featured image

WIMBLEDON, England — Novak Djokovic has the opportunity to make history many times over at the All-England Club in the coming two weeks.

Djokovic, a five-time Wimbledon champion, is vying for a third straight title. He won the tournament in both 2018 and 2019 before last year’s edition was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m trying to peak at the majors; I’ve been managing to do that throughout my career,” Djokovic said in his pretournament news conference on Saturday. “I’ve had the fortune to really play my best tennis when it mattered the most.”

This tournament might matter more for Djokovic than any before. It could be his 20th career Grand Slam singles title, which would tie Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the career lead. Having already won the first two major tournaments of the season, Djokovic could also become the first man to head to New York with the chance to win the U.S. Open and a Grand Slam since Rod Laver did so in 1969. This being an Olympic year, Djokovic would also have a chance to win a “Golden Slam,” only achieved by Steffi Graf in 1988, if he wins gold in Tokyo.

“Once I’m on the court, I try to lock in and I try to exclude all the distractions,” Djokovic said. “I feel like over the years I managed to develop the mechanism that allows me to do that.”

The top-seeded Djokovic slipped early on the slick grass and on the scoreboard, but found his footing on Monday afternoon on Centre Court to beat Jack Draper, a Briton who earned a wild card, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. But before that big-stage win, Djokovic had already dug in for one of his biggest off-court battles: launching the Professional Tennis Players Association.

On Friday evening, Djokovic held his own virtual news conference, along with the Canadian player Vasek Pospisil, the PTPA co-founder, and Adam Larry, the organization’s newly appointed executive director, to announce a more formal launch of a group that had a more nebulous, nascent beginning at last year’s U.S. Open.

Djokovic, a former president of the ATP player council, became convinced that trying to represent player interests from within the ATP Tour’s governing framework was futile, and has devoted significant time and energy to founding his breakaway, “outside the box” player representation organization, for which there is not an obvious seat at the table in the current tennis power structure.

“We have tried the so-to-say conventional way and we are now trying the unconventional way to make a significant long-term difference for the players,” Djokovic said Friday.

“Obviously nothing is guaranteed,” he said. “We are a new, young, learning organization. We would love to have as many players and people who are a part of this sport support us. We need your help. We need everyone to recognize the core value, the very reason PTPA was founded and why it exists.”

The ATP Tour, which in 1990 was founded as a joint partnership between players and tournaments, has staunchly opposed the idea of an independent organization for players since the PTPA first announced its intentions last August.

“ATP management, together with the Board and the ATP Player Council, whose representatives are democratically elected by all players, work week-in and week-out to advance the interests of players,” the ATP said in a statement issued after the PTPA announced its advisory board last week.

“The players’ interests, and those of the Tour as a whole, must and will continue to be protected under ATP governance,” the statement continued. “By contrast, the creation of a separate player entity provides a clear overlap, divides the players, and further fragments the sport.”

Larry, who previously worked for the N.H.L. players’ union with a focus on licensing agreements, said that the PTPA had a list of members, but would not provide a specific number.

“We have hundreds of players right now representing all the tours, including over 70 percent of the players on the ATP Tour,” Larry said.

Pospisil, who said the PTPA “currently has a supermajority of the targeted players we’re going for,” said that he wanted to keep members’ identities confidential, because certain players “fear retribution, which is something that we have to take very seriously.”

The tone of the PTPA news conference was largely conciliatory in its language toward the ATP, with the group’s leadership using forms of the word “collaborate” 16 times, but without providing many details of what their strategy or concrete objectives will be.

“We’re reaching out here with an olive branch to say let’s work together, let’s be collaborative so that we can provide a greater livelihood for many more players,” Larry said.

On Friday, Pospisil admitted that he had taken nearly three months off the tour because he was “burned out a little bit” from carrying out his PTPA activity with his playing career.

“I’d be sugarcoating it if I said it hasn’t impacted my focus on tennis and on performance,” Pospisil, who is ranked 65th, said. “I’ve been doing everything possible to find the balance, but it has taken a toll, for sure.”

Djokovic, who is wading deeper into bureaucracy as his career reaches new heights, admitted that his off-court fights had taken a toll on the court. “Many times in the last couple of years it has backfired on me,” he said, “in terms of the energy levels, for my tennis and my performances and my recovery.”

Djokovic, who has earned nearly $150 million in prize money in his career, emphasized that his lobbying for greater earnings and power for players was not motivated by personal financial gain.

“With this blessing comes a huge responsibility to help the young guys help the next generations, help the lower-ranked players,” he said.

On court at Wimbledon, Djokovic will look to hold off those younger generations, keeping the iron-fisted grip he, Nadal, and Federer have held atop the men’s game well into their 30s.

But as he chases history, and admits that his French Open title run two weeks ago “took a lot out of me mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Djokovic said he realized why “former generations did not manage to get to where we are at the moment” in terms of player organization.

“It’s really difficult for a player whose priority is to hit the tennis ball, recover, have all his needs met in order for him to perform at his best, then, if he has time and energy, to deal with the politics and business side of things in tennis,” he said. “It’s very difficult for us to take this step forward and be responsible and really fully active and involved in the business side of things. But I’m glad I’m able, from the ranking position that I have in the tennis world, that my voice is being heard.”

The post Novak Djokovic Aims to Win at Wimbledon, and His Side Hustle appeared first on The News Amed.