Tennis is beginning to develop a strong Australian accent.
The Australian Open, which begins next week, has been transformed in roughly 25 years from a backwater tournament in danger of losing its Grand Slam status into the most with-it major of them all.
But Tennis Australia, the ITF affiliate that owns the tournament, hasn’t stopped there. Thanks partly to the success of its rehabilitated major, TA has aggressively expanded its footprint in the game under CEO Craig Tiley, going to places where no national federation has gone before.
On Tiley’s watch, TA has become a partner (among others, including the USTA) in Roger Federer’s Laver Cup exhibition. It has also locked down the resurrected ATP Cup, which will launch in the first weeks of 2020. The event will be played concurrently in three Australian cities (Brisbane and Sydney have already been selected) with the final in Sydney.
These unprecedented forays into tournament promotion have triggered mixed responses, ranging from admiration to accusations of sexism and conflict-of-interest. They clearly are signs of a market disruption.
“Tennis insiders are always looking for conflicts of interests. It’s one reason tennis hasn’t progressed as much as some other sports. There’s an old-school belief that everyone has to stay in his lane. But I credit Craig Tiley and Tennis Australia for being entrepreneurial and creating new revenue streams.”
John Tobias, the TLA Worldwide tennis agent
“Expansion comes when there is the financial means to do so, and this is a time when the sport is in flux,” Paul McNamee, the former tournament director of the Australian Open, told ESPN.com. He pointed to the ITF’s recent sale of rights to the Davis Cup to a group promising a $3 billion investment in a completely restructured event as signs of the volatility in the sport.
McNamee, who joined with former TA chairman and president Geoff Pollard to mastermind the reversal of the Australian Open’s fortunes in the mid-1990s, added, “Let’s not beat around the bush. We just don’t know where the cards are going to fall these days.”
Tennis Australia’s activities were largely unremarked upon until last fall, when veteran Julien Benneteau lashed out at Tiley in an interview with RMC Sport, accusing the AO of favoritism for scheduling Federer to play exclusively in the early evening on Rod Laver Arena. Benneteau went a step further, connecting the dots to Laver Cup, telling an interviewer,” “He’s (Tiley) the Australian Open tournament director. And the man is paid by Roger Federer’s agent for the Laver Cup.”
Most people, including some of Federer’s fiercest rivals, shrugged off the favoritism charges on the grounds that the biggest stars deserved the biggest stages. The Australian federation’s involvement with Laver Cup raises different potential conflicts. TA is an affiliate of the ITF, but Laver Cup is a potential rival to the ITF’s restructured — and seemingly very vulnerable — Davis Cup (set to launch in the fall of 2019).
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The Aussie Open draw has ensured that defending champ Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic can’t play each other until the final. On the women’s side, Serena Williams has drawn into the same section as No. 1-ranked Simona Halep.
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McNamee, the architect of the campaign to brand the Australian Open as the “Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific” (with real regional engagements to back up the claim), feels conflicted about the Laver Cup investment. “I was puzzled by that,” he said. “It wasn’t in the Asia-Pacific region, and I feel we should focus on our own turf.”
“Tennis insiders are always looking for conflicts of interests,” John Tobias, the TLA Worldwide tennis agent who represents Sloane Stephens (among others), told ESPN.com. “It’s one reason tennis hasn’t progressed as much as some other sports. There’s an old-school belief that everyone has to stay in his lane. But I credit Craig Tiley and Tennis Australia for being entrepreneurial and creating new revenue streams.”
Tiley seems to have really ventured — “careened” might be the better word — out of his lane by snatching up the ATP Cup as well. It was a dazzling move, given that it is almost guaranteed to kill the much-loved Hopman Cup (an ITF event currently run in Perth by Tennis Australia). It will also compete directly with Davis Cup, and likely overshadow everything else that has characterized the run-up to the Australian Open in recent years.
The brunt of the pain may ultimately be borne by the WTA, as an international team event featuring all the top men played in three major cities is likely to overshadow all else in the weeks before the Australian Open. Geoff Pollard, now retired but still plugged in, said that Tennis Australia is aware of the dangers. “I’m sure the two sides are talking,” he told ESPN.com. “For sure there will be changes.”
Asked to comment on the quandry, the WTA sent ESPN.com this statement: “Tennis Australia stages a number of high quality events for WTA players across the country each January, and will continue to do so. TA and the WTA are working closely together to develop exciting new concepts and opportunities for WTA players in Australia in the near future.”
Securing the ATP Cup exclusively for Australia is not the naked power grab it may appear. The two weeks between New Year’s Day and the start of the Australian Open is the shortest prep time at any major. It was also an appealing window for the ATP as it contemplated relaunching its team competition, taking advantage of the uncertainty surrounding the radically transformed Davis Cup.
“The motivation for getting the ATP Cup wasn’t offensive, it was a defensive strategy,”McNamee said. “If not Australia, the ATP Cup would have gone to Qatar, so the lead-in to the Australian Open would have been in the middle east. They (TA) had absolutely no choice.”
In addition to protecting the Australian Open, TA continues to expand its footprint at home, with help from a willing government. In New South Wales, the government is making $50 million (Australian dollars) upgrade to the Olympic Park Tennis Centre in Sydney. It will include a “canopy roof” for Ken Rosewall Arena. Pollard’s last significant accomplishment before he left his post as at the head of TA was securing a commitment by the government of Victoria to invest a billion dollars in the Melbourne Park site between 2010 to 2025.
“Tennis Australia and the nation’s states have invested a lot in infrastructure,” McNamee said. “They’re ready for something like the ATP Cup.”
Meanwhile, fans and players wonder what will happen to the popular Hopman Cup, the mixed event created by McNamee and Charlie Fancutt in 1989. Interested in creating a legacy, the men handed the event over to the ITF, gratis, once it was established. The ITF allowed the pair to run Hopman Cup until 2014, then shocked them by handing the reins to Tennis Australia. “So I was out,” McNamee said. “I was not happy about that. It was my baby.”
It’s hard to imagine TA running two high-quality team events, Hopman Cup and ATP Cup, concurrently next year. McNamee’s baby may get thrown out with the bathwater. Think of it as market disruption.