Tennis the loser in feud between Novak Djokovic and Chris Kermode
The ousting of the ATP chairman will leave a vacuum at the top of the sport at a time when strong leadership is required
This is the story of a pointless coup. Engineered by Novak Djokovic and facilitated by a small group in the ATP players’ council, it has delivered up the head of the association, Chris Kermode, one of the most innovative administrators in sport, leaving tennis in a perilous limbo at the very time it needs strong leadership.
There has been animus between the world No 1 and the executive chairman for years, which soured their working relationship to the point of collapse in Indian Wells, California, on Thursday, when three representatives each of the players and the tournament owners who make up the Association of Tennis Professional’s board voted on his contract. He needed four votes. He lost. So did tennis.
The long-running friction between Kermode and Djokovic contributed significantly to his downfall, leaving the chairman in dead man’s shoes until the second of his two three-year contracts expires at the end of the year.
Djokovic – who has earned $128,804,799 in a stellar career but whose own attempt at running a tournament in Serbia collapsed spectacularly in 2013 – has long held the view that Kermode sided with tournament organisers when the ATP sat down to carve the game’s considerable spoils.
Kermode has told Djokovic privately: “If you think you can do a better job, have a go.” There is no indication he would be so inclined. Indeed, no names at all have surfaced, creating a vacuum into which all sorts of confusion can gather.
Djokovic reckons not enough trickled down to players outside the elite level. But underdogs and dreamers with low rankings who turn up to Wimbledon this summer and are reminded they will earn £39,000 just for making the first round might not agree with their champion’s logic. It represents a 66% rise for first-round losers in the six years Kermode has been in his job.
Wimbledon has increased prize money every one of those years, as have most of the slam and Masters tournaments. Thursday’s vote came on the first day of the Indian Wells Open, where prize money since Kermode’s arrival as ATP boss in 2014 has risen from $5.2m to just over $9m. Britain’s No 2, Cameron Norrie, who lost in the first round, left with $15,610. The winner – which is likely to be Djokovic – will receive $1.3m.
The game is awash with money. But Kermode’s view is hard-headed: if players are not good enough to make it through to compete at that level, they have little claim to the money that resides there.
Kermode knows what he is talking about. The Londoner ran away from home at 16 and played on the fringes of the game in rural Australia for pocket money. He took up coaching on his return – including a session with Princess Diana. He had a flair for business and, after running the Queen’s tournament, became known as a player’s man when he turned the week-long ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena into the biggest money-spinner outside the four majors. Kermode had the trust and friendship of nearly everyone in the locker room from Roger Federer to Rafael Nadal – yet never hit it off with Djokovic.
Since Thursday’s vote – which few anticipated going against him – Kermode has been deluged by support. Stan Wawrinka’s former coach Magnus Norman said on Twitter it was a “sad day for the ATP Tour. Incredible job this man did for the players and the tournaments. Nothing but respect.” Stephen Farrow, who succeeded Kermode running the Queen’s tournament, said: “This is so, so disappointing. An outstanding leader who has made a huge and lasting impact on the ATP and has had so much success in so many areas of the business. A huge loss for the ATP and a big blow for the sport.”
Judy Murray tweeted: “Sad to read this.” Greg Rusedski said: “Surprising announcement considering all he achieved during his tenure. Can’t wait to hear from the players and board members the reasons?”
There is no escaping the irony that Djokovic – reasonably enough – demanded transparency from Kermode on negotiations and the division of revenues but, when asked if he personally wanted Kermode removed and why, he stonewalled in an uncomfortable exchange with journalists, claiming “confidentiality”.
And still he endorsed the chairman’s widely applauded innovations, from the NextGen tournament in Milan to the new ATP World Team Cup in January – which he helped launch when he sat beside Kermode in front of the media at the O2 Arena in London last November.
Djokovic can be disarmingly charming, as well as obdurate in the face of difficult questions. There will be more to come. Who will replace Kermode? Will Djokovic and the players’ council approve? Perhaps they would like a say in the appointment. If so, there would be little support for one of the dissidents, Justin Gimelstob, who, alongside his boss at the Tennis Channel, David Edges, and Alex Inglot, brother of the Great Britain Davis Cup doubles player, Dominic Inglot, voted for a players’ shutout against Kermode.
If Djokovic believes Kermode has a conflict of interest trying to reconcile the interests of players and owners, he surely recognises a similar dilemma for Edges and Gimelstob, broadcasters and advocates for players’ rights.
Gimelstob, a former player, would no doubt love the job. But he has some unfinished business to attend to in another court. He awaits trial in Los Angeles, charged with “battery with serious bodily injury” of one Randall Kaplan at a Halloween party in an exclusive suburb of the city last October.
“I maintain my innocence,” he tweeted after his last court appearance on 27 February, when his case was adjourned.
Innocence of the old-fashioned kind, naïveté, would seem to be in short supply in the wider game lately.