2-year ranking?!? No thanks.
Off Court, Engaging in the Future of Tennis
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
Published: November 18, 2011
It will be a busy, potentially pivotal tournament for the world’s best players in London, and not only because of the tennis at the ATP World Tour Finals.
There will also be board meetings, player meetings and discussions in and out of the locker room about the future of the men’s circuit and the identity of the tour’s next chief executive.
“This is going to be a very interesting 10 days,” said Justin Gimelstob, an American and a former player who is one of three player representatives on the ATP board of directors, which also includes three tournament representatives.
Adam Helfant, a sharp-minded 46-year-old American who was a tough negotiator at Nike, is about to leave after three years in his post. Although he announced his decision in June, tournament officials and players are still haggling over who might become his successor, with the leading candidate, Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, generating both strong opposition and considerable support.
There is a chance the tour will have to postpone naming a successor and re-embark on a talent search, leaving the circuit without a chief executive for an undetermined stretch.
Helfant’s replacement is hardly the only off-court issue in London. There have been renewed calls for changes, a cyclical activity in the Balkanized world of professional tennis, where competing agendas and complaints about the calendar are as much part of the landscape as toweling off between points.
The difference this time is that the biggest stars are deeply engaged in the game’s governance and are also on uncommonly good terms, even if competitive tensions exist. “There’s no one who is in their cocoon; people are respecting each other,” said David Ferrer, the Spaniard who is ranked No. 5 in the world.
Roger Federer continues to serve as president of the ATP Player Council and Rafael Nadal as its vice president.
“I’ve been impressed by their judgment,” Helfant said in a recent interview. “They are active participants in those meetings, and they care deeply about the governance of the sport. Their accomplishments on the court will speak for themselves over time and they’ll obviously be linked together forever in tennis history. But I would hope in the history of tennis, people will also remember all the work they put in off the court.”
Gimelstob said he was impressed by their attention to detail and staying power.
“We’re sitting there on a Friday night in a meeting room at the U.S. Open for four or four and a half hours with Roger, Rafa and Fernando González,” he said. “Speaking on everything from qualifying cutoffs, doubles and small stuff to prize-money allocation, to pensions, to real big issues. But the most impressive thing about Roger and Rafa in these meetings is that there is no less level of intensity and connection to the issues that don’t affect them.”
Plenty of tennis players have been deeply engaged off court. Billie Jean King was among a group of players who were pivotal in starting the women’s professional circuit in 1970. For the men, Cliff Drysdale took the risk of leading the Wimbledon boycott in 1973, and many top players participated in a news conference in a parking lot at the U.S. Open in 1988 that anticipated the creation of the existing ATP Tour in 1990.
Such radical moves seem unlikely to happen in this more scripted era, although there was grumbling at the rain-interrupted U.S. Open this year, where leading players like Nadal and Andy Murray criticized the tournament’s long-standing scheduling policies. U.S. Open officials have since addressed some of those concerns, announcing that they are working toward giving the men a day of rest between the semifinals and the final.
Mardy Fish, the top American player, said he believed the player protest movement had “dissipated a little bit.”
But major issues remain, none of which will be easy to solve in the fractious tennis world. Many players, including Nadal and his compatriot Ferrer, continue to push for the Davis Cup to reform its schedule by reducing the number of rounds or switching to a two-year cycle.
There is frustration among non-American players about the spring hardcourt swing in the United States, in which the Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells, California, and Miami take up nearly four weeks in an overstuffed schedule. Reports in the Spanish news media also indicate that some leading players are pushing for a modified ranking system, modeled in part on the world golf rankings, that would take two years of results into account instead of one.
There is lingering frustration that the Grand Slam tournaments do not commit a greater percentage of their revenue to player compensation. Although Helfant and the tour have succeeded in ending the season two weeks earlier in 2012 and 2013 by shuffling tournaments, there have been calls for further shortening.
“The season is too long,” said Jean-François Caujolle, tournament director in Paris. “But you have to remember that Federer doesn’t play one long season. He plays four mini-seasons, with breaks or training blocks in between. I think it’s a false problem.“
Although there has been ample dialogue, injuries and withdrawals have kept the top players from meeting as a group since the U.S. Open. Federer and Novak Djokovic skipped the Asian swing to Tokyo and Shanghai. Nadal skipped the Paris indoor event last week. He did find the time and energy, however, to travel from Spain to visit Disneyland Paris with relatives on the final weekend of the tournament.
It will be difficult to make a push for any major changes without a new chief executive in place. Most of the leading players did not want Helfant to leave. He brought in new sponsorship, successfully orchestrated the shortening of the season and had genuine connections to stars like Federer.
“I wish he would have stayed,” Federer said in a recent interview. “We tried to make it work. He had a great chemistry with the players and also with sort of the council, and we really respected him. I knew him from Nike. I always thought he was a tough negotiator and really good for our sport.”
Helfant has not publicly explained his reasons for leaving after being offered an extension and a raise by the board, but there was tension between Helfant and some tournament directors.
An outspoken player who had one of the best, most beautiful serves in tennis, Krajicek is now tournament director in Rotterdam in his native Netherlands. He would fulfill the European players’ desire for a European leader. But there are concerns in some quarters about Krajicek’s lack of extensive administrative experience and concern that tournament directors might support him because they feel he would be easy to influence.
Whether Krajicek or someone else, whomever is picked will have to deal with the same deep fault lines that Helfant and his predecessors, Étienne de Villiers and Mark Miles, had to negotiate.
“It’s not an impossible job, but it’s a tough one, like trying to herd kittens,” said Paul Annacone, the former American pro now coaching Federer.