Tennis is not up against itself. Tennis is against soccer, baseball, basketball, football and all other sports and entertainment.
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The Tennis Conversation: Marshall Happer, the closest the sport has ever had to a commissioner
Catching up with one of the most influential leaders in professional tennis, who headed the Men's Tennis Council and later became USTA Executive Director.
Published Sep 30, 2022
Marshall Happer, quoted above from a conversation in June, would know the battles tennis faces better than most. In 1981, he was selected as the first—and, as it would turn out, only—Administrator for the Men’s Tennis Council (MTC). On December 31, 1989, the MTC ceased operations, marking the end of unified governance for professional men’s tennis, and the beginning of the ATP “as a pure player association.” He was, in essence, the closest thing men’s tennis has ever had to a commissioner, and likely ever will. The game’s infamously fragmented nature (its stakeholders include the tours, the Grand Slam Board, and the ITF, among others) makes it nearly impossible to foresee one person leading the entire enterprise.
Happer agrees with that—but he also sees practical solutions that can be derived from tennis history. It was part of the reason he wrote Pioneers of the Game: The Evolution of Men’s Professional Tennis. The second edition of his work is currently available on Amazon.com.
Besides preserving the history of the Men's Tennis Council, why did you decide to write this book?
One of the book's themes is that everyone involved in professional tennis must work together. No matter how splintered they are, or un-unified they are in a governance structure, these organizations have to work together for the benefit of the sport.
Now, what the different bodies have done since 1990, when the Grand Slams and the non-Grand Slams split, is operate on arms-length
contracts, relating to rankings, integrity and so forth. They are operating with separate codes of conduct. The struggle is to how to govern the game, and [today's leaders are] facing the same problems today as has been in the past.
Is there a need for a formal commissioner in tennis? Is that even realistic?
Not with unilateral power. What I had as Administrator was all the important constituents of the game at the table. Everybody represented one constituency. They let me operate on behalf of all of them, and that can happen that again. I wasn’t given unilateral power to do anything.
But I was given power by the nine members of the Men's Tennis Council, who could not do it themselves, or were not willing to have the sport run without favoritism of any particular group.
Ninety percent of the sport’s problems, everyone won’t have a disagreement on. They can sit in a room to work out the rest.
One result of the pandemic was increased collaboration between tennis’ stakeholders. Do you believe unification is possible under normal circumstances?
We haven’t heard from this new player association [the PTPA] recently. But all of those factions are still there. There is some interest in unified governance structure. And in the light of Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian [and Belarusian] players, I think there is an interest now to try and reunify. [Men’s tennis] could easily have the same code of conduct. It makes no sense whatsoever to suspend a player from the next Grand Slam for misconduct, or that the ATP can suspend a player, but can’t suspend him at the Grand Slams.
Your book focuses a lot on history, of course, but also on the game’s future. What do see as important to tennis' growth?
Mike Davies once told me that a player that plays one match on television will be seen by more people on that broadcast than he will [in person] at all the matches he’s going to play in his career. When you play at Wimbledon, there are 50 million people watching on television.
Tennis Channel and ATP Media are hugely important for the game moving forward. Everybody who loves tennis [needs to] know, everyday, what’s happening worldwide. Not just when it’s happening in their country. The consolidation of commercial activities is probably going to make the separation of governance less and less important.
The book closes with your list of “The Pioneers of the Game.” What made them so central?
Nobody was ready for tennis to become a professional sport when Open tennis was approved in 1968. Many of them were bitter rivals with competing agendas and yet, somehow, they were able to lead the development of our sport through 1989, to provide the platform for men’s professional tennis to reach for the next levels of growth beginning in 1990. The growth of men’s tennis from 1990-2021 and the future is the direct result of their
efforts and accomplishments.
Everyone in the sport today is standing on their shoulders.