In this special edition of The Rally, senior writers Steve Tignor and Peter Bodo remember the ATP's Brad Drewett, who passed away late last week at 54 after battling motor neurone disease.
Brad Drewett's death at 54 has to be one of the cruelest twists of fate imaginable. He spends his life playing and working for the ATP, an organization that by all accounts he loved; he gets the top job and has immediate, and frankly surprising, success there improving the financial lives of his players; and he's cut down after one year, when it looked as if he was just getting started. The whole merciless saga has left a lot of people in the game stunned.
I also feel a little guilty. I was at Drewett's first, introductory press conference, at the Australian Open last year, and like a lot of people there I wasn't too impressed. It's hard to remember now, but there had been some disappointment when he was named. On the surface, Drewett looked a safe hire, a company man, somebody who might lack the vision needed to lead the ATP at that moment. At the time, many players were so fed up with the way the game was run, and the lack of revenue that was coming back to them, that they talked openly of boycotting events and starting their own union.
I can remember watching Andy Roddick at the 2011 U.S. Open talk about how hard it was to get the players together on any topic, how each of them had his own individual interest to consider. Roddick's words were dire enough to make me think there would never be any real change for the better in tennis, that the sport was just too divided and chaotic. When Drewett made his first, rather hesitant speech as the new ATP CEO in Melbourne, I had even less hope. I was looking for a slick salesman who would lead the tour in a new direction, and Brad, as well as he knew the game, didn't seem to fit that role. It turned out I was looking for the wrong thing.
Some insiders who knew Brad better than I did said to give him time, that he would surprise us, and boy were they right. The fact that he was a former player and ATP lifer turned to be just what the tour needed. Drewett quickly realized the opportunity he had with today's top players, that the Big 4 wielded unique power and leverage, and that they were willing to use that leverage to help the rest of the tour. And that's what happened in the series of pay raises that Drewett and the players negotiated with the Grand Slams over the last year. I think Brad trusted the players and helped give them a voice, and the combination worked. Sometimes being a company man helps, because you know your company better than anyone.
What did you think of Brad Drewett, Pete? Does his success tell us anything about what might work in tennis in the future? You probably knew him better than I did, though I do have one instructive story that I can share about a conversation I had with him a few years ago, well before he was in line for the top job.
Well, now you have me really intrigued by your reference to an "instructive" moment with Brad. You're probably one of the few people, certainly among journalists, to experience something like that—not least because of some of those hidden virtues of Brad's that you referred to above.
As you suggest, it was extremely easy to underestimate Brad. I did it myself, but for somewhat different reasons. It pains me somewhat to admit it, and it's a difficult thing to say at the moment when the loss of this very solid man is still so fresh, but I doubted that Brad had intellectual horsepower or the persuasive personality to head an organization as large and complex as the ATP. I say complex less because of the nature and structure of the organization than because of the position it's in vis a vis the Grand Slam tournaments—as both partner and competitor—and the inevitable tensions within the ATP constituency, mainly the difference between the needs of the top players and the rank-and-file.
My doubts about Brad were planted, significantly enough, by impressions I formed during his career as a player. Brad was a very quiet and unassuming guy—both a "true-blue Aussie" and a man who didn't invite or draw attention to himself, even in the wake of some of his greatest highs as a player. He wasn't a great quote or a guy who jousted or joked around with the media. That he was a hard-working, diligent pro was obvious, but you know what gets you in the media sweepstakes—a label as a boring guy. It may sound a little crazy, but I think the real key to Brad's personality, or the part of it that has had such a broad, positive and powerful impact during his short tenure at the helm of the ATP, was his playing style.
Brad was a big, thickly-built guy, with quads like propane tanks. He wasn't a particularly good mover, but he played a serve-and-volley game in which finesse played an enormous role. True to his Aussie roots, he had a wonderful volley distinguished by gentle touch. So I had to smile when I read Roger Federer's quote this morning: "He (Brad) was always very nice to work with. Very honest. Very nice. Gentle. I've really enjoyed every step of the way working with him."
You know, one thing that struck me in the official statements that the movers and shakers issued right after Brad died was how many of them were, first and foremost, personal in nature—comments on the man and his nature, not his accomplishments. WTA CEO Stacy Allaster referred to him as a devoted family man in the very first line of her statement. Speaking in Madrid earlier today, Novak Djokovic said: "We remember him as a very calm, composed and intelligent man, who loved this sport with all his heart, while he was playing, coaching and then as the president of ATP. So I wish his family all the best and to be strong in this sad moment."
Clearly, that gentle touch wasn't confined to his work at the net.
As the comments about Brad suggest, he was a man who humanized the office he held, and that quality shouldn't be underestimated. I believe it was absolutely central to the way that Brad teamed up with the top players over the past year to present the Grand Slams with a united front. I know what you mean when you mention having qualms about Brad because he seemed too much the "company man." But it's easy to forget that for all the changes in the game in the past few years, one thing that still seems to be true is that so much of the game, at every level, is relationship-based. This is something often forgotten in the rush to grow the sport, but before I get into that, tell me about that experience you had with Brad.
Thanks for the description of Brad as a player. I never saw him play or knew much about his game, but you can usually tell something about a person from how they approach the sport. It sounds like he made the most of what he had, which is all an Aussie audience has ever asked.
My "instructive moment" with Brad came when he was head of the ATP's Asian wing. The tour had decided to designate Shanghai as its fall Masters event on that continent, continuing its long, slow push into China. Watching the tournament that year, which came right after the smaller ATP event in Japan, I wondered whether choosing China hadn't been too blatantly motivated by sponsor dollars. Yes, there was Rolex and Heineken signage in Shanghai, but there were also far fewer fans than there were in Tokyo. Japan is still, as they say, a more "mature" tennis market. I got in touch with Brad to ask him whether this was a concern—would China ever pay off?
The first thing to note was that he called me back, from Shanghai. I hadn't really expected the personal call from over there; whatever I wrote, it wasn't going to be on the front page of the New York Times. The second, and more important thing, to note was that Brad listened to what I had to say and answered without annoyance or aggression, and in something other than corporate-speak. He knew what I was saying, but he felt like China was the future, even if it was a long-distance future, and that the ATP's ultimate hope was to have a men's version of Li Na someday. Drewett came across as down to earth, but not afraid to think big, and think long-term. I'm not sure I came away 100 percent sold on the idea, but I felt a lot about who was in charge of implementing it. And as the years have gone by, Shanghai has begun to develop its own personality as a tournament. You can't deny the enthusiasm of the fans who do show up.
As you said, Pete, there was reason to wonder if Drewett has the "intellectual horsepower" to run a global organization. Maybe he was a pioneer in his own quiet way, proof that an ex-jock could hold his own at the highest executive level. And you're right, the remembrances of him were strikingly personal and emotional, and overwhelmingly positive. It makes me wish I'd had a chance to get to know him better.
I think your anecdote about Brad highlights a very important component in his success and personality—he was a very patient man. That's one of the unsung qualities that often underpin success, perhaps increasingly so in this driven, fast-moving, Twitter-and-text world we now inhabit. One of the major challenges for any former pro who would succeed in business is cultivating the kind of patience Brad possessed. You more than most know just how much tennis is a game of immediate rewards and punishments, of morphing from hero into goat from one day to the next. But somehow patience seemed part of Brad's DNA, and he exploited it fully.
Not much has been said or written about Brad's experience in what we commonly think of as "small business." It wasn't a sexy line-item on the résumé he ultimately developed, nor as glamorous as his status as a former Top 40 ATP pro and junior Australian Open champion. But Brad developed and managed a number of health and fitness-related businesses and, frankly, I wish I knew more about that. It seems to me that the hands-on experience he gained before he moved into the world of tennis politics must have been good preparation for the challenges he would face as he moved up in the ranks of ATP management. Those of us who aren't primarily in business often don't understand how challenging—and, frankly, scary—it can be to start and develop a business, how much risk is involved. Among other things, it's also a quick study in human nature, your own as well as that of your partners and or employees.
This points toward an interesting and ongoing issue in tennis management. For almost all of their histories, the ATP (as well as the WTA) has been torn about where to recruit its leadership—do you recruit from outside the sport, or develop your leadership from the inside (as in the case of Brad)? The "outsiders" have almost always come out on top. Somehow, the pro leadership just can't seem to resist going for the former CEO "looking for a new challenge," or the marketing whiz who's got the spreadsheets and flow charts to show that he or she increased cat litter revenues by 18 percent in the critical southeast Asian market. These Harvard Business School types can be very persuasive—as well as very good at what they do. But what they often are not good at is connecting with and winning over players, and understanding the key role relationships have always played in tennis. If you really want Rafael Nadal to work with you on a prize-money structure that benefits the entire tour, it's a good idea to understand Rafa's needs and desires, to make him comfortable with you, and to win his trust and confidence. That, too, can take patience.
Admittedly, "insiders" like Brad aren't a dime a dozen. But I'm hoping that one takeaway from Brad's tragically early demise is the realization that if you want to do a lot for the game of tennis, get someone who knows, loves, and cares about the game of tennis. Someone like Brad Drewett. He'll be missed, Steve, and just think of all the great work that he might have gotten done.