Rift among its players creating uncertain future for ATP Tour

Chris Kermode's contract expires at the end of the 2019 season, and it's unclear if the majority of the players want him back. Phil Walter/Getty Images

At the start of the Australian Open it looked as if the ATP might be headed for a revolution. Now it looks more like it is drifting into a civil war.

The trigger for what has become an awkward, very public rift between an insurgent faction of the ATP and some of the game's top stars is a disagreement over whether ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode's contract should be renewed for another three years starting in 2020 (he has been on the job since 2014).

A vote on Kermode's future has been pushed back until further meetings are held at the Indian Wells tournament.

The heart of the issue is whether Kermode is as sensitive to the needs and desires of the players as the tournaments. But that's a question that has plagued the tour since its inception in 1990, because the ATP is a partnership between the players and tournaments. And the players have often felt their interests have had to play second fiddle to those of tournaments -- the tour as an entity.

"Tennis is the only sport where the players don't have independent representation," Andy Roddick told ESPN.com on Tuesday at an event to promote the New York Open. "It's tough when you're the product, but when it comes to voting on issues, you're stuck with three votes against four. The conversation then gets ceremonial because you always get voted over. It's been like that for 25 years."

Roddick was referring to the ATP Tour's ultimate decision-making body, a seven-person board of directors with three player representatives, three tournament reps and the organization's executive chairman and president (Kermode), who casts any tie-breaking vote. The ATP also has a 12-man Player Council, currently headed by Novak Djokovic. But that group only advises the board.

The real problem, though, might be that there are different constituents with different needs within the ATP itself. The current crisis was triggered by a fiery email sent by Player Council member Vasek Pospisil to players ranked between 50 and 100, which landed in the hands of London's Telegraph newspaper last week. In it, Pospisil exhorted his peers to "start acting and running like a business not like a bunch of scared kids. ... We need a CEO that first and foremost represents OUR interests."

The call to arms elicited an equally forceful written response from Stan Wawrinka, who at one point hit the Caps Lock key and wrote, "YOU NEED TO LOOK AT THE CURRENT DIRECTION LAST 5 YEARS AND ACCEPT IT IS GOOD AND MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. YOU CANNOT BE SURE IT WILL BE BETTER [under a new ATP president]."

Roger Federer weighed in last Sunday in Melbourne, telling reporters, "I think we've had a good five, six years now under Chris' [Kermode's] leadership." Rafael Nadal appeared miffed he wasn't consulted on the issue, but he also backs Kermode. Player Council chairman Djokovic declined to make his views known, but last year at this time, he suggested the players ought to form a union separate from the ATP. That has been the elephant in the board rooms for a long time, but the pachyderm is largely an illusion.

In order to form any union, at least by U.S. law, the prospective members must be employees. Their bid must be officially approved by the National Labor Relations Board because a union is exempt from federal anti-trust laws (collective bargaining is a form of price-fixing). Tennis players are not "employed" by tournaments, they are independent contractors. And while ICs are free to form "associations," those groups cannot strike if they have a monopoly in their field (as the ATP and WTA do) because doing so would violate anti-trust laws.

But there is some wiggle room for the players. John Simpson, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney specializing in employment law at the white shoe law firm of Duane Morris LLP, told ESPN.com, "There has been a lot of flux in the definition of what constitutes being an employee versus an independent contractor. The NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] under the Obama administration focused on that issue a great deal and had a pretty expansive view. The college football players got pretty far with this kind of a case at the board level, but not in court. I think the [tennis] players have a shot here. I don't know that I would bet on it, but it isn't a frivolous claim."

Djokovic has undoubtedly become aware of these impediments to unionization, which might be why he has walked back his earlier comments.

"It's quite different for us, because the unions in other sports are focused on particular countries," Djokovic said the other day. He also acknowledged the sport's structure is "complex," with multiple interests, including the ATP, ITF and the independent Grand Slams. "In the end of the day, the ATP is an organization that is 50 percent players, 50 percent tournaments, which in most of the cases is conflict of interest."

That's the nature of the beast, and those conflicts exist within the ATP brotherhood itself. That's something even the most player-friendly top executive would be hard-pressed to resolve. Elite players don't like rules that force them to enter X number of tournaments, but they agree to them for the good of the tour. The rank-and-file might not like the top-heavy distribution of prize money, but it is the elite players who sell the tickets.

Roddick wasn't surprised to learn of the current controversy. He believes the board has always exploited such differences to keep the insurgents under control.

"The bet for a long time has been on division among the players, based on their different needs depending on their level, or their surface preferences, or where they want to play," Roddick continued.

Roddick believes the conflicts between players and tournaments can be resolved, but not when one group (tournaments, according to the players) has the upper hand. But whether Kermode is a "tournament" or a "player" guy is open to debate.

Pospisil's email cited two targets for the insurgents: Grand Slam prize money and the ATP chairmanship. So it appears the underlying issue is money, perhaps with an emphasis on income inequality. Yet the round-by-round distribution of prize-money in recent years has improved dramatically. Last year's first-round loser's check at Wimbledon (roughly $45,000 USD) represented a 57 percent increase over the same 2013 paycheck. Tell that to your neighbor in the cube farm.

It's also likely someone is trying to generate political capital by stoking the frustrations of the ATP's journeymen. The reported 5-5 vote on Kermode in the Player Council was certainly an alarming sign for the status quo. While the PC vote is merely advisory, Kermode will need to secure the votes of two of the three reps on both branches of the board to be renewed. The PC vote suggests the player rep votes are by no means assured.

Wawrinka's loud cry of "foul" has awakened all hands. The ATP meetings at Indian Wells are guaranteed to be lively. Populism is flourishing and income inequality is a hot topic in many places these days. It appears the ATP isn't exempt.