Djokovic, Thiem, and COVID-19

Dominic Thiem Novak Djokovic

COVID-19 has forced professional tennis to come to a long-term stoppage. But, while the top players on the ATP Tour and WTA Tour might not be financially crippled by the tennis shutdown, plenty of lower-ranked players are massively affected by the lack of prize money available to them from the sport.

While there are many ways to potentially keep lower-ranked players tennis careers alive, ATP World No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s plan has gained the most traction. Djokovic’s plan is specific to men’s tennis, but a similar plan on the women’s side could easily be executed if there was support.

Djokovic foresees the top 100 in singles and the top 20 in doubles contributing money in a sliding scale format in order to, if the rumors are true, give $10,000 to players from as high as World No. 250 to as low as World No. 700. The players wouldn’t be alone in providing relief, as Djokovic expects the majors and the ATP to also contribute a large amount of money.

$10,000 would give a major boost to players who are within striking range of making a charge up the rankings and becoming mainstays in professional tennis. Of course, the World No. 249 and World No. 701 will probably be upset if this idea comes to fruition. But, you have to draw the cutoffs somewhere.

Stefanos Tsitsipas seems to be buying in, understanding that tennis is much more than the top of the sport. Tsitsipas put on his Instagram, “The world of tennis is built on many levels and what most people don’t see are the players fighting week in, week out for their survival on the tour so that they can make it on the big stage…Fellow players, I challenge you to make a donation or join me by adding items to this online auction…”

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal seem to be in support, as well. The Big 3, along with fellow Top 5 players Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev, would be expected to pay $30,000 in order for the plan to work. In fact, for the goals that Djokovic set to be achieved, all top 100 would buy in.

But, Thiem, one of the biggest expected contributors, has already put a major dent into hopes of lower-ranked players benefitting from Djokovic’s proposal.

According to Lukas Zahrer, Thiem stated, “None of the lower-ranked players have to fight for their lives. I’ve seen players on the ITF-Tour who don’t commit to the sport 100%. Many are quite unprofessional. I don’t see why I should give them money.”

Aside from the sweeping generalizations in Thiem’s quote, it seems quite ridiculous for the Austrian to talk about how lower ranking players aren’t fighting for their lives.

It’s quite the opposite, as lower-ranked players fight for their livelihood. Given the extremely low prize money in Challenger and ITF events, there players already barely were able to make a living before the pandemic.

In addition, many singles players in that 250-700 range are very hard workers, some of whom would have had a chance to make a splash this season if the season hadn’t been suspended.

Young rising stars such as Thomas Machac, Geoffrey Blancaneaux, and Chun-hsin Tseng were just finding their groove before coronavirus wreaked havoc on the world. While those were Challenger players as opposed to players who were on the ITF Tour at the time of the pandemic, by not contributing to the fund, Djokovic would be hurting those players’ careers as well.

And that is a big fear, that young rising stars who don’t have the prize money base that more established, higher ranked players can rely on in times like these, will be significantly set back by COVID-19. Who knows what these players’ financial situations are and whether or not they can keep hanging in there financially as the weeks go by and they aren’t making an income from tennis.

Not to say that Djokovic’s plan is a perfect solution. There are a couple of major issues that need to be raised.

First, it’s unclear at this point where lower ranked doubles players fit into the fund, if at all. Based on how Djokovic’s proposal was written, it seems that the top 250-700 players meant singles players.

But, the top 20 in doubles were all supposed to be contributing $5,000. Would their donations be for the singles players? There’s a good chance many of them would prefer to support lower ranked doubles players.

The proposal also relies on contributions from the top 100 singles players in the world. But, it seems unfair to expect players hovering around 100 in the world to give up $5,000, given that their financial situation on tour is much more fragile. Should these players be expected to contribute? It’s a tough ask.

And this isn’t exclusive to the ATP. The WTA can implement a similar structure to Djokovic’s plan if they wanted to, as well. The WTA might be seeing the final details from the ATP’s side of things before moving forward with a payment plan of their own for lower ranked players.

But, something must be done to help lower ranked players keep their careers alive. And given how much money is at the top of tennis, it seems right for at least the players at the very top to contribute to the well-being of the game.

That doesn’t mean the top players have to. It’s their money, and therefore their choice how they spend it. But, given the difference between the distribution of talent versus money in the sport, it would be nice if a player like Thiem was more interested in the health of the sport as a whole.

Djokovic is right in his intent, but players, especially top players such as Thiem, need to be on board for the idea to be executed successfully.

Main Photo from Getty.

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