WTA facing rebellion from women involved in Novak Djokovic-led player union

WTA facing rebellion from women involved in Novak Djokovic-led player union
Aryna Sabalenka slammed the WTA over the poor planning around the Finals - Getty Images/Robert Prange

The WTA is facing a rebellion from some of the top female players in the world, who are all involved in Novak Djokovic’s emerging union.

More than 20 top players, including world No 1 Aryna Sabalenka, signed a three-page letter to the WTA earlier this month, with a list of requests that included following the men’s tour by providing minimum pay guarantees for top 250 players.

The letter was signed by at least four major champions, including the last two Wimbledon winners Marketa Vondrousova and Elena Rybakina. The players are said to have been buoyed by their involvement in Djokovic’s Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), which he co-founded in 2020, and there is an entire section in the letter dedicated to asking the WTA to recognise the union more formally.

But after unsatisfactory talks with WTA chief executive Steve Simon, the players have been speaking out at the shambolic WTA Finals in Cancun. On Sunday, Sabalenka released a statement saying she felt “disrespected” by the WTA, due to poor planning around the Finals - which is meant to be the most important event of the WTA season.

She complained that the pop-up arena in Cancun had not been finished until two days before the tournament started, and also said the surface was not up to standard. Vondrousova echoed those concerns, posting a video on Monday illustrating dead bounce sections on the court. “So so sad for all of us,” she wrote in the caption.

In a statement on Monday, the WTA defended itself, saying they had “worked diligently on an expedited timeline amid weather challenges to ensure the stadium and court meet our strict performance standards”.

But more videos have since emerged showing unpredictable bounces that would embarrass any serious training centre. British player Liam Broady reposted footage from one match on X (formerly Twitter), saying it was “the worst bounce I have ever seen on a hard court”.

The WTA was formed in 1973 to protect and amplify the interests of female players, but some of the top talent do not feel like the organisation is serving them anymore. The PTPA has taken this low point of faith in the WTA as an opportunity to gain more influence in its continued attempts to wrangle player power in a sport that is governed by no less than seven separate institutions.

As first reported by The Athletic, players are trying to push for $500,000 salary guarantees for top 100 players, as well as $200,000 and $100,000 for players ranked 101-175 and 175-250 respectively. They are also requesting better maternity conditions - including pay during leave - scheduling and injury cover.

The request comes after the ATP announced a similar pay structure in August, ‘Baseline’, which is due to be introduced next season. The men’s tour will make up the difference for top 250 players if they do not earn a certain amount for the season. At the time of the announcement, the PTPA’s chief executive Ahmad Nassar took credit for helping to negotiate the deal on behalf of the players.

While the PTPA still does not represent the majority of players, top names like Ons Jabeur appearing in promotional videos for the union have given it added clout. In the letter to the WTA, the players requested that a PTPA representative be included on the WTA Player Board as well as be present in player council meetings with the WTA “to improve transparency and communication”. It also requested that four PTPA members be granted credentials to all tournaments sanctioned by the WTA.

The chaotic WTA Finals have served as the perfect tipping point for these behind-the-scenes tensions to spill over. Cancun was only announced as the venue choice in early September, just weeks before the tournament began on Sunday.

The delays were apparently down to talks over whether to take the tournament to Saudi Arabia or not. The expectation is that the competition, which is the most important title outside of the majors, will eventually move to Saudi Arabia from next year.

WTA facing rebellion from women involved in Novak Djokovic-led player union
The WTA Finals have been played in front of low crowds - Getty Images/Harold Alcocer

The lack of lead-up time to Cancun means it has drawn relatively sparse crowds so far. After her win over Vondrousova on Monday night, world No 2 Iga Swiatek pleaded with fans to show up for the event.

Previously the year-end event had been held in Shenzhen, China, as the WTA struck a 10-year deal from 2019. However the pandemic and the WTA’s boycott of China due to Peng Shuai’s disappearance in 2021 left organisers scrambling for other options.

Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, had been another lead contender to host this year, but Polish player Magda Linette said this week the WTA Player Council had advised in favour of Cancun, due to potential visa issues for Russian and Belarusian players to enter the Czech Republic.

“The disadvantage in Ostrava was that we did not have a hundred percent guarantee that all the girls would be able to play,” she told Polish outlet, Interia Sports this week.