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Steve Flink: WTA Displays Bold Leadership

5/1/2012 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Considering the fundamental fact that professional tennis is an entertainment business worth hundreds of millions of dollars—with different political constituencies and a wide range of significant political issues—it is remarkable how efficiently the sport operates and how infrequently major disputes arise. The International Tennis Federation oversees the four Grand Slam tournaments, Davis Cup, and Fed Cup. The ATP is the governing body for the men’s game, while the WTA plays the same pivotal role for women’s tennis. Despite sometimes competing objectives and conflicting aspirations, these three organizations have managed often to navigate their way smoothly through some potentially rough waters. They have looked for every opportunity to work for the betterment of the game. They have found compromise when it has been available.

But during the Sony Ericsson Open at Miami in the later stages of March, the WTA needed to take a tough and totally justifiable stand by voting not to renew their Fed Cup agreement with the ITF. That was a bold move made by the women’s governing body. They had grown increasingly disillusioned with the ITF’s imperious way of dictating rules to the players that most neutral observers would consider very unreasonable. One of the central problems has been the ITF’s insistence that players commit to a certain number of Fed Cup ties to be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games every four years.

The ITF rule had been to force players to play at least one Fed Cup tie for their nation every two years, and that had already been a serious bone of contention. But then the ITF compounded the problem. There was talk in the spring of 2011 that the ITF was going to make even larger demands on those players who hoped to represent their countries in the Olympic Games. They wanted to force the players to commit to six Fed Cup competitions over the four year stretch from 2013 to 2016. Later, they retreated somewhat from that position, reconsidered, and reduced the requirement level to four Fed Cup ties in that span. But that rule was devised without consulting with the players, and it still meant that the WTA competitors would need to be available for one Fed Cup tie a year for four consecutive seasons as a passport toward Olympic eligibility.

The ITF position is that it is not unreasonable to ask players to put aside the time for one Fed Cup competition each year to guarantee their right to play the Olympics, but the view here is that they are way off base. Clearly, the ITF has been trying to boost the popularity of Fed Cup by using the Olympics in a cynical and unfortunate way. The same is true for Davis Cup. If Roger Federer looks at the crowded tennis calendar and decides to skip Davis Cup some years, but wants to represent Switzerland in the Olympic Games, there should be no question that he has that right, and has earned the privilege. The stipulations should be gone. There should be no connection whatsoever between Fed Cup and the Olympic Games.

Apparently, the men have higher priorities at the moment, or perhaps the ATP would have exercised the same option as the women and broken away from the ITF. For a long while now, the WTA has been looking for ways to reform Fed Cup and enhance its stature, but they have made no inroads. That is a shame. The Fed Cup and the Davis Cup should both be bigger and better than they are, capturing a wider share of the public imagination, achieving more prestige that they currently enjoy. Both international team competitions are suffering from being spread out all over the calendar, and they too often get lost in the shuffle. That is not the way it should be. Under ideal circumstances, Fed Cup and Davis Cup would be valued so highly by all of the players that they would never want to miss an opportunity to participate, but in this day and age some of the luster of both events has been lost. Players don’t always feel compelled to play.

That is why I can’t understand the rationale of the ITF. Why would they choose to be so confrontational with the players and negatively pursue a strategy of making them meet unnecessary Fed and Davis Cup obligations as a ticket to perform in the Olympics? In essence, they are issuing punishments to top competitors by threatening to keep them out of the Olympics if they don’t live up to their Fed and Davis Cup responsibilities. I find that philosophy warped, and counter-productive. The players fully deserve the right to choose when or if they want to represent their countries and their Olympic eligibility should be determined entirely on merit. They should be selected on the basis of their world rankings and where they stand among the best players in their own nations. Fed Cup and Davis Cup should have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Making matters worse, the tennis hierarchy at the ITF is imposing a penalty system here that other sports are not. It is my understanding that when golf is played at the Olympic Games of 2016, their players will gain their entry only on their world ranking status and their records. Their participation in Ryder Cup—or lack of it—will not be used against them. That is precisely the way it ought to be in tennis. The ITF has every right to strengthen Fed Cup and Davis Cup, to make them shine as much as possible, to encourage the best players to support their nations. But making oversized demands on players is not the answer. Athletes only get one Olympic opportunity every four years, and that should not be taken away from them because they refuse to play for their nations at international team events.

I spoke last week with WTA Chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster. She made it crystal clear what the WTA wants and she told me, “Without question, the athletes and the WTA believe in a strong international team competition. They enjoy the concept in a team environment playing for their country. The WTA also believes that a strong women’s international team competition is good for our sport. Where we have a difference of opinion with the ITF is in the commitment system, which is just too much in today’s women’s professional tennis world.”

Doubling the Fed Cup commitment for players who already felt overburdened was a serious mistake for the ITF to make, and that clearly precipitated the WTA decision to not renew their agreement with the ITF. That decision was both courageous and sensible. In the long run, their message will force the ITF to reshape its philosophy and become more accommodating to the players. As Allaster points out, “ The WTA had a problem with its product and spent five years doing the hard work and actually reducing the commitment and streamlining the calendar and having less top events, because it was too much [for the players]. We couldn’t consistently deliver and we couldn’t get the top players to play, so we recognized that. The ITF seems to be going in the opposite way.”

The ITF sorely needs to reevaluate its policies for Fed Cup and Davis Cup, and they would be wise to alter their position. The WTA essentially had no alternative when their board met in Miami; they had to curtail their agreement with the ITF. Over the next year, the ITF has time to make amends. The Olympic Games must not be exploited any longer. The top players can and must be afforded the opportunity to make their Fed and Davis Cup choices without worrying about being barred unjustifiably from the Olympic Games. I am cautiously optimistic that by this time next year, the ITF will have remedied the situation by reaching out genuinely to the WTA and ATP and treating the players like adults.