Mark Hurd laughs as he recalls a hitting session he recently had with young American pro Mackenzie McDonald. It was, apparently, a workout that pushed the 62-year-old CEO of Oracle all the way to—and maybe past—his physical limit.
“It’s hard to believe I’d have trouble against someone in his 20s, isn’t it?” Hurd asks with a sarcastic chuckle.
The veteran tech executive may be as competitive as anyone who has scaled the heights of Silicon Valley, but he didn’t mind getting a lesson in the modern game. If anything, he’s pleased to see how far McDonald, a former UCLA standout and NCAA singles and doubles champion, has progressed in his two years on tour. Hurd, and Oracle, can rightly claim to have played a role in the 23-year-old’s success.
In 2017, the company began the Oracle U.S. Tennis Awards: a pair of $100,000 grants given each year to two American college players who are trying to climb the pro-game mountain. The first recipients, McDonald and former Virginia Cavalier Danielle Collins, each used that much-needed cash infusion to make surprisingly deep inroads in their rookie years on tour.
“Danielle and Mackie have both done really well, and we couldn’t be prouder of them,” Hurd says. He has the same hopes for the 2018 recipients, Georgia Tech’s Chris Eubanks and Ohio State’s Francesca Di Lorenzo. So far, so good: The 22-year-old Eubanks began 2019 by qualifying for the Australian Open for the first time.
The grants have a personal meaning for Hurd. Introduced to tennis by an uncle when he was 10, he has loved and played the sport his whole life. As a teenager in South Florida in the early 1970s, he played it well enough to earn a scholarship to Baylor University. Hurd may have even played well enough to make a go of it as a pro, but he never had a real chance to find out.
“I was on the fringe,” says Hurd, who graduated with a degree in Business Administration in 1979. “In those days it was pretty tough to make more than you spent on tour, just like it is today, when you have to be [ranked around No.] 200 or 250 in the world to make any money at all. So I went in a different direction.”
That direction led him first to a job as a salesman at the NCR Corporation, in Dallas. Over the next 25 years, Hurd worked his way up to become chief executive, before leaving in 2005 to take the same position at Hewlett-Packard. In 2010, Hurd was hired by Larry Ellison and named president at Oracle, a Northern California tech company with $40 billion in annual revenue and 137,000 employees worldwide. In 2014, Hurd was elevated to CEO.
“What he’s done well,” Fortune magazine said of Hurd, “is run the sales operation very efficiently.”
Hurd never lost his love for tennis, or his interest in trying to help U.S. players survive in a line of work that has only become more competitive as the sport has become more globalized. He funded the Hurd Tennis Center at Baylor, a 12-court, 3,000-seat facility that opened in 2001 and hosted the NCAA Championships in 2015.
In the years since, Hurd has expanded his efforts beyond Baylor, and tried to fill in some of the gaps that have kept the sport out of reach for so many in the United States.
“We’ve tried to put some connective tissue between the juniors and the pro tour,” Hurd says.
To that end, along with the grants, Oracle has created a four-tournament Challenger Series in the U.S., with dual-gender events in Chicago, Houston, Newport Beach and Indian Wells. The American players with the best overall results receive wild cards into the BNP Paribas Open. The company has also partnered with the Intercollegiate Tennis Association to sponsor three of its national tournaments, as well as its rankings. At the recreational level, Oracle has backed Universal Tennis Rating (UTR), which, as the name suggests, offers a single, unified standard for rating players’ abilities and matching them with competitive partners.
“It’s an expensive sport,” Hurd says. “Players can spend $250,000 before they ever have a chance to compete for money. I always had this belief that if our players had the opportunity to keep going, they could play longer and give themselves a better shot at a career. The whole issue in tennis is accessibility.”
Collins wasted no time in validating Hurd’s belief. In 2018, she stunned many in the tennis world with her rise from No. 167 to No. 36. After finishing first in the Oracle Challenger Series, Collins took her wild card into Indian Wells and made it to the fourth round; she then made a semifinal run at the Miami Open. This year, Colllins reached the semifinals at the Australian Open, and demolished No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber along the way.
“Things add up really fast when you’re playing, like, 30 tournaments a year or more,” said Collins, who was able to hire a traveling coach with the money. “I think I actually started performing a lot better once I had that kind of financial security.”
When Hurd started at Oracle, he found a kindred spirit in Ellison. The company’s billionaire co-founder had recently taken up tennis; in his case, that meant he had spent $100 million to buy one of the sport’s premier events, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. In the 10 years since, Ellison has brought a tech mogul’s deep pockets and sometimes-disruptive ambitions to the clubby world of pro tennis.
During the Ellison era, Indian Wells has become the first tournament to install Hawk-Eye cameras on every court. It has opened a second stadium and dangled a $1 million bonus to any player who wins the singles and doubles events. Ellison spent $30 million on a new parking lot alone. In the competition for the mythical title of the “Fifth Grand Slam,” Indian Wells has surpassed its longtime rival event, the Miami Open. Last year, Ellison also signaled his support for the new, revamped Davis Cup format, and he plans to host a round of ties at Indian Wells in the future.
Ellison’s largesse has endeared him to many players, including Rafael Nadal, who typically stays at Ellison’s nearby 250-acre estate, Porcupine Creek, during the tournament.
“It’s true that not everybody has the possibility to do the things that he’s doing for this tournament,” Nadal told Sky Sports, “but it’s the tournament with more courts for practice, a lot of stadiums for the matches and Hawk-Eye on every court. Every year there is something new and something better.”
Ellison has also hinted at a desire to revamp the American game.
“I think we simply have to do something to improve the quality of American tennis,” Ellison told
Bloomberg Businessweek in 2015.
How deeply will Ellison dive into the sport, and how much of it would he like see transformed? It’s a question that may make tennis’ governing establishment—in particular, its non-billionaire tournament owners—nervous. But according to Dr. Timothy Russell, CEO of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, his organization’s partnership with Ellison, Hurd and Oracle has been as “great a formula as we can get.”
If Ellison is the ambitious newcomer to tennis, Hurd is the man who understands the game’s terrain and traditions from the inside.
“He’s passionate about college tennis,” Russell says of Hurd, “and he has a strategic vision for it, to move one block at a time, push the sport forward, and increase its visibility. There’s always a focus on both genders, and on trying to give everyone in college tennis a chance to compete in major events.”
Russell also says that Hurd “recognizes that tennis players make good employees.”
“We do a lot of recruiting on college campuses, a couple thousand recruits every year,” says Hurd, who has expanded the sales force at Oracle over the course of his tenure. “There are obviously a lot of great people in the sport, and athletes do well with us. College tennis is an individual sport, but in a team concept, which is what working in a business is like.”
What’s next for Oracle, when it comes to tennis? “We’re not done yet, by any means,” Hurd says, while declining to say what the firm’s future tennis initiatives might be.
For now, Ellison will make his annual appearance in the owner’s box at the BNP Paribas Open, perhaps alongside celebrities like Mike Tyson, Bill Gates, Bode Miller or Jared Goff, all of whom have taken in matches with him in the past. But when the celebrities leave town, and the pros move on to Europe, Hurd and Oracle’s commitment to the U.S. game, and their still-evolving vision for its future, will remain.
• Rafael Nadal, Alexander Zverev, Juan Martin del Potro and Sloane Stephens headline the Abierto Mexicano Telcel. Watch live coverage on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday, 2/25 at 5:00 pm ET.
• Watch Roger Federer, Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic and Karen Khachanov live from the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship starting Monday, 2/25 at 5:00 am ET
ATP Sao Paulo
• Tennis Channel Plus features live coverage of the Brasil Open beginning Monday, 2/25 at 10:30 am ET