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Steve Flink: Conversing with Stacey Allaster

9/25/2012 2:00:00 PM

Back in the spring, the Women’s Tennis Association decided not to renew their Fed Cup agreement with the International Tennis Federation. The WTA believed that the ITF was unjustifiably forcing the players to commit to a certain number of Fed Cup ties as a passport toward acceptance in the Olympic Games. Formerly, the ITF was demanding that the players commit to four Fed Cup competitions between 2013 and 2016 to be eligible for the Olympic Games. Later, the ITF reconsidered and reduced the commitment from six to four in that span. But, understandably, the WTA was not happy about their players—particularly the competitors at the very top—being told they would need to be that supportive of Fed Cup if they wanted to have the privilege of competing at the Olympic Games. Many close observers of the game wondered why Fed Cup participation should have any bearing at all on getting into the Olympic Games? Why would that come down to anything other than merit?

In any case, WTA Executive Director Stacey Allaster handled the situation with her usual dignity and self-restraint across the spring and on into the summer. She went out of her way to not say anything derogatory about the ITF stance. No one on her side of the aisle wanted to do anything to spoil the celebratory atmosphere surrounding the 2012 Olympic Games staged in London two months ago. But now that the London Olympics is well behind us as well as the U.S. Open, I felt this was a fitting time to speak with Allaster concerning her current feelings about the entire Fed Cup/Olympics issue. I wanted to have Allaster bring me up to date on where things stand and where we might be headed.

“We are disappointed with the decision the ITF has made, “Allaster told me by phone last week. “ They are embarking on a survey with over 100 constituents of the industry so we said don’t change the rule now. Wait to see what the results of your survey are. But they felt it was necessary to make the commitment rule be three times in a quadrennial. They are looking at this through a lens that shows that they started at six, then modified it to four and now they have made it three. They feel that is a good compromise, but for us it is one too many—or three too many. The ITF decision on commitment to Fed Cup for the 2016 Olympic Games is a clear indication that they are not moving anywhere near the idea that Fed Cup and Olympic Games eligibility should be delinked.”

Allaster elaborates, “They think that it is fair and they believe playing the Olympic Games is a reward for representing your country. That is where we have a philosophical difference. We believe our athletes are playing for their country every day. I know when Maria Sharapova was in the trophy presentation after winning the French Open at Roland Garros, the Russian flag was raised. Draw sheets always have the athlete’s country beside their name. Compared to other professional sports, athletes at the caliber of ours in tennis do not have the same eligibility requirements with their national associations or their international federations. We think that is unfair.”

Unquestionably, the leading players are the ones that are most disillusioned about the linking of Fed Cup commitments to Olympic participation, as well they should be. But Allaster explains the complexity of her constituency lucidly, saying, “ There are three groups of athletes: the top, top players who have the burden of playing so many matches, travelling and the wear and tear of going deep into tournaments. We also have those athletes who don’t feel comfortable speaking up to their countries because of potentially negative media backlash they might endure if they are not supportive of Fed Cup. And then you have the general population of players that may not be worked up about this rule because Fed Cup is nice for them and they can make a little extra money. For all of the players at the end of the day, I have said there are two things you need to do if you are upset: speak to your Fed Cup captain and talk to your national federations. They are the ones that are deciding.”

And yet, the WTA realizes that there is enough disillusionment with the Fed Cup/Olympic rules that there is a need to explore other options for the players. The WTA will not harm Fed Cup in any way, but they are exploring other avenues for their players. “As an organization, “Allaster points out, “the board and ourselves have to decide if we want to schedule WTA events in Fed Cup weeks. If so, will you the players support them or not? There is no point in us putting on an event if the players are not going to support it. And the big question is: should the WTA look at its own international team event, sort of like what other sports have done with the Ryder Cup and so forth. It is regrettable that we are having this conversation and it is not where we wanted to go, but I think at the end of the day if the ITF doesn’t want reform then I think our board and our athletes are prepared to look at it.”

Meanwhile, the WTA has put forth a proposal to the ITF for a revision of the Fed Cup format. The WTA would like to see a 16 team World Group played over a two week period, featuring eight teams competing in two different locations during the first week of that fortnight. Each of the two locations would conduct a single-elimination knockout for the quarterfinals, semifinals and final, with each tie consisting of two best of three set singles matches and one deciding double contest. Then the two location winners would advance to a home and away best of five final later in the season. That would be Option One.

Option Two would have the 16 teams in the World Group competing for one week at one location—or as many as nine days—rather than a full two weeks. As Allaster says, “The two week concept might be an alternative that could help everyone. If you speak to our top players, though, they would love Fed Cup to be one week. But we included two options because we know how challenging this is. We also have suggested no Fed Cup ties during an Olympic year. That is the one thing I heard loud and clear from the athletes. Particularly when you are in the Fed Cup Final, it is too tough. The Olympics are the Olympics: let that be the big international team competition that the world focusses on every four years.”

While believing that the WTA plan to revise and revamp Fed Cup is to the betterment of everyone involved, Allaster concedes, “I am not optimistic that the ideas we presented will get much traction. We know the institution and the mindset and even if some people like our ideas, the status quo is there. People can be worried about losing their seat on a committee or on the ITF board.”

I returned to the notion of a Ryder Cup type event for the WTA, and asked Allaster how serious that notion might be? She responded, “We bring a concept to the athletes and say ‘Look, will you support this?’ There is no point in us finding out about the commercial viability of this if the players don’t want to support it. I need to bring them the ideas in a framework to the board with a business plan and we need to look holistically at the flow and effects of adding such an event, which would not be annual on our calendar. We would need to know what impact that would have on commitment and so forth, to look at our regular tournament flow and see where we get to. We are going to do full diligence on the possibility and then we will decide with the athletes and the board whether or not we should go to the next step.”

Clearly, Allaster is a measured thinker, savvy and creative, bold but never reckless. Asked to put this all into perspective, to sum up her feelings about where it all stands and what might happen in the years ahead, Allaster replies, “ We ultimately want a successful Olympic Games and we want Fed Cup to be successful. We wish that we weren’t in the place we are today but it is clear that the ITF has made their decision to increase commitment and as a result of that we haven’t renewed our agreement. We are just going to cohabitate. They are going to do what they need to do and we are going to look at what options we might provide for our athletes. I am personally disappointed that this is where we are, but I have certainly tried since I started at the WTA and others have tried as well. We are where we are.”
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.