Thursday, January 8, 2009
Sources: Helfant is next ATP president
By Bonnie D. Ford
Like the United States government itself, the ATP World Tour will soon be led by a Harvard-trained lawyer.
Several knowledgeable sources outside the organization that runs men's professional tennis confirmed Thursday that former top Nike executive Adam Helfant, 44, will succeed executive chairman and president Etienne deVilliers, who is stepping down after a turbulent 3½-year tenure.
Helfant's contract is not yet finalized. ATP spokesman Kris Dent would not verify Helfant's selection but said an announcement would be forthcoming.
Helfant, who rose through the ranks at Nike to become the sports apparel giant's vice-president of global sports marketing before leaving the company in late 2007, is seen as somewhat of a dark horse pick.
Most of the candidates identified in a search that began last September were tennis insiders, with a couple of strong contenders from the ATP's current administrative staff. In recent days, some reports had tabbed Helfant and Brad Drewett, an Australian who is CEO of the ATP's international group, as the two finalists.
Helfant will take over an organization where top players are insisting on having more say.
Under de Villiers, a former Disney executive from South Africa, the ATP revamped its calendar, rankings system and tournament branding, but players rumbled that they felt left out of the process and other reforms like a brief, failed experiment with round-robin play in tournaments.
The outgoing chief also was seen by some as responsible for escalating hostilities in an anti-trust lawsuit brought by organizers of Hamburg, Germany's Masters Series tournament, an event that was demoted and shifted to a different date as part of calendar reform.
If the tournament organizers ultimately prevail in the case, it could undermine the tour's ability to determine its own schedule. The suit was dismissed in a jury trial in federal court last summer. But the Hamburg organizers have appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd District has ordered the parties into mediation set to begin next week.
The world's top trio of players -- Spain's Rafael Nadal, Switzerland's Roger Federer and Serbia's Novak Djokovic -- all won spots on the ATP Players' Council last year, a move towards hands-on participation. Although the council is an advisory body, with players' interests formally represented by representatives to the board of directors, sources said the players and their management companies had significant input in Helfant's selection.
Helfant's marketing experience at Nike, where he was involved in some tennis deals, and reputation as a skilled, fair-minded negotiator is said to have resonated positively with players and administrators concerned about the tour's ability to weather the current volatile economic conditions.
He earned his undergraduate degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology prior to graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988, and worked in the legal departments of the National Hockey League and Nike before shifting his focus to marketing.
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports and tennis for ESPN.com.