Grand-slam executives meet for secret talks
By Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent
WHAT would have enticed the chief executives of the four grand-slam tournaments to a Surrey hotel last week unless it was to put the final touches to their road map for a sport that requires bold and imaginative leadership to make the most of the riches at its disposal? Ian Ritchie, from Wimbledon, Arlen Kantarian of the USTA, Stefan Simeon of the French federation and Steve Wood of Tennis Australia were ensconced for three days of summit meetings, the likely outcome of which is a blueprint detailing how they believe tennis should be governed.
Given that they meet again as a matter of course at the Masters Cup in Shanghai next month — the grand-slam events are joint-owners of the event with the ATP — the fact that the four felt it necessary to get their heads together for a brainstorming session indicates a consuming desire to drive changes through from the top.
The one message that filtered from the meetings indicated a strong cohesion among the grand-slam competitions and that has not always been the case. Indeed, more often than not they have voted for individual profit rather than mutual advantage.
But, as the Grand Slam Committee, they are committed to establishing ground rules that suit them, harbouring the desire to maintain their positions of strength, compose a credible calendar and not allow new measures being contemplated by Etienne de Villiers, the chief executive of the ATP, and Larry Scott, chairman and chief executive of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, to undermine them.
De Villiers has announced that the men’s and women’s tours — liaising more closely than for years, which may be unnerving the grand-slam events — have agreed in principle to share four combined events by 2009.
The provisional idea is for two in North America, one in March and the other in August, one in Europe two weeks before the French Open and a fourth in China. There may also, in future, be a combined end-of-year Masters, with the Millennium Dome, in east London, emerging as a favoured venue. The grand-slam championships have never been in favour of a proliferation of combined events, believing that they dilute their own importance.
The ITF, under whose auspices they meet, are determined to preserve the importance of the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup, the national team tournaments, but there is a growing body of enlightened opinion that both are in need of a revamp.
A number of the top 20 male players have already made plain their disquiet at having to play in next year’s first-round ties two weeks after the Australian Open. Indeed, it is probable that neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal will appear in the tie between Switzerland and Spain in February, which only harms the event’s reputation.
Whether the grand-slam executives agree that these events would be better staged as a World Cup of Tennis at the end of each year, or every other year, remains to be seen. A Davis Cup World Group round shorn of world-class players eats away at the esteem of the championship.
The ATP has decided to experiment with round-robin groups at several events next year — the Stella Artois Championship, at Queen’s Club, West London, in June is among those considering guinea-pig status — to maximise the opportunities for top players to last longer in the event. Those tournaments that volunteer will have to start a day earlier to cope with the scheduling difficulties.
When the WTA revealed two weeks ago that none of its leading tournaments had achieved their quota of top-ten players in 2006, through injury, they demanded a radical rethink of the calendar, suggesting a shortened season, ending in October, that leaves an awful chasm, more breaks for top players after the grand-slam tournaments, a reduction in the commitment of “top players” from 13 to 11 tournaments, a simplified ranking system and a streamlined top level of tournaments with the leading players competing against each other more often.
As the sport’s plans for the future are redrawn on an almost weekly basis, the grand-slam tournaments are preparing to say how they believe it should be done. The repercussions will be mighty.