Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have further distinguished themselves with their deep involvement in tennis politics. The stars of the 1960s and early ’70s, like Arthur Ashe, were very active politically, but they were trying to revolutionize the game. As the money in tennis exploded, top players tended to focus on their careers. The Big Three are throwbacks to that earlier era. Federer was president of the A.T.P. player council from 2008 to 2014, and Nadal was on the council for four of those years. Djokovic was elected president in 2016. Now that they are approaching the ends of their careers, they seem determined to wield as much influence over how the game is administered as they have over how it is played, making for another battleground in their rivalry.
The first sign of discord came two years ago, when Djokovic was part of the faction that ousted Kermode from his A.T.P. chairmanship. Federer and Nadal opposed the move, and soon thereafter rejoined the player council, which was still led by Djokovic. By all accounts, the atmosphere at meetings was cordial, but the three men were guided by very different impulses. Federer and Nadal were institutionalists by nature, supportive of the A.T.P. and generally satisfied with how tennis operated. Djokovic, on the other hand, believed that drastic reform was needed, starting with independent representation for the players.
Even so, with Federer and Nadal back on the council and the question of prize money once again roiling the tour, it was thought that the Big Three might reprise the role they played in 2012 and 2013 and cut another deal with the majors. When I asked Pospisil what he thought about that, he told me that he favored anything that would get the players a fairer share. But he went on to say that negotiating prize money was best left to lawyers, and that tennis needs to get away from ad hoc, back-room deal making. He also wondered whether Federer would be willing to take a hard line with the majors. He noted that the Swiss star and his management company were behind the Laver Cup, an annual team competition. Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open, and the U.S.T.A. were both investors in the event, which meant that Federer was now in business with two of the four majors. Pospisil insisted that he wasn’t questioning Federer’s integrity — “I have amazing respect for Roger, both as a player and a human being” — but said the players needed an advocate unambiguously on their side. “We cannot have anyone negotiating prize money on behalf of the players who has a conflict of interest,” he said. (Federer did not respond to a request for comment.)
At any rate, whatever hope there was that the Big Three would forge a united front was dashed when Djokovic and Pospisil announced the formation of the P.T.P.A. on the eve of last year’s U.S. Open. “The Professional Tennis Players Association (P.T.P.A.) did not emerge to be combative, to disrupt or to cause any issues within or outside the tennis tour,” Pospisil tweeted. “Simply to unify the players, have our voices heard & have an impact on decision being made that effect [sic] our lives and livelihoods.” To mark the occasion, Pospisil and Djokovic, along with nearly a hundred other players, gathered on a court at the National Tennis Center for a group photo. The majors, together with the A.T.P. and W.T.A., released a statement condemning the move. “It is a time for even greater collaboration, not division,” they said. The same day, Federer and Nadal circulated a letter, signed by them and several others on the player council, that said, “We are against this proposal as we do not see how this actually benefits the players and it puts our lives on Tour and security in major doubt.” By that point, Djokovic and Pospisil had both resigned from the council.
A former member of the A.T.P.’s leadership recently told me that Djokovic’s actions were at least partly rooted in his rivalry with Federer and Nadal — the fact that he has always been cast as the interloper, the third man, the villain. This person, who asked to remain anonymous because he is on good terms with all three players, said that being the guy everyone rooted against had inured Djokovic to criticism and emboldened him to go his own way. “Novak is used to pushing things up the hill,” he said. “To get in front of a stadium of 16,000 people at Wimbledon or in Paris when you’ve got everyone yelling for Rafa or Roger and the whole world is against you and you’re kicking their ass — Novak doesn’t give a [expletive].” The former A.T.P. officer said that Djokovic was motivated by a sincere desire to help fellow competitors but that the P.T.P.A. was also a “legacy play,” another way of cementing his place in history. It was a means, too, of asserting his leadership in the locker room — of signaling that he, not Federer or Nadal, was now the sport’s most powerful figure. The executive suggested that it was a message directed as much at his two rivals as anyone else. “Some of this is personal,” he said.
In a recent email exchange, I asked Djokovic if he thought that Federer and Nadal could be persuaded to support the P.T.P.A. “Roger and Rafa are both great competitors, and I respect their individual opinions,” Djokovic replied, adding that he hoped his rivals would “keep an open mind about the P.T.P.A. movement.”
This is not the first time that players have sought a divorce from the A.T.P. In 2003, a group led by Wayne Ferreira, from South Africa, and Laurence Tieleman, from Italy and Belgium, created a players-only organization called the International Men’s Tennis Association, or the I.M.T.A. It was born of the same grievances animating the P.T.P.A.: frustration over money and dissatisfaction with the A.T.P. “There’s been a lot of problems with the way the A.T.P. has been running things,” Tieleman told The Los Angeles Times. A number of players, including Lleyton Hewitt, ranked No. 1 at the time, expressed support. But the I.M.T.A. never gained any traction. The players were unable to unify around a strategy, and they also didn’t want to kick in the resources needed to further the effort.