The Ongoing ATP Search

Quickly on today’s action: Over in Europe, a tired Jelena Jankovic crashed out to Flavia Pennetta at Zurich, snapping her 12-match winning streak. Considering all the matches the Serb has logged in the last month, the result is not a huge a shocker despite Jankovic’s 5-0 mark against the Italian heading into the contest. 

At the other end of the spectrum is Serena Williams, who pulled out of Moscow with a bad knee less than two weeks ago. The reigning U.S. Open champ was caught this week on video surfing in Hawaii with her boyfriend, the rapper Common. Let’s just say her balance on the court is better than in the water.

In Madrid, Robby Ginepri squandered two match points in falling to Gilles Simon 7-6 in the third while Andy Roddick lost in three sets to Gael Monfils. Rafael Nadal powered on past Richard Gasquet while Juan Martin del Potro continued his last-season push for the Masters Cup with a convincing 6-4, 6-2 win over Davis Cup teammate and defending Madrid champ David Nalbandian.

I also noticed yesterday, thanks to the ATP’s Greg Sharko, that Roger Federer, who just completed a straight-set defeat of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, surpassed Pete Sampras in career earnings ($43.288 million) with his victory over Radek Stepanek in his opening match. More amazing to me among Sharko’s always interesting “Shark Bites” stats is that Federer has never – not once – retired in all of his 753 professional matches (including today’s).

Now, on the search to replace outgoing ATP chairman and president Etienne de Villiers. Without sifting through all the background, in 2005 de Villiers was brought in as a rare outsider to help usher men's tennis into the 21st century after it’s disastrous deal with ISL in the early part of the decade. The former Disney exec bullied through some notable improvements such as condensed doubles scoring and increased prize money, but his hard charging ways and deafness to his sometimes conflicting core of constituents (the ATP is 50% owned by tournaments and players) fueled a player result. He also angered tournaments, which resulted in a $76 million lawsuit from the demoted Hamburg event organizers that the ATP won in trial last July. Under pressure from all sides, de Villiers declared this summer he would finish his term at the end of this year and move on.

The ATP search committee is essentially the six-person board, which is made up of the three player and three tournament reps. My understanding is that de Villiers has played a very limited role in the search for his replacement. The board has retained well known international search firm Spencer Stuart to assist in a global hunt, but as of a couple of weeks ago they were far from finding a successor to the South African-born de Villiers, whose two positions (chairman and president) will likely be divvied up.

“It’s not a short list, it’s definitely a long list,” said player board rep Justin Gimelstob recently. Gimelstob and fellow player board rep Ivan Ljubicic both said they hoped to have a short list by the Masters Cup in Shanghai.

“We need to be quick,” said Croat Ljubicic, “but we don’t want to hurry with the decision. The goal is to have someone in place by the end of the year.”

Various names have already come out, such as former USTA Chairman Franklin Johnson (reportedly no longer in contention) and John McEnroe Sr., who has openly lobbied for the position. As Joel Drucker pointed out in a recent story, I don’t think the elder McEnroe is the right fit for the job despite his experience with the game that goes back 30 years.

Another name that has surfaced is Arlen Kantarian, the chief executive for professional tennis at the USTA. Gimelstob, without giving anything away, said Kantarian had a great track record in his eight years in New York and is the “type of person that would garner interest for the ATP job.”

Asked about McEnroe and others, Ljubicic added: “Everybody is in the mix -- anyone who thinks they are good enough. We are not writing off anyone.”

What does the sport need? In light of the geographical shift away from the U.S. and into Europe and Asia, coupled with the financial squeeze sure to follow the ongoing credit crisis, men’s tennis needs a dynamic, international businessman, not unlike de Villiers in some ways, but who understands the sport and its nuances better; a consensus builder; someone who can make tough decisions but listens with open ears; an adept negotiator; and an innovator – someone with the slick business skills of an Ion Tiriac and the tennis knowledge of a Billie Jean King.

It’s a pipe dream, but I’d like to see a commissioner of tennis who truly ruled the game a la Pete Rozelle or David Stern -- and could make decisions for the betterment of the sport that the various and sometimes conflicting bodies cannot. Larry Scott, the WTA CEO and former COO of the ATP, is one name that seems to come up when this is mentioned. Ljubicic even said the idea of a commissioner, and even specifically Scott, had been loosely tossed around inside the ATP boardroom. 

“We talked about it but we didn’t go deeply,” he said. “There is a lot of difference of opinion. And I’m not sure legally if it’s possible.”


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