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Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal Return to Leadership Roles in Tennis

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic can usually count on seeing one another at the business end of Grand Slam tournaments, with 45 matches among them at majors.

Now, they will do business together at Grand Slam events as well. The ATP announced Thursday that Federer and Nadal, along with Jürgen Melzer, were elected to fill vacant spots on the player council, the 10-member body for which the top-ranked Djokovic serves as president. The council next meets in New York just before the start of the United States Open.

Federer and Nadal, two of tennis’s most powerful and popular players, have been on the council before; Federer was president from 2008 to 2014. Their elections, however, feel less like a triumphant return and more like a rescue mission.

The council hemorrhaged members during Wimbledon, when three players — Robin Haase, Jamie Murray and Sergiy Stakhovsky — abruptly quit. The exodus followed a contentious seven-hour meeting that capped months of deadlock over choosing a replacement for Justin Gimelstob, a player representative to the ATP board. Gimelstob resigned in May after pleading no contest to a felony battery charge.

The player council had also been divided over a decision in March not to renew the contract of the ATP chief executive, Chris Kermode. The move caught many in the tennis world off guard, including Federer and Nadal, who expressed their unhappiness at not being consulted.

“I tried to meet Novak on the deadline; unfortunately, he had no time,” Federer said in March at the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. “That’s hard to understand for me.”

Nadal, who met with Federer at that tournament to discuss tour business, echoed the frustration.

“Nobody came to me to explain why this stuff happened,” Nadal told reporters. “I have my phone with me. So nobody texted me to speak about or to ask me about what’s my thoughts about that decision.”

Djokovic, who began his second two-year term as president last October, answered their complaints by proffering an invitation.

“Federer and Nadal have been icons of our sport for so many years, and their opinions are extremely important to everyone,” he said in March. “If they want to be active and part of it, either officially or unofficially, I think it’s only positive for us.”

Nadal’s previous stint on the council, in which he served as Federer’s vice president, ended with his resignation in 2012. He was exhausted by an inability to pass reforms he sought, such as a two-year ranking system.

“I believe that we can do much more things than what we have done,” Nadal said then.

He rejoins a council that appears far more taxing.

After early losses at the tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, which came in the wake of Kermode’s ouster, Djokovic said he “just had way too many things off the court” going on “that affected me a little bit on the court.”

After the seven-hour meeting before Wimbledon, Djokovic said some in his team had encouraged him to step down from the council presidency. Later in the tournament, Djokovic bristled at repeated questioning over his continued support for Gimelstob.

Though the vote was not public, Vasek Pospisil, who at 29 is the youngest player on the council, said he believed existing members were “quite unanimous on the decision” to bring on Federer and Nadal. Their terms will end at Wimbledon next year.

“These guys, along with Novak, they’re the three greatest players of all time, and that carries a lot of weight,” Pospisil said. “If they’re aligned and in the same boat with the same goals in mind, there’s a lot that can be accomplished.”

Pospisil said he was interested to see how the on-court rivals would translate their competitiveness into cooperation.

“I think all three of them have the right intentions for growing the sport and being on the same page,” he said. “So I expect to see them working together, but at the same time, they’re three Goliaths in the sport, so the dynamic might be an interesting one to observe.”

The council is now unusually top-heavy, with five of its 10 members currently inside the top 15 in the ATP rankings. Pospisil, ranked No. 205, said he believed that the top stars were “quite aware of all the struggles of the lower-ranked guys,” who he believes should be a priority in a sport that offers relatively few athletes the ability to make a living.

Pospisil wrote an article for The Globe and Mail last week that expressed his dissatisfaction over a lack of transparency in the percentage of tournament revenues the players receive in prize money. Increased prize money and power for players are among the big issues facing the council, as is selecting Kermode’s replacement.

Murray, who recently left the council, praised Federer and Nadal for stepping into the fray.

“Despite the sport’s current success we live in chaotic times,” Murray wrote on Twitter. “My biggest achievement on the council may well prove to be being part of the group of resignations that presented the opportunity for this to happen. Good luck!!!”

More on the ATP TourAt Wimbledon, Behind-the-Scenes Tennis Politicking Comes to the ForefrontJul 5, 2019It’s Time for the ATP to Get Its Act TogetherMay 12, 2019Board Meetings, Not Backhands, Are the Talk of Men’s TennisMar 11, 2019


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