But as an optimist, I have the dream to take it one significant step further. When I helped co-found the ATP in 1972, our goal was to change the game for the better. Billie Jean and the rest of the “Original 9” had a similar goal of creating a better future for women’s tennis when they founded the WTA in 1973. Over the past 47 years, much has changed in tennis. And now is the perfect time to make the significant change I propose to improve the sport for players and fans alike.
Today, professional tennis is a global sport that needs to be played under the same rules whether in Kalamazoo, Mich.; London; Rome; Moscow; or Beijing. But it is bogged down by many governing bodies and other, often competing stakeholders — the ATP, the WTA, the Grand Slams, the International Tennis Federation, the U.S. Tennis Association, the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup, the Laver Cup and more — that stage their own events to suit their own priorities. The result is a fractured sport ruled by an alphabet soup of groups protecting their own interests. There is no single, unified body promoting tennis globally.
Why does the governance of tennis need a major overhaul?
The WTA and ATP boards of directors include tournament and player representatives, but this model is often inefficient and ineffective. For example, the ATP has a six-person voting structure that often results in 3-3 ties on important matters, forcing the ATP chairman to cast the deciding vote. That puts the chairman in a difficult position. The WTA needs to raise more sponsorship money to develop larger events. Finally, the Grand Slams (by far the most important events) should be more involved in the sport’s governance throughout the year. As it stands, they interact with players only four times each year and compete with the ATP and WTA for dates, sponsorship dollars and TV deals. It is time for all groups to work together to improve the governance of tennis, or it will continue to be a splintered, confusing sport to fans worldwide.
What pro tennis needs is one central body controlling its rules and administration globally. This new organization should be run by a central office of the commissioner comprising three people: the chair of the ATP, the chair of the WTA and an experienced, knowledgeable, objective person chosen by the Grand Slams.
These three commissioners would control the global tennis calendar, including tournament dates, sanctions and prize money, as well as disciplinary matters of pro players. That would enable each group to continue operating in its own lane while having a strong voice in how the sport is run. Commissioners would serve five-year terms with an automatic five-year renewal and be subject to termination for cause by their respective group if they are found to have acted in an unreasonable or biased manner.
This model would lead to more coherence and unity in establishing the sport’s standards of play, directing its growth and promoting the game. Over time, it also would significantly reduce and possibility eliminate the conflict that now results from multiple governing bodies defending their turf. Having one all-powerful governing body would propel tennis forward in a unified manner, something the sport dearly needs.
To accomplish this dream would require real leadership and statesmanship by the most powerful people in the game. Today, that seems impossible. But sometimes forces stronger than ourselves, such as a global pandemic, can inspire and accelerate change. In this time of slowing down, let’s all pause and consider what’s best for our great sport. If you can dream it, you can do it. So let’s get started.
Donald Dell co-founded the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1972. He is a former U.S. Davis Cup captain, founder of sports marketing firm ProServ, co-founder of Washington’s Citi Open and a 2009 inductee to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.