Challenging the hegemony of the ATP and other stories.
From The Times
April 4, 2008
Make or break for tennis at South Beach
Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent, Key Biscayne, Florida
We ought to be trapped in eternal happiness when the tour decamps to the land of balmy breezes and boisterous bistros. They have all been in town, Roger, Rafa, Novak, Serena, Venus and Justine. The sport does not get off on itself any more than it does during these 12 days when tennis goes all South Beach in the Miami sunshine, but beneath the palms where the deals are done and scores settled, all is far from well.
In domestic terms, the vagaries of Andy Murray’s form are uppermost in many minds, the LTA, the domestic governing body, is striving to deliver on its blueprint and an announcement is planned for the next couple of weeks to disclose which company (or companies) is prepared to invest cold, hard cash in British tennis at a time when every sponsor’s pound has to be prised from their grasp. What happens next could be make or break.
Further afield, traces of goodwill are in scant supply, for the sport is embroiled in any number of disputes that are tearing at its spirit. The three elements that give rise to enormous cause for concern – largely, but not exclusively, in the men’s game – are match-fixing, tournament manipulation and trust in the leadership.
For a start, Nikolay Davydenko of Russia has been left to roast too long on the spit of suspicion because a match in which he retired hurt against Martin Vassallo Arguello of Argentina in Poland last August inspired unprecedented betting interest. His agony should be over. Guilty or not guilty? Put the man out of his misery.
One hears that one of the five Italian players who have been suspended and fined for having laid bets on matches is considering taking the ATP, the men’s governing body, to court, which could get as messy as the case that has already cost £5 million, in which the ATP sought to demote and move the Masters in Hamburg, formerly the German Open, but which remains undecided on the files of the District Court of Delaware, lining the pockets of American lawyers. If the ATP loses, it will be akin to an admission that the men’s game cannot be led, for if a governing body is not allowed to take decisions it believes will benefit the sport, what can it do? The ATP probably thought that Hamburg would roll over and accept its fate but that did not happen. They dug in. The essence of their case was that the ATP made an anti-competitive decision “so as to establish a favoured class of tournaments, in which they (the ATP) have a significant proprietary interest, while relegating all of the other member tournaments to a disfavoured status.”
This inertia has inspired leading players, including Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to the fore, to ask their representatives on the board – there are three who represent the players and three from the tournament side – not to nod Etienne de Villiers, the chairman, through when his contract comes up for renewal later this year. The players – at least three quarters of the top 20 have signed a letter doing the rounds here – want to see more candidates interviewed. In short, they want De Villiers to be challenged – and strongly.
De Villiers was recruited from The Walt Disney Company on a mandate for change after years of stagnation but not everyone who says they are committed to change, actually want it at all. It was intriguing that, at a players’ meeting at the end of last year when De Villiers unveiled a 30 per cent increase in prize money on the tour for 2009, it was received with yawning indifference.
The much vaunted tennis roadmap for 2009, with its tournament re-structuring, is in a state of limbo. Madrid’s Caja Magica, a shiny new facility that has been promised a clay-court event in May, had had its ribbon cut, but if Hamburg wins its case and stays put, Ion Tiriac, the Romanian former tennis professional and coach and multi-millionaire Madrid kingmaker, could be left with an empty arena. It would be back to the courts – and not the ones on which the sport is played.
The scene is one of constant disruption. In Britain, the creation of more events ought to be the priority and yet, at the lower levels, the base is being eroded. What will happen when the LTA unveils its new partners we cannot know but Dee Dutta, who has stepped aside as corporate vice president and head of marketing of Sony Ericsson, the umbrella sponsor of the women’s tour and tournament sponsor here, does so with one piece of business sadly unfinished.
“I wanted Britain to be the place where we located our biggest European tournament,” he said, “but it became too difficult to negotiate. People there said, what about 2009, or 2010, but we did not know whether Sony Ericsson would still be in tennis then. I said ‘give me a deal now’ but there was never a commercial willingness to engage. That was very frustrating, so I went after Miami and look what we’ve done with this event. And yet [our headquarters are] in the UK, it was a natural fit. Other sports are talking to us now.”