The Rally: Could Tennis Use a Commissioner?
This week, in light of the latest happenings in pro basketball, Richard Pagliaro and I wonder whether decisive leadership at the top will ever be possible for tennis.
What did you think of NBA commissioner Adam Silver's hammer-drop press conference on Tuesday, when he banned the L.A. Clippers' owner Donald Sterling for life? I thought it was a great moment. I had expected him just to suspend Sterling, but Silver went all the way, and made himself into a hero among the players. It's fashionable now to say that he was only doing "what had to be done," but I think a lot of people, like me, were surprised by the lifetime ban. In his first big decision, Silver, who hardly looks like anybody's idea of a lawman, nailed it.
For the moment, Silver appears to be a players', rather than an owners', commissioner. That's a big change from what we usually see in sports leagues. I wondered if any tennis players had been watching, and how they may have felt. The idea of creating a commissioner position has come up in tennis periodically over the years, but it has never gotten very far, mainly because the game is so split—between ATP, WTA, ITF, and the Grand Slams; between players and tournament directors—that it's hard to imagine a single person bridging those deep schisms and gaining the confidence of all of the sport's interest groups.
But this week we saw the benefit of a strong, single leadership voice, and a recognizable authority figure. Tennis has always had something of a void at the top; do you think a commissioner could help the sport, Richard? And if so, in what ways?
Silver's decisiveness and delivery were impressive. I saw Sacramento mayor and former NBA all-star Kevin Johnson on TV, and he spoke of the "NBA Family" unifying in the face of bigotry, with constant dialogue between players, Johnson, and Silver, who spoke a few times each day.
What is the tennis family and what are its unifying issues? I once asked Bill Rapp, the tournament director of San Jose and Memphis, if he favored combining the ATP and WTA. It made “perfect sense,” he said, but “it would almost be like blending two sides of a divorced family: You’ve got all kinds of issues on your hands.”
Could a commissioner help tennis? That depends on the degree of authority and the power source behind the position. When Larry Scott was WTA CEO, he advocated a ATP-WTA merger, arguing that one combined tour would attract more fans and make the game more appealing for advertisers. I don't think the ATP believed it was beneficial, and it still doesn’t.
Realistically, I don't think a commissioner could exist within the game’s present structure. But hypothetically, let's pretend a divine edict, delivered through the Fred Perry Statue on the Middle Sunday at Wimbledon, ordained the first Tennis Commissioner. Here are three areas the commish could address:
1. Schedule. Start with the ideal calendar positions for the four Grand Slams, give Davis and Fed Cup prime calendar dates, and try to create a more cohesive mini-season for each surface within the larger calendar year.
2. Equipment and rules. A commissioner could review and experiment with issues like playing a let serve, and uniformity on ball use, so that players don't have to adjust to a different ball at each event.
3. Interactivity between the pro and recreational games. Every year, participation on public courts spikes right before and after the majors, but tennis isn't always proactive in reaching new players or re-connecting with lapsed players. A commissioner could, perhaps, help bridge that gap because tennis has an immense edge over other sports in its lifespan.
Steve, do you think tennis will ever name a commissioner, ceremonial or otherwise? And aside from coaching and commentary, what role should former players have in shaping the direction of the game? Who’s your ideal candidate for commissioner?
It's true, Larry Scott, before he went off to run the Pac 12 college-football conference, made a bid to bring the WTA and ATP under one roof, and it didn't happen. Like you said, the ATP didn't see a good reason for the move, and judging by many of the comments from male players over the last couple of years, they still don't.
More arcane, but just as difficult to traverse, is the historical divide between the tours, the Slams, and the ITF, which is in charge of Davis Cup and Fed Cup. For decades, the ITF ran the amateur version of the sport in a dictatorial manner, before the pro tours established themselves in the early 1970s. Since then, the three organizations have co-existed uneasily, and, when it comes to the schedule, counterproductively.
Of the places where a commissioner could be effective that you identify, the most obvious is the schedule. This is where the sport's factions and fiefdoms could most use a rap on the skull from a benevolent tyrant. A commissioner could begin by making the Slam schedule more logical, creating a respectable grass-court season before Wimbledon, and figuring out how to reorganize and maximize Davis Cup and Fed Cup. As it stands now, the ATP, the WTA, the Slams, and the ITF run four separate tours each year.
In the past, John McEnroe has floated his own name for commissioner, but he doesn't have the patience or the political skills for the job. Billie Jean King would be another high-profile choice, but she spent much of her career at war with the ITF and the Slams. A promoter or administrator from outside the game, someone with no ties to any side, would be logical. The ATP tried that when they hired entertainment executive Etienne de Villiers 10 years ago. He made his mistakes and alienated the players, but I think his scheduling changes eventually bore fruit.
What about Roger Federer? When he retires, he'll certainly have the respect of everyone in the game. But would he have the skill set, and would he want the headache?
Sometimes that “uneasy co-existence” can make the sport seem like a cruise ship piloted in different directions by a changing cast of captains: Adventures ensue, but you sometimes wonder, what’s the destination?
There are also disparate views on prerequisites for leadership. Some have expressed strong feelings that a commissioner could only be a former player. Others insist a fresh perspective, legal background, and new voice from outside the game are required to resolve issues within, and expand sponsorship.
We've seen it go both ways: Scott was a former ATP player and administrator before serving as WTA CEO, while de Villiers was a Disney exec touted as one whose experience in the entertainment industry could benefit tennis. Both did shorten the schedules, but de Villiers also created a round-robin debacle in Las Vegas, and under his leadership the ATP was sued by Hamburg after stripping the event of its Masters status. Right before de Villiers came on, I remember sitting in a U.S. Open press conference called by doubles players to announce that they were suing the ATP over scoring changes.
"There is no credibility left for the ATP," Mark Knowles said that day. "They’re basically trying to annihilate one form of the game, which is doubles."
I remember looking around the room that day and wondering: Where are the ATP leaders? When players are suing their own players association, you've got a clear disconnect, but no one seemed capable of addressing it.
Federer has the respect and clout a commissioner needs, but in recent years we've seen prominent players walk away from the player council, frustrated by the game’s glacial bureaucratic pace. I'd like to see the sport hold four summits around the Grand Slams—with players, tournament directors, administrators—to at least talk about ideas for improvement. Subjects like Mahesh Bhupathi's proposed team-tennis league, or Tennis Australia's Steve Healy calling for a revision of Davis Cup and Fed Cup, could be discussed.
Steve, what do you think are the most important issues in the coming years and how do you assess current leadership in the game?
Reading your last post, someone might be tempted to think that Scott was the commissioner who got away. He played the game, worked for the ATP, brought more sponsorship money to the WTA and successfully shortened its schedule, and, unlike de Villiers, he didn’t threaten to blow up the sport up in the process.
Yet tennis has made progress in the years since he left. The top players are more involved in leadership than ever; there have been big prize money increases at all levels at the Grand Slams; the schedules aren't quite as insane as they once were; the majors and Masters continue to expand; and there are more big dual-gender tournaments than ever. I know there are people on both tours who don't like the latter development, but I think it’s good for paying customers.
The issues I see going forward might be:
—Is there a way to heighten the profile of Davis Cup, or create a dual-gender team event, and make it fit more seamlessly into the schedule?
—You brought up Bhupathi's end-of-year team league. In a perfect world, I think team tennis would be a major part of every season; is there a way to make room for this league, get the top players involved, and see how people like it?
—Are there creative ways to increase the visibility of doubles?
—Grass may be the most aesthetically appealing of any surface; how can we get more tennis played on it?
—Drug Testing: It would have been interesting to see how a skilled commissioner would have handled the controversy surrounding Viktor Troicki's and Marin Cilic's suspensions last year. Maybe Novak Djokovic, instead of sounding off in a press conference about his lack of trust in the process, could have met directly with the game's leader, and felt better about the resolution.
All of these might seem like fantasies at the moment, and as we've said, the divided nature of tennis makes change extremely difficult. But four years ago, I don't think anyone would have predicted that the top players, teaming with the head of the ATP, could work together to extract across-the-board pay raises from the Grand Slams. It shows that today's stars really do have power. Imagine what they could do with a savvy commissioner to back them up.
What are you issues for the future, Richard?
We've already discussed the schedule, which is a key issue, and I like your list (imagine a full grass-court season). Here are a few others:
Visibility. Make every match played at every tournament—singles, doubles, and mixed—available either on TV or the Internet. My cable company doesn't carry Tennis Channel; fortunately TennisTV.com provides good coverage, but sometimes contractual rights issues black out matches we want to see. Obviously, there's a price to pay to televise every match, but visibility is vital.
A Commission. If realizing the concept of a commissioner is as remote as Johnny Mac taking over as lead singer of the Bryan brothers' band, how about creating a commission of former pros, tournament directors, and executives that meets at each major to discuss issues facing the game and propose ways to push it forward? As Agassi used to say: "It doesn't take a genius to point out the problems, but solving them is another story."
While we do see former players in leadership positions—Brad Drewett was ATP CEO, Todd Martin will be Hall of Fame CEO, Billie Jean started WTT—it seems to me there are people who have a lifetime of experience in the sport whose knowledge goes untapped.
Transparency on Drugs. When I meet new people and we talk tennis sometimes, one of the first questions many ask is: "Is Player X juicing?" If a player retires suddenly, you hear "silent ban" murmurs. Understandably, you need an appeal process in place—we've seen players like Greg Rusedski successfully appeal suspensions—and you're innocent until proven guilty. I just think the game sometimes sets itself up for double standards—Martina Hingis and Richard Gasquet both test positive for cocaine, yet she serves two years he's back in a matter of months—or even worse, integrity issues.
Promoting Play. You can play forever, but the health, longevity, and joyful benefits of playing tennis are not leveraged enough. The U.S. Open attracts almost as many fans annually as are there are USTA members. More synergy between the pro and recreational sides is needed; hosting local tournaments alongside Challengers, more tournaments hosting "Kids' Day" and "Player Days" with discounts, partnering with manufacturers as WTT has done in giving out racquets to kids at matches are some examples. It comes with a cost, but increasing investment in the recreational base can help grow the game from the ground up.