Kantarian instrumental in leading tennis to mainstream culture

Sports governing bodies in the so-called Olympic world are weird, hybrid organizations, and on paper, the sprawling U.S. Tennis Association is one of the oddest. Charged with running everything from the humblest of grassroots programs to the most prestigious professional tournaments, the USTA at times seems like a giant chameleon that is trying to be many things to many people, with no distinct identity.

Arlen Kantarian, who announced Thursday he will step down as the USTA's CEO of professional tennis at year's end, was an exception to that. For much of the past nine years, he has been the most public face of the organization -- a face that usually was creased with the shark's grin of someone who was sure he knew the right way to cut through calm or choppy waters and was aggressively ready to convince you of the same.

Kantarian came to tennis via the world of entertainment, in the form of Radio City Music Hall, and the NFL, arguably the most entertainment-savvy sports league in the world.

Some things his nine-year tenure will be remembered for are television-friendly innovations that helped animate the visual aspect of tennis, inviting viewers into a game that can tend to be flat and static on the small screen. Instant replay might have been an inevitable development, but Kantarian accelerated the process by campaigning for it. And just a couple of years after the introduction of blue courts at the U.S. Open, it's hard to imagine how we ever saw the ball in a monochromatic sea of green.

Kantarian also lobbied for ownership, believing that the USTA deserved more control over its professional product. That wasn't always an easy sell in an organization that has many constituents clamoring for its resources. At his behest, the USTA invested in the Tennis Channel and in tournaments.

Purists might roll their eyes at some of the variety-show, showbiz elements Kantarian wanted -- and got -- into the mix, from fireworks to live music, but there is no doubt that he molded the U.S. Open into an Event with a capital E, one that transcends the sport and lives up to the scale of New York City.

"Talk about taking it to another level -- Arlen did all those things we always talked about,'' said ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe, a very busy man whom Kantarian persuaded this year to take on the mammoth task of restructuring U.S. player development.

"Like, wouldn't it be nice if fans could move down to the lower seats during late-night matches? Wouldn't it be nice if fans could see scores and watch video highlights of other matches from their seats? When you see the top players in the world taking a twirl after matches, hitting balls into the stands, relaxed, Arlen made those things happen. He helped make it the norm that entertainment is part of being a professional player.''

And Kantarian did this during a decade in which there was nonstop moaning and groaning about tennis's place in the sports world and complaints about a decline in American players' results. Part of this is a testament to his relentless personal style. Once he had a vision, he was determined that everyone was going to put on the same glasses.

"For me personally, the most amazing of his accomplishments was the Olympus U.S. Open Series,'' said USTA president Jane Brown Grimes, whose regular two-year term is set to end this year. "He talked about it for five years before it happened, and when he first started talking about it, I thought there was just no way on earth he could get those tournaments to come together and get both [WTA and ATP] tours to agree. I thought it would never get off the ground.''

In retrospect, Kantarian's push to link 10 summer hard-court tournaments over six weeks, labeling them "The Greatest Road Trip in Sports" and placing a substantial pot of prize money at the end of the rainbow, came in the nick of time. Without that branding and packaging, the tours' scheduling changes and the volatile economy might have torpedoed that move if it were being undertaken now.

Kantarian has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the soon-to-be-vacated ATP CEO job, but Liza Horan, editor of the online industry newsletter tenniswire.org, speculated he might move on to "another sport or venture that needs him.'' The possibilities there could be myriad, as just about everyone in every game will be feeling a financial pinch in the coming months and perhaps years.

Horan said she thinks Kantarian is leaving the USTA in good enough shape to withstand some buffeting, especially if other key members of the marketing, sponsorships and television-rights team remain in place (and there's no indication yet that Kantarian is taking anyone with him).

"I see this as a very natural progression,'' Horan said. "Overall, Arlen accomplished what he set out to do in tennis, and that was to project the U.S. Open and the lead-up events into mainstream culture. He did that by securing television rights, numerous huge sponsorships and putting a massive promotional machine behind it. My thought after this year's U.S. Open was, 'Is Arlen's job done here?' I don't know where you can go from here.''

We'll soon find out.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.