This is a really interesting (albeit long) article from insidetennis.com. It touches on so many debates on how the sport is managed, its internationalisation, the role of the media, plus there are some really amusing stories and observations
'At the U.S. Open, Inside Tennisí Matthew Cronin sat down with Sports Illustratedís L. Jon Wertheim, Eleanor Preston of Britainís the Guardian and Tennis Life, and Cecile Soler, the tennis correspondent for Franceís le Figaro to discuss the future of the sport.
IT: Jon, does the U.S. need to have players at the top for tennis to be a popular American sport?
JW: Thatís the conventional wisdom, but we had Pete, Andre, Courier, Chang, the Williams sisters, Lindsay and Capriati all in an eight-year window and the numbers tailed off. From a media perspective, the coverage was better, but participation tailed off. But getting Joe Sports Fan to appreciate Federer, Nadal and Mauresmo is so key for the tours. They do themselves no favors with some of the scheduling and promoting. All the figures say participation is increasing, but I donít see it.
IT: ESPN gave up on Davis Cup this year, which is a bad sign. Just a couple of journalists traveled to Russia for the semis, and thatís not a good sign because it means publications donít think there is enough fan interest to warrant spending the money.
JW: Davis Cup is a mess. The hope I see is that tennis becomes so international that the national factor ceases to matter. I get dozens of e-mails every week from fans in China and the Philippines, and 10 years ago, that wasnít there. Emerging nations give tennis hope. Forty-thousand people can greet Sania Mirza when she goes back to India. But in the U.S. every year it seems like tennis is getting chipped away.
IT: Itís clear that tennis is becoming more international and both tours are pushing to expand their borders. The ATP Championships is in Shanghai, China, where there are no male players of note. The Sony Ericsson WTA Championships is in Madrid, and Spain has no woman inside the top 20. Plus, with the increased internationalism, the days of having a dominant tennis nation are over. The Russian women are doing really well, but they certainly arenít dominating. France is deep on both sides but isnít sweeping up menís crowns, and outside of Nadal, the Spanish men have tailed off. For all this talk of the Chinese women, few have had major impact. It seems like every country has one or two very good players, and thatís the way itís going to stay.
EP: The problem tennis has is not keeping its fan base, but attracting new fans who donít play it or understand it. You need to attract casual sports fans. Thatís what tennisí long-term health relies on. What the tours think is appealing to nontennis fans is Sharapova in a really short dress, and they canít see beyond that. They heavily promote Nadal, Roddick, Sharapova and Serena because they believe they are saleable and they ignore others. Theyíre running their marquee stars into the ground trying to get them to appeal across all other sports markets. So we have six crossover stars that people in the street recognize, and you have a whole lot of Nicolay Davydenkos who people donít give a monkey about.
IT: Isnít that because the tours are promoting the stars as products rather than as athletes? Sharapova is promoted as a sex symbol and Nadal is too ó ďCome see the sexy Russian, come see the cool muscular Spaniard.Ē But they forget to focus on which sport they play. And they are going to nonsports fans, which is a big mistake.
EP: They arenít going beyond six names and thatís a mistake. There are other interesting stories out there. Jelena Jankovic is an interesting story. Sheís a struggling student-athlete. Ivan Ljubicic was caught up in a civil war in Croatia. So was Ana Ivanovic. Why donít people talk to her about being in Belgrade and having bombs dropped when she was 6 and 7 years old? Instead, itís Ivanovic looks nice in a short skirt.
IT: Cecile, four Spanish males plus Gustavo Kuerten from Brazil have won Roland Garros since Ď97. Are any of those guys popular in France?
CS: They are not popular at all. But what the ATP is doing now is promoting the rivalry between Federer and Nadal, and itís catching on.
IT: Fortunately this year, Federer and Nadal played each other five times, but weíve had years when the tours are trying to promote rivalries and the players were hardly facing each other.
JW: The idea is out there to split the tours up like they do in golf, that people in L.A. would rather see Justin Gimelstob than Ljubicic. Theyíd rather see Blake v. Roddick and even if Federer isnít in the draw, Americans like Americans and Europeans like to see Europeans. They can come together and face each other at the Slams.
IT: When the ATP is frequently holding three tournaments a week, thatís what they have to do. There is no way that Federer is going to come to the U.S. when there is a tournament going on in France during the same week. Same goes with Roddick going to Europe.
JW: Julian Benneteau is not selling tickets in Memphis during February, and Vince Spadea is not selling seats in Marseille.
EP: Itís bizarre that one of the few truly global sports feels that it needs to become more insular in order to sell itself. That doesnít follow common sense.
JW: But thatís how it is in the States. NASCAR is so popular because itís so concentrated. The NFL is the least global sport and is the most popular. Hockey and the NBA have the most foreign players, and it dilutes the interest. The most successful sports in the U.S. are the most Balkanized.
EP: When you look at tennis from the outside, itís completely insane. What do you want when you have three menís tournaments in three different time zones at the same time and then another three womenís as well. Some people are playing Davis Cup and others are playing Challengers and donít forget about Sopot. There are too many events and no one understands them. You have Davis Cup, which is fantastic, and Fed Cup is also a very good team event that they have squandered.
CS: Itís amazing to me that so few U.S. journalists travel abroad to cover Davis Cup, because if France was playing Russia in the final and it was on the moon, all the French journalists would be sent. But when Mauresmo won the Italian Open, there were five journalists on site. Davis Cup is sacred. But in the States, thereís not the same feeling.
IT: Weíre the most successful Davis Cup nation ever, but weíve really lost that sense of how relevant the competition is. If a tie is in the States, thereís a pretty decent group of journalists, but if itís abroad, it has to be a final to convince publications to send folks and even then, there wasnít a huge group of us in Sevilla two years ago. Itís almost prohibitively expensive to fly to Moscow for what could end up being a two-day competition. They need to switch the format to every other year.
JW: Plus the format is confusing. You play the final in December and then two months later, the finalists are playing again. My editor doesnít understand why I was just in Spain and then I wanted to go to L.A. two months later. He said, ďI thought you just went to Spain?Ē And I have to say, ďBut itís a new year and a new round.Ē
EP: Try explaining a relegation tie in the Euro-African zone II to a sports editor. The BBC has stopped showing Davis Cup on regular cable.
CS: National TV in France shows all the ties.
EP: It is partly that weíre crap and going down the divisions. Itís not like Andy Murray is out there playing Nadal. Heís playing Sergiy Stakhovsky from the Ukraine.
IT: No one wants to give ground on the schedule, not the ITF, the tours, the Slams. Weíve essentially been stuck for the past 20 years.
EP: The Muppets are in charge of the dressing room. Itís a great product sold by idiots.
IT: Letís go to doubles. The players were pushed aside last year when the ATP essentially attempted to legislate doubles specialists out of existence, and even though the players eventually won the day, I still donít think that most people follow doubles unless they are at a tournament and need another match to watch. Outside of a handful of teams, I donít think that fans support it like the doubles specialists think they do, and there may not be much of a future for it in the pro game.
EP: The idea of the doubles specialist is fatal for the sport. No one is cueing up to see Kevin Ulleyet.
JW: The saving grace is that the tournaments need them to fill sessions.
IT: Itís dessert.
EP: Itís not really. Itís more of a cigarette between courses. People watched doubles in the old days because they got to see McEnroe smiling or talking to his mate.
IT: But he was a star, and on the menís side, the stars donít play more than a couple times a year.
EP: But if you had fewer tournaments, the stars might play more. You have to be reasonable. You canít put on three-out-of-five-set doubles matches on the last session and expect the singles stars to play. Maybe you have to cut a round. You have to build the support for doubles at the Slams, where it is supported to some degree, and then sell it on down to the tours.
IT: But the Slams donít live in reality. They make so much money and are so successful it doesnít matter what they put on.
EP: But why are they so successful?
IT: Because they are the defined, historically important crown jewels of the sport. Everyone knows what they are, how important they are and how great it is to attend them or watch them.
CS: If there are doubles on Court Centrale at the French Open and there is a French player who they know like Natalie Tauziat, they will stay.
JW: There were 120 doubles players at the U.S. Open. Do they really need that?
EP: They could have a 16 draw.
IT: Why do the tours keep talking about reducing the schedule while at the same time they are trying to enter new markets? Getting into emerging markets is crucial, but other than for strictly financial benefits, and I mean taking huge money from nondemocratic governments who donít compete in the real economy, thereís no evidence that thereís a sustainable, local fan base for the tours in places like China, Doha and Dubai.
JW: But you need that beachhead. When an economy like China is growing at 10 percent a year, you have to be there.
EP: Overall, you need to have the Slams and then a very restricted number of mandatory events where the stars go, and then you need to cut out a lot of others. No, you canít play a small clay-court tournament; you have to play a Masters Series. No one cares about Hamburg unless they know that the players are there to get into form for Roland Garros.
IT: But how do you grow a sport if you cut 15 to 20 tournaments, many of which are very successful, and then also abandon the idea of going into new markets?
EP: No one cares about some of those events. You even go to Rome on Monday and no one is in the seats.
JW: Rome is exceptional, but Cincinnatiís Monday session is sold-out.
EP: Thatís because thereís nothing around there for 400 miles, including Cincinnati.
CS: There are so many things going on in Rome that itís hard to get people to watch tennis. Monte Carlo is successful now, and Bercy (TMS Paris) struggled for a while, but itís doing better now.
IT: Tournaments will fold on their own volition if they arenít successful. The major mistake being made is playing tennis during the day during the work weeks outside of the summer. No one is taking off work to go see those matches. The only thing that matters Monday through Friday is night tennis. So why not cut the number of tournament days to five and reduce the draw sizes? That way, the better players will be playing less during the week, and you can still keep the tournaments and fans happy by providing them with some top players. Thereís no need for 32-draws. Have the lesser players qualify into 16-person draws and give the stars a break.
EP: Thatís a good idea, but thereís still saturation.
JW: But for every Lindsay Davenport saying that the tournament commitment is too high, you have a Davydenko or Dementieva who play every week. Or there are the lesser players, like a Nicole Pratt, who want to get into a main draw to make $7,500.
EP: The future of pro tennis is not dependent upon whether Pratt makes her $7,500 or that Davydenko gets another paycheck. He doesnít even sell in Russia.
CS: No one sells in Russia. The worst attended event I ever covered was the Fed Cup final in Russia. It was completely empty. Itís incredible because 20 years ago, if you went to the U.S.S.R. to watch sports, it was packed. And now that Russian tennis is successful, fans arenít watching.
IT: The Russian economy hasnít kept up with the success of the players. Itís just too expensive for the average fan to afford.
CS: The ticket prices werenít low enough. But still, even though there are too many poor people in Moscow, there are a lot of wealthy people, too. Iím not sure why they wonít go.
IT: Do the players have a realistic view as to how popular tennis is?
EP: They havenít the faintest idea. They live in a pampered, cut-off existence where they are told they are the best things since sliced bread. Matt and I sat in a player meeting where Vera Zvonareva said to us, ďI donít think we should give journalists access to the playersí lounges because I donít want 20 to 30 journalists hovering around me when Iím trying to concentrate.Ē How you and I didnít laugh, I donít know. And then Jelena Dokic, who knows a little about getting a lot of press, very nicely said, ďVera, I donít think that is going to happen to you.Ē That sums it up.
JW: Billie Jean King says itís a shame that players arenít taking ownership of the tour. Sharapova makes $20 million a year. She thinks womenís tennis is the hottest thing going. The staffs have their membrane of agents and PR
people, and they all make plenty of money and everyoneís happy.
IT: But players outside of the top 50 have to know itís not that popular. Iíve been at dozens of matches where there were no more than a hundred fans watching.
EP: Players outside of the top 100 know that no one watches, no one cares and they are making no money. Thereís a terrible inequality with a nice layer of cream at the top and layers of crap underneath. They live with the reality of not being able to afford hotels and live on baked beans.
IT: Thereís still too much power in the hands of the tournament directors who donít see the big picture beyond their own events.
EP: Menís tennis ó half owned by the players and half by the tournament directors. Whose idea was that? Itís insane. The structure of the ATP is doomed to failure.
IT: Especially because the ATP structure gives the ATP CEO the tiebreaking vote and for the most part, heís going to vote with the tournament directors, because they are the folks who hired him in the first place.
EP: Heís stuck because the politicking he has to do is never going to be for the good of the sport, but for the good of his position. Round-robin isnít good for the sport, but players want the guaranteed prize money and the tournament directors want guaranteed appearances by the stars.
IT: I disagree, I like round-robins.
JW: So do I.
EP: It goes against the grain of the sport, which is a knockout sport. You need the drama of upsets.
CS: It will take away the drama if the stars can keep playing.
EP: When Murray upset Federer in Cincinnati, it was at the top of the news, not just sport ó it was ahead of Bush and Blair.
JW: It would be the same effect in a round-robin.
EP: No it wouldnít because Roger could come back the next day and still end up winning the tournament.
IT: Now Iím defending the tournaments, but if you are a small event and paying $250,000 to Roddick just to show up, you want to be able to put him on your marquee for at least three appearances, even if one ends up being a dead rubber. Fans want to see the guy, and they are more apt to go if they have more chances.
EP: Then they should cut out appearance money and the number of tournaments and make more events mandatory.
JW: Then some guy in Houston will offer Andy $500,000 to play an exhibition.
IT: Is this a good group of personalities on both the menís and womenís sides?
CS: Yes. You have an amazing player like Roger who has some personality, and Nadal is great both ways.
JW: I think they have flip-flopped. The men are full of personalities who get it. Nadal is amazing. Roger is great.
EP: Roger has had a downturn as of late.
IT: Thereís too much media training, and some of the players are wooden. Nicole Vaidisova is robotic. Sheís the anti-Ivanovic, who is nice, thoughtful and full of life.
JW: The women used to be great. Richard Williams, Hingis and Kournikova. But youíre right about Vaidisova. Sheís been completely cleaned up.
CS: But do you want horrible stories like Dokic, or a nice story like Mauresmo who overcame so much?
JW: I just want access. The stories will sell themselves.
IT: Cecile makes a good point. Itís good to have some positive stories. Mauresmo is great and so is Clijsters.
EP: But no one cares about her outside of Belgium.
IT: I disagree. She drew very well in California this summer. Sheíll never be the most popular player in the world, but I think that fans do like her and enjoy having a friendly girl next door who smiles be a top player, even if sheís Belgian.
JW: In how may other sports can you say the access has improved? I think itís better than it was five years ago.
CS: The men for sure. Especially with Roger and Rafa. The ATP is better organized than the WTA. The women are really bad.
EP: I do think though that the ATP tries to do too much to promote itself and not the players.
IT: Itís time and place with the women. Some days itís so casual and they are so accessible that I think Iím hosting them at a dinner, and other days I feel like I forgot to bring my VIP invitation to a nightclub. Even though there are some problems with the women, Sharapova is very good for the most part.
EP: Sheís great and funny.
CS: Sheís bright and mature, and she canít help how successful she is.
IT: Unfortunately, you canít teach charisma. Some of them have it and some of them donít.
EP: But you can hide it. There are players with charisma that we donít know about.
JW: Exactly. You sit down with Andy Ram and 45 minutes later you say, ďWow!Ē
EP: There are hidden treasures away from the top six that the tours donít perceive to be marquee names.
CS: Thatís our job, to dig it out.
EP: But itís also their job not to continue to roll out the same players again and again. Thatís what is happening with Federer. Heís always been very accommodating, but they run him into the ground. The same thing will happen to Nadal.
IT: This goes back to the whole knockout argument. Try selling to your clients a feature story on a player who never gets beyond the second round. Itís nearly impossible. Itís a star-driven sport. No one has written more Sharapova stories then I did this year, and my clients have insatiable appetites for her. I canít say the same about a generic, titleless player, unless she has some incredibly interesting backstory, which is pretty rare.
EP: At the end of the day, itís not my responsibility to sell tennis. Itís my responsibility to sell newspapers, to file on time and to write what my editor wants.
JW: Agreed. The tours think we are complicit in the selling of tennis. Thatís lost on them. We donít work for them.
CS: Depending on the deadline, the editors might have to swallow what I send. They have to trust me. And I sell them story ideas. Not the sport, but the story itself.
EP: To me, there are no positive or negative stories, there are just interesting stories. When I go out to dinner and someone who doesnít follow the sport that much asks me about some subject, then I know what I should be writing about.'