Not many of the current crop of young tennis players would remember or even have heard of the “Parking Lot Press Conference” on 26th August 1989, held outside Flushing Meadows, the venue of the US Open tennis championships.
Although the ATP was founded in 1972, it was this iconic moment that impacted the future of modern tennis. Without financial security, the ATP had joined hands with tournaments and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to form the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council (MIPTC), which ran the men’s circuit from 1974 to 1989.
However, dissatisfaction with the way the sport was managed and marketed culminated in a player mutiny in 1988 led by many of the top players including the then world number one Mats Wilander.
The “Parking Lot Press Conference” during one of the marquee tennis events was also symbolic of the players frustration of having virtually no say in the future of the sports.
With former White House Chief of Staff (under President Jimmy Carter) Hamilton Jordan as their Chief Executive Officer, the ATP decided to breakaway from their existing partnership and create their own circuit.
The ATP conducted their inaugural season in 1990 and by the following year, they had their first television package to broadcast 19 tournaments.
Today tennis aces Roger Federer, Novac Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have earned a cumulative $1.2 billion during their careers from endorsement partners and appearance fees. Federer is the highest-paid tennis player for the 14th straight year, with USD93.4 million from prize money, endorsements and appearance fees in the 12 months ending June 1.
None of this may have been possible if the players did not start believing in their own commercial value.
While the ATP and WTA have grown in stature and financial strength, it is not the same with the amateurs, who mostly still come under the wings of the ITF and in the case of Malaysia, the Lawn Tennis Association of Malaysia (LTAM).
So when the LTAM decided to keep 60% of the approximately RM94,000 prize money that the Malaysian side were awarded after finishing second at the Kunming International Mixed Tennis Tournament earlier this week, what options are available to the players?
Nothing much, unless the players are professional players.
The LTAM had failed to inform the players that they would be eligible to only 40% of the prize money. It is learnt that the team officials were informed of this verbally but nothing in black and white was ever given.
It is unfair to the players that such a decision was made without any discussion with all the stakeholders or being informed of it. A simple memo would have helped the LTAM avoid this mess.
While the players can take legal recourse to claim their dues, it could affect their standing in the national team.
For the record, unlike other participating teams, Malaysia fielded their best players for the invitational competition in Kunming.
The future of the players, who are all members of the Manila bound SEA Games squad, may be in jeopardy should they take legal action.
As amateur players, they depend on the LTAM to enter their names for any multi-sports tournaments including the SEA Games. Going up against those wielding the power may not be prudent for the players.
Should they turn professional, they have no need for the LTAM approval to play at the ATP or the WTA. Current rules also allows players to directly enter any individual ITF events.
And if the players were to be called up for national duties, the governing body would have to enter into separate contracts with the professional players and iron out all terms and conditions.
This is not the first time that a sports association in Malaysia had decided to impose a “tax” on players’ earnings, but it is certainly the largest percentage to be deducted.
The Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) practised a similar system back in 1990s. But it was discarded after it created plenty of uneasiness among the players.
Sports associations can be very unforgiving to players, who questioned them. This was the case when the country’s best ever men’s singles tennis player V. Selvam was left in the cold for many years back in the 1990s.
Sports associations need to be more professional when it comes to how they handle their players welfare.
A senior LTAM official even had the temerity to raise the question as to whether the players were playing for national pride or for money when asked about the deduction of prize money due to the players.
Until officials realise that to make a living out of sport does not diminish national pride, such uncalled statements would still be made.
The likes of Federer and Serena Williams, despite the millions in their bank, still have the desire to play at the Olympics.
It would be judicious for both sports associations and their athletes to have proper paperwork to avoid such unwanted incidents. It would not only help the players but also the association.
Take the case of the BAM, which may end up paying more than RM160,000 to the Badminton World Federation (BWF). The BAM did not have any contract with two professional players – Zulfadli Zulkifli and Tan Chun Seang – who were fined and banned for involvement in match fixing.
For the affected Malaysian tennis players, being an amateur and young does not mean that you cannot be more professional in your approach. There is no need for our own “Parking Lot Press Conference”. All that is needed is for the players to act like professionals and ensure every detail of their budding career is managed effectively by the right coaches on the court and through proper documentation off court.