Tennis Expansion Is A Rocky Road

By Jane Voigt

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Chris Kermode, the ATP’s executive chairman and president. Photo by the ATP.

October 9, 2014 — With inaugural matches for the new International Tennis Premier League (I.P.T.L.) to begin at the end of November, ATP’s President Chris Kermode called the organization “exhibitions."

Questions about the new league, the men’s game, and long-term plans from the ATP, including expansion of markets in Asia, were raised, during the press conference yesterday. 

“What players choose to do in their off-season is really a player responsibility,” Kermode said, as reported by ASAP Sports. “Now, I’m obviously open for criticism that we reduce the calendar, now there are going to be exhibitions. There have always been exhibitions. There always will continue to be exhibitions. I think what has caused this to be an issue is the word, ‘league.’”

But whether the I.P.T.L. is a series of exhibitions or a league is probably not the right questions to investigate. Rather, what determines the success of the game when a fractious industry, some with power and some weak in comparison, begin to juggle for players and fans in order to increase revenue, or, at least, cover expenses. 

The tournament in Shanghai has been voted the best on the ATP tour for five years running, beginning in 2009. It is obviously a bustling urban center with millions of people (population estimates hover around 20 million) willing to happily absorb a game they love. 

“Just seeing the change, such a dramatic change over a relatively short period of time has been incredible,” Kermode began, expressing his amazement about the growth of the Shanghai event since his first trip to the city in 2002. “Tennis in Asia with more challengers, now three categories of ATP World Tour events, 250s, 500s, and a 1000 here, demonstrates the demand for tennis here. I think we’re just at the beginning. I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger."

Kermode told the press how the ATP had shortened the 2014 season because players wanted more time off. Now, with the I.P.T.L. about to lift off with major names on board, the effort by the governing body seems to have been undermined. But has it really? Kermode expressed interest in expanding the ATP’s presence in Asia, but only after stabilizing and integrating the major categories of events currently run by the tour — Challengers, 250s, 500s, 1000s. 

“I think we just have to look at our whole structure,” Kermode said. “How many tournaments are on the tour? Then we can take it from there, to which regions. [We have to] protect the traditional markets of Europe and the States, whilst clearly expanding into new markets, bigger markets. We need to have that balance."

A conflict of interests certainly could exist if players continue their insistence for a shorter season, and then choose to fly to other cities in this region to play I.P.T.L

“Players can go and play in it,” he said. “This is just a series of glorified exhibitions. It’s very light entertainment. They’re not going to be playing 100 percent. I actually don’t have a problem with it.”

The I.P.T.L. was created, in part, by 38-year-old Mahesh Bhupathi, a tennis doubles specialist with a glorious resume; he retired in 2013. In March of that year,  The New York Times reported that the I.P.T.L. “is to be a team tennis league with franchises in six, as-yet-unspecified Asian cities. It is modeled in part on something relatively new [the Indian Premier League in cricket, which began in 2008] and on something relatively old [World Team Tennis, the U.S. league founded in 1973].”

As the concept grew and major players showed their enthusiasm for the league, opinions flew inside tennis, which is highlighted by Kermode’s characterization of the organization. Bhupathi knew the ‘governing bodies’ would label his idea ‘a series of exhibitions.’ But Bhupathi also knew that players might exchange rest in the off season for additional earnings, according the same Times article.

The complex nature of how tournaments are born, organized and integrated into player’s calendars is magnified when relationships that manage and control the many facets of a tour are examined. 

For example, Bhupathi became part of Andy Murray’s management team after retirement. Murray, in turn, showed signs of his approval for the I.P.T.L., which planted seeds in the minds of more major players. 

Novak Djokovic called the league, ‘revolutionary.’ Serena Williams expressed interest, plus Rafael Nadal. who has now been replaced by Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka. According to the Times, Bhupathi expected Murray and Djokovic to become equity stakeholders in his league, as well.

Tony Godsick, Federer’s agent and a former cog of IMG Academy’s sports’ wheel, expressed interest, calling Bhupathi's plan ‘an incredibly ambitious project.’

Other key interests have been expressed by Justin Gimblestob, Tennis Channel correspondent and a member of the ATP Board. Boris Becker has an eye on I.P.T.L., too. With Bhupathi’s relationships built over a 15-year tennis playing career, and his background in business, he has an inherent ability to form the league, direct it, and talk with those people who could influence its success. 

But is it fair and ethical that a broadcast journalist, such as Gimelstob, has his hand in the development and management of tennis tours that would obviously pay him for his expertise? He has played on tour, so he knows the game inside and out. He also knows the players, from a perspective that makes his involvement in tour development valuable. Would that involvement influence his view of the game and reporting on it? Or, would he have to quash certain discussions due to bonds possibly included in multiple contracts? 

Fans lose out in these circumstances without even knowing. They should be able to trust journalists to present the game without them getting between the game and fans enjoyment of the game. 

With no central organization in control of all tennis tours — WTA, ATP, Davis Cup, and Grand Slams — anyone well positioned with deep pockets or the business network to tap pockets could potentially spin off an event that would tax players unless the more powerful entities, like the ATP, suppress their development by manipulating contract fulfillment. Instead of demanding a player register for four 500-level tournaments per year, “one of which must be held following the U. S. Open,” the ATP Rulebook states, it could bump the requirement to 7. A penalty could be added. As it stands, “commitment” players must play the four Grand Slams, all 9 Masters 1000 for “which he is accepted,” plus a certain number of 250-level tournaments. 

A single entity that would control the game, lead by a commissioner similar the person who leads Major League of Baseball, could solve some issues that arise due to conflicts of interest.   

Andy Murray has found himself in the clutches of fine print, with regard to the ranking points associated with the Race to London, and whether he will qualify to play at the ATP World Tour Finals in November. 

"According to ATP rules, a Grand Slam champion can qualify for the World Tour Finals by finishing in the Top 20, rather than the mandated Top 8,” reported Tennis.com yesterday. "With two of this year's major champions, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic yet to qualify, one or both could block the eighth-ranked player [Murray] from reaching the tournament.”

Murray criticized the rule. “You would hope that the players who would get in [the World Tour Finals] would be those who accumulate the most points across the whole year on the ATP Tour,” Murray said, according to tennis.com. “But by putting the Grand Slam champions in they they would be saying the Grand Slams are the most important events.”

Murray wants to know if the ATP should favor the major championships.

“If you want to protect your own tour, then you need to make sure that the tournaments that we are playing throughout the whole year are seen as being just as important as the other ones.”

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013