Jury rejects German federation's claims of ATP antitrust violations

WILMINGTON, Del. -- A federal jury on Tuesday cleared the way for the ATP Tour's planned tournament restructuring next year, rejecting antitrust claims in a lawsuit filed by the German Tennis Federation.

Jurors in U.S. District Court in Wilmington deliberated about nine hours before upholding the Association of Tennis Professionals' tournament restructuring, which would move the Hamburg clay-court event from May to July and eliminate it as a key tuneup for the French Open.

The German federation argued the ATP is illegally trying to lock up the market for player services and tournament sanctions. The federation claims the reorganization is the result of collusion among officers for ATP -- the governing body for professional men's tennis -- and owners of certain favored tournaments acting in their own self-interests.

Jurors ruled unanimously that the ATP did not enter into any contract or conspiracy that might have harmed competition and that there is no market that it monopolized or attempted to monopolize.

Etienne de Villiers, the executive chairman of the ATP, was pleased with the decision.

"We are delighted by today's unanimous jury decision in favor of the ATP," he said in a statement. "Both the jury and Judge [Gregory] Sleet have recognized and upheld our fundamental right to set and make changes to the ATP Tour calendar, changes that are necessary if we are to unlock the full potential of our sport. Their decision also supports ATP's position that this process of change was undertaken in a transparent, vigorous and good-faith manner."

"The ATP is terrifically gratified with the decision," said ATP attorney Bradley Ruskin. "ATP took the steps that it believed is right and is going to help improve the game of tennis."

Robert MacGill, an attorney for the German federation, declined to comment on the jury's ruling, which came shortly after Sleet dismissed a juror who was unable to get along with other members of the panel.

Sleet summoned attorneys Tuesday afternoon to inform them that the woman was "hysterical" and had left the jury room in tears. In a private meeting with the judge and attorneys, the woman said she would not be able to continue deliberating with the other seven members of the jury.

Under the tournament reorganization, top-ranked ATP players would be required to play in each of eight top-tier tournaments, known as the Master Series 1000, and four of 11 tournaments in the second-tier Master Series 500.

Combined with the year-end Masters Cup event, the four non-ATP Grand Slam tournaments and Davis Cup matches, that represents a full calendar that will likely prompt marquee players to pass up Hamburg, MacGill argued.

The plan would make Madrid and Rome the only clay-court Masters tournaments leading up to the French Open, the second of the four Grand Slam events.

"This move to this time ruins us," MacGill told jurors in closing arguments Monday, adding that the only witnesses to testify for the ATP were "people inside the conspiracy."

Ruskin countered that the German federation's challenge was based on a false sense of entitlement and that the federation had no problems with the ATP's rulemaking authority when Hamburg enjoyed a top-tier classification.

Ruskin also told jurors that the federation has encouraged the same mandatory player commitments for top-tier tournaments that it now suggests would make it difficult to stage a successful second-tier tournament.

Joining the German federation as plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Hamburg tournament operator Rothenbaum Sports GMBH and the Qatar federation, which lost a tournament calendar bid to Dubai despite offering $10 million more to ATP.

Prior to closing arguments Monday, Sleet dismissed several officers and directors of the ATP Tour from the case. He also dismissed claims alleging contract interference and breaches of fiduciary duty by the ATP, leaving jurors to decide only the antitrust claims.