Nadal and new ATP president Andrea Gaudenzi — has reignited the conversation. And, with tennis on hiatus, real progress might be achievable for the first time in decades.

The backdrop: In the early 1970s, when men's tennis began exploring the idea of starting an organizing body, female star Billie Jean King suggested men and women band together to form one tour.

  • Instead, the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) was born in September 1972, followed shortly thereafter by the WTA (Women's Tennis Association) in June 1973.
  • "The WTA on its own was always plan B," King tweeted in response to Federer.

Worth noting: The ITF (International Tennis Federation), founded in 1913, oversees major events like the Grand Slams, Davis Cup, Fed Cup and Olympic tennis — adding yet another governing body to the mix.

What they're saying: With men's and women's tennis being so similar, the call to streamline the two would seem to be a no-brainer — and something former pro and current ESPN broadcaster Patrick McEnroe tells Axios he fully supports:

"The bottom line is it absolutely should happen. You look at the majors, which are by far the most successful events ... and what do they have in common? The men and women play together.
"Plus, if I'm a fan going to Indian Wells [one of the few joint non-majors], I love the fact that I can watch Serena, and then I can walk to an outside court and watch Félix Auger-Aliassime. That's what tennis fans want."

The other side: Those who oppose merging cite an earnings discrepancy that estimates the ATP brought in twice as much money as the WTA in 2019, while also pointing out that each tour would need to renegotiate long-term deals — such as the WTA's 10-year plan to hold its finals in Shenzhen, China — to make this work.

The big picture: Tennis is unique on the world sports stage in that big names, regardless of gender, tend to rule the day.

  • For example, in 2018, the women's U.S. Open and Wimbledon finals both outdrew the men's finals, thanks to Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber offering more excitement than Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Kevin Anderson.

The bottom line: There are too many moving parts to expect an immediate change, but the confluence of a pandemic, top players speaking out, and a generation of progressive men who, as King puts it, "want their daughters to have the same as their sons," has created some undeniable momentum.

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