When you think of women’s tennis, you probably think power-serves, thundering backhands, and cross-court winners, right? You probably wouldn’t think that a sport like tennis would need more than a simple book of rules to make it all happen.
In reality, professional tennis is far more complicated than meets the eye.
The game relies heavily on its governing entities to make tennis a sustainable business for all stakeholders (players, fans, tournaments, and media). Within the women’s game, a small group of big-name players are doing their part—working in relative anonymity behind the scenes, negotiating and communicating their thoughts on what is best for women’s tennis, now and in the future.
Before we take a peek inside the Players’ Council, let’s look at how women’s tennis is governed. Back in 1973, the Women’s Tennis Association was established as the governing body for women’s professional tennis worldwide. Since then, three distinct entities have been formed to make up the governance of the WTA: the Board of Directors, Players’ Council, and the Tournament Council.
The WTA Players’ Council is a sub-committee under the Board of Directors. It consists of eight members, representing players in five ranking groups. Venus Williams, Liezel Huber, and Patty Schnyder are just some of the players who have been elected to serve off the court as members of the WTA Players’ Council.
They not only serve as advocates for players in the upper echelons of the game, they are committed to offering a voice for players of all levels. With so many stakeholders involved, the WTA Players’ Council has maintained a pivotal role in the governance of women’s tennis.
Current Players’ Council members by ranking groups are as follows:
Open position to be filled
(Players’ Council members are allowed to nominate representatives within their designated ranking group, and elections are held annually at the U.S. Open).
Some recent issues negotiated by Players’ Council members are:
- Whether to award ranking points at the Olympic Games
- The 2009 Tournament calendar
- On-court coaching (now a permanent addition)
- The new suspension rule for top-10 players and increased withdrawal fines
- Prize money
Liezel Huber, the No. 1 ranked doubles champion for 2008 has been a member of the WTA Players’ Council for 6 years. When asked about the types of issues she hears most about from players in the 21+ ranking category, she says, “They want more tournaments, or don’t agree with the ranking point distribution or player service issues–like massages should be free or stringing is too expensive.”
In terms of working with the players to collect their feedback, Liezel has an email list of all the players she represents, but she frequently opts for a more personal approach by talking with them directly.
When it comes to her thoughts on the revamped 2009 schedule, Liezel says, “Changes are not easy. It will take time for everyone to get used to it. At the end of the day, it should bring more money into our pockets and give the tournaments a higher playing field. My concern is for the players outside the top 50 who have fewer playing opportunities. Hopefully by 2010 we can add some more events in the weeks where we only have one tournament.”
Justin Gimelstob, who retired from professional tennis in 2007, was elected to serve as an ATP Players’ Board Representative in 2008, and is equally committed to giving a voice to players who otherwise wouldn’t be heard.
Justin says, “Innately, the men’s tour faces the same types of challenges that the women’s tour faces. Tennis has such a unique dynamic, in terms of all the different entities. The challenge is not just getting players to agree, but tournaments, the ITF, Grand Slams, and management companies to all agree. To try and find unity and common ground with those is incredibly challenging. You have to put in a lot of work and you have to really communicate well. You also have to have a level of understanding of tennis that I don’t think a lot of people have. For me, it’s been a very rewarding experience…arduous, and frustrating, but rewarding.”
The WTA Players’ Council isn’t going to solve all of the tour’s problems in the near future, but small victories can add up to big ones over time.
So, the next time you see your favorite tennis player out on the court hitting those winning shots, you may have a greater appreciation for all the efforts of those who are representing them off the court.
Paula Vergara is an experienced tennis journalist, who has worked as a regular contributor to On the Baseline Tennis News, USTA New England Magazine, and New England Sports Magazine. To view her work, visit her blog at www.paula-vergara.blogspot.com.