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Steve Flink: Todd Martin in Transition

3/4/2014 5:00:00 PM

As a player, he was enormously successful, reaching the finals of two major tournaments, rising to No. 4 in the world, winning eight tournaments on the ATP World Tour in singles. In the field of coaching, he has worked with Novak Djokovic and Mardy Fish among others. In business, he has done exceedingly well over the last couple of years, establishing Todd Martin Tennis, a company dedicated to junior tennis development. All in all, he has led a very productive and interesting life. In every task he has taken on, he has enhanced his hard earned reputation as a man of high honor and fundamental decency, as someone who has remained steadfastly true to his values.

But now Todd Martin is moving into another realm altogether, accepting a challenge that should suit his talent and personality to the hilt. On the first of April, he will commence his post as CEO-designate at the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum, working in concert with current CEO Mark Stenning until Stenning departs on the fifth of September. At that juncture, Martin will reside in that prestigious and immensely important post all by himself, and the view here is that he will be ready, willing and able to operate confidently, purposefully and comprehensively on his own. He will get his grooming alongside the popular and tremendously capable Stenning for five months, and that should put Martin in very good stead.

A few weeks ago, Martin had just returned home to Florida after travelling back from Newport, where his appointment had just been officially announced. I reached him by telephone, and Martin was on the line with me for 27 minutes discussing his new job at the Hall of Fame. As usual, he spoke earnestly, answered questions candidly, and brought his ideas across with clarity and intelligence. I asked him if he could have envisioned himself in this new role even six months ago.

He responds, “I have made a promise to myself over the last several years not to turn my nose up at opportunities. It has always been my desire to have some influence in the sport. The sport has been great to me and I would like to work in service of it as long as it will have me. I don’t know if six months ago this would have been on my radar because something else has been dominating my radar here in Florida [Todd Martin Tennis]. I have been operating my business here and doing what I am doing. But when I had my first conversation with Chris Clouser [ITHF Chairman of the Board], it was impactful. Chris is a guy that I knew back when I was playing and he was working at the ATP. We stayed in touch. He just floated the question of would I be interested. I told him I would be interested. Lo and behold, I started talking to my wife Amy and from that point it was the Hall that was keeping me up at night and it was the Hall I was waking up thinking about in the morning.”

Originally, Clouser and the Hall of Fame turned to Martin to help them find suitable candidates for the CEO position. Ultimately, they turned to Martin. As Martin reflects, “Chris contacted me about coming to see me about possible candidates, and I had my list. I still do somewhere. I had a lot of good names of people I thought would serve the Hall well. But I did have the thought in the back of my mind that possibly my name would be mentioned. Once Chris’s interest escalated in having me think about the job, then mine escalated. So it got pretty quickly to the point where we [the Martin family] thought about if this is something we can see doing for a good bit of time, and it is. So I wouldn’t say the decision was all that difficult. You start to go from the theoretical to the practical. Once we got our arms around the practical, the idea of doing this job got only more appealing for me.”

Martin is the logical successor to Stenning, and now Stenning is there to help Martin make a smooth transition. Martin asserts, “The most impactful thing with regard to Mark as far as accepting the job was that I could trust he was going to be supportive, whatever roles we started out with and whatever roles we ended up with. Mark is a good friend and I have always had a great amount of respect for him. The transitional phase and the designate role is very appealing to me. It got me to consider starting earlier than I would have initially planned on starting. I am chomping at the bit to get started but I am also excited about having the five months of transition with Mark alongside me.”

For his part, Stenning—who started his rise at the Hall of Fame in 1980—is in complete accord. How does he feel about the upcoming transitional phase he will share with Martin? “From my perspective,” answers Stenning, “it is a win-win for the Hall of Fame. I have a great deal of affection for Todd and his family. I have known him for more than twenty years, going back to when Todd would play our tournament back in the early nineties. I trust him so much that 22 years ago I gave him a wildcard for the tournament. He is a really good guy. There is no one I could think of if I had to download 35 years of institutional history and memory and advise that I have gathered here, no one I would rather go through this process with than Todd Martin.”

Stenning explains precisely why Martin as the CEO-designate is such an appropriate choice, rather than an accomplished business standout from outside tennis. As Stenning puts it, “There are a lot of colleagues that I have who are Presidents and CEO’s of other Halls of Fame but they don’t come from a competition background. They come from a business background. Todd makes so much sense because he is universally known, whether it is ITF, ATP or USTA. Here is a guy whose reputation precedes him. I get the best feedback about what is going on at the Hall of Fame when I go to the Stop and Shop or the gym after work. Universally, people here on the island have said, ‘Wow, what a great catch to have Todd Martin come in!’ He is exactly the same age [43] I was when I become CEO 14 years ago. Todd will have my full support and the entire community is behind him.”

I asked Stenning what he believes will be the toughest challenges for Martin at the outset as CEO, based on his own experience. “I still don’t have the job down pat yet. But there are two things that matter: the International Tennis Hall of Fame is a very different animal from other Halls of Fame. Other Halls of Fame essentially have a museum, they have their retail operations, they might have some membership and then they have the enshrinement. In our case, we have a seven acre footprint in the midst of a historic district, we are a national historic landmark, we own at ATP franchise, we own two tennis clubs, and we are a significant landlord in the city of Newport. The museum is open to the public and we are a significant attraction. These are all things Todd will come up to speed with real quick. The other thing is interfacing. It is great that he has dealt with all of the major tennis organizations, and now he will come up to speed as he deals with a board in excess of 50 people.”

Martin served as President of the ATP Player Council for eight of the 14 years he competed on the tour. In recent years he has been a Director at Large on the USTA Board of Directors. He has demonstrated in those endeavors that he can exert strong leadership and stand up unequivocally for what he believes in. I asked him if the other leadership posts will be beneficial as he pursues his new responsibilities as CEO at the Hall of Fame. He replies, “I am very confident in my ability to lead and I believe I have really good perspective on issues, especially within professional tennis. I am principled and ethical. But at the end of the day, although I have experience in committees and board rooms and such, I don’t have experience reporting to a board and having to lead a comprehensive staff of 35, as I will do in Newport. I have experience being an entrepreneur and managing a staff of tennis coaches and administrators. That is different, but at the same time it is not that different. I think my confidence within a room will be very helpful and sharing time with Mark Stenning will give me a lot of time to catch up to speed on the business of non-profit management. It is a new world for me.”

What will be the chief priorities for Martin in the first year or so? “The big ones,” he responds, “are building on what is already great. The relationship with Newport and Rhode Island, New England, and the U.S. are all very strong. The Hall of Fame Championships are a great event. There are huge challenges ahead with Wimbledon moving [dates] and navigating some of that, and really doing our best to make enshrinement week shine and honoring the Hall of Famers as well as possible. I believe I am well suited for this and can help build relationships with future Hall of Famers, with the guys who are going to be there in a handful of years or in 15 years if you will. The Hall of Fame is the International Tennis Hall of Fame and I think we need to get out and build awareness internationally.”

Martin is determined as well to not only “bring people to Newport”, but to “take Newport elsewhere as well.” He clarifies that thought, adding, “The Hall of Fame has done an exhibit at the U.S,. Open for a while. We can do that elsewhere also, making sure people understand more about the history of the sport and also get to witness the history first hand.”

At the moment, the International Tennis Hall of Fame is in the middle of an ambitious $15.7 million capital campaign. Does Martin believe he can use his good name to make a significant difference in that major undertaking? He says, “I don’t think it hurts that I have a playing background and it is helpful that I have a decent reputation. Fund raising is obviously a huge element of what the Hall does, especially when you have capital campaigns of $16 million, if I can round it up. If you look at the corporate world as a former athlete, this is a large part of what former athletes start their careers in: getting into that sales mode, capitalizing on relationships, capitalizing on backgrounds that athletes have. I am hopeful that my background can make it more fruitful and easier for the Hall of Fame to raise funds.”

Another important project in the works is the addition of new indoor/outdoor courts, plus a new building for locker rooms, fitness facilities and office and retail space. Moreover, the museum will be renovated and reinvigorated, giving visitors to the grounds in Newport even larger value for their stroll through history. Martin is very happy about these developments, saying, “We will be doubling the indoor courts and that is great. Tennis club operations are huge revenue generators and doubling the capacity through the colder months is outstanding. Making the museum aspect of it more 21st Century and more impressive will have a tremendous impact on what the core mission is, and that is preserving the history of the game. If I would have gone to ‘The Breakers’ 25 or 30 years ago it might not have captivated me but when we take our kids there now it captivates them because of the audio tours and the way they do it. I am confident that the more modernized our museum can be, the more effective it will be with kids. And this is where we can make a real difference not just with the history of the game but on the future of the game. If you can appeal to the kids and have the Hall act as the aspirational vehicle that professional tennis did for so many of us, then there is really an impact on the sport that is very significant. I love that notion.”

He also is very much looking forward to becoming tournament director of the Hall of Fame Championships in 2015, although he will clearly be very involved with the event this summer along with Stenning. Addressing the role he will play in reshaping the tournament in the future, Martin says, “I am very excited about it. It would make sense that a former player could jump in and direct the tournament fairly easily, but it is a different animal and tackling that from the other side of the fence will be as interesting and great a challenge as any of the responsibilities I will have. There are elements of it that will come very naturally but I don’t want to con myself into thinking that this will be the easy part of my job. It will be a great challenge. It is not just tournament operations—it is directing and growing and trying to make that asset be a more impactful element of what the Hall does.”

Clearly, Martin will use his credibility among the players and his stature to encourage more leading competitors to come to Newport for the tournament, to convince them that it is a worthwhile endeavor. He says, “There are some strategies that I will employ to try to do that. There are some relationships that I have that might be helpful. Those certainly won’t be deal makers but it will be my objective to constantly—in any way, shape or form—improve the player field. It is an amazing asset to be able to have the enshrinement happen at the end of the week but it also nice when a Lleyton Hewitt is a marquee player at the Hall of Fame Championships. Lleyton has recognized late in his career that it is a really interesting and fun place to be. If we can start to introduce that to some of the younger guys, it is not outside the realm of possibility that we could see a following develop among the players.”

So Martin will have a full plate from the moment he shows up for work in April and joins forces with Stenning as CEO-designate. He will inevitably throw himself into a new and wider world with every fiber of his being. Living in Newport and dealing with a much colder climate and new surroundings will be a serious adjustment for Martin, his wife, and his three kids (ages 5, 8 and 11). But he is ready for the assignment, with no misgivings. As Martin explains, “There are challenges in a transition like this. It is out first time as a family to really consider what a different lifestyle would be like. It is helpful that Amy is from the Northeast and I am from the Midwest and it is especially helpful that she probably more than me looks at life as an opportunity for adventure and she very willingly embraces this. We both do.”

As our talk concluded, I mentioned to Todd Martin that Pete Sampras has told me more than once that he is not a coat and tie type of guy. But Martin seems entirely comfortable with the notion of a more formal kind of attire. He reflects, “Rick Ferman [former Executive Director of the USTA] taught me how to play and he has been very helpful in counsel the last bit of time. One of the first things he said was ‘You are going to be a suit now. That is not a good or a bad thing. It is just a fact.’ I am sure I will understand the significance of what he said more as I go along. I have lived somewhat neutral between wearing shorts to work and being a guy in a suit. My Dad was a suit guy. So I am fine with wearing a suit. I look forward to it. But one of the nice things about going to the Hall of Fame is the great tennis operation there. I will get to wear shorts occasionally and if I see a 12-year-old kid that looks like he has got a spark about the game I might figure out a way to carve out a couple of hours a week to spend time with him on the court. At the core of it, I still love tennis for the benefits of playing.”

As Stenning concludes, “I always wondered what it would be like when I step down and hand the keys to somebody else. The fact that it is Todd makes it a lot more comfortable for me. I feel our relationship is already established enough where we can hit the ground running starting April 1st. I know he will be a huge help to me and I expect to learn a lot from Todd Martin.”
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.