Obvious challenges waiting in the wings for Helfant

Updated: January 21, 2009

Helfant at the Helm

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Early Wednesday morning, before action started at the Australian Open, new ATP executive chairman and president Adam Helfant showed up at Melbourne Park for an introduction to a dozen of the more prominent international tennis journalists. Helfant, 44, has impressive credentials, with an undergraduate degree from MIT and a law degree from Harvard, and was a big shot at Nike until he left in 2007.

Helfant's certainly found a new challenge in taking over the ATP, a position insiders say comes with a $1.5 million paycheck. During his meeting with journalists, Helfant came across as measured and prepared to carefully analyze all issues facing a global sport looking for growth in a crowded sports community.

Helfant said of why he wanted the position, "When you look at the state of the game, it's absolutely incredible. It's hard to imagine a time when the players at the top have been better … and it's reminiscent of the time I grew up in Brooklyn in the '70s and tennis was on a huge upswing in the United States and globally. Obviously, the economy is trying and uncertain, but that was going to have an impact on whatever I did in life, so I view it as a real opportunity, despite the obvious challenges."

Here are the top five priorities for Helfant:

1. Relate to players: Anyone around the game was aware that the players didn't feel a strong bond with Helfant's predecessor, Etienne de Villiers. Conscious of this, Helfant hopes to avoid a similar failing during his tenure. Although Helfant is not bound to be the puppet of the players, it certainly wouldn't be detrimental for him to be more attentive to hearing their grievances and wishes.

Helfant says: "I've definitely gotten their input and they are concerned, which is a good thing. They obviously have a pretty big interest in the game, and [have] a wide array of concerns from their health to other things you might imagine. They promise me they'll be open with me, and I promised them I'll be open with them because it's important to have that dialogue."

2. Relate to other powers in the game: Tennis is a complex game in that it has more than one governing body. Having an amicable working relationship with the other organizations -- the ITF, WTA and USTA, as well as many of the national federations -- would be advantageous as each has its own agenda. In tennis, no man is an island, and none of the other groups are going away, so it would behoove Helfant to be congenial and play ball.

Helfant says: "I'd like to sit down with them and see how we can work together. We're obviously in it together. There may be some areas where there'll be disagreements, but by and large we're trying to promote the game, and so I look at that as a real opportunity. I can't comment on the past because I haven't lived it."

3. Tour marketing: In the '70s, tennis was in its heyday and fans around the world paid attention. But in today's climate, it's not so easy to capture the attention of sports fans, especially with competition from other popular sports such as golf, soccer, football, basketball and baseball. Many changes need to be made to recapture the public's interest, and this will require the cooperation of the players, who might not always delight in some of the responsibilities, such as being more accessible to the media.

Helfant says: "My mandate is pretty simple: to help tennis reach its potential. But first of all, we have to figure out what that is and then how we're going to do that."

4. Sponsorship: The ATP has a tough road ahead in having to find a new overall tour sponsor to take the place of Mercedes, which bid farewell to their deal at the end of 2008. While the tour has smaller sponsors such as South African Airways and Stanford Financial, a sponsor with deeper pockets is needed ASAP. A stronger marketing campaign is a requirement to make the ATP a sexier sponsorship purchase.

Helfant says: "I've talked to some of my brethren who are involved on the commercial side of other sports, and they've cautioned me that I shouldn't understate how significant the impact is of the world economic situation on sport. We're certainly not recession proof, but I'm confident that we will be able to find a new tour-wide sponsor to replace Mercedes, it's just a question of when and who would be the right partner."

5. Schedule: While you have to question the players' discontent with the length of the current schedule, when many of them spend the offseason taking part in exhibitions, it is long. Nevertheless, it's tough to turn your back on loyal tournaments that want to stay in business. There is also the fact the calendar doesn't always look organized when traversing the globe.

Helfant says: "It's a nice problem to have, that there's so much demand for tennis, that you look at that as a positive. Most of my private conversations with players, with tournaments, with management companies, with anybody, the calendar has come up. So I understand it's complicated and I don't pretend to have the answers. If we decide it makes sense to make changes, and I say if, it would only be as a result of conversations with all the interested parties, and I'm sure we won't please everybody. But I don't have any immediate plans to make changes to the calendar."

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

Five things we learned on Day 3

1. A-Rod isn't the only American with a big serve: Guess who leads the tournament in aces? None other than Jacksonville, Fla.'s Amer Delic.

Delic delivered 33 aces to lift his tally to 54 overall after rallying from two sets down against the nervous 28th seed, Paul-Henri Mathieu -- he prevailed 1-6, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3), 9-7 in front of a raucous crowd on Court 13. Delic, born in Bosnia, went five in the first round against countryman Taylor Dent.

Serbian and Bosnian supporters made for a loud mix, with Mathieu joking afterward that he thought the fans probably had their fill of vodka. Serbian fans showed up after watching Janko Tipsarevic's four-set loss to Marin Cilic.

"I felt bad for Paul, and I apologized to him right after it happened," Delic, formerly coached by Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley at the University of Illinois, said. "I'm Bosnian-American, but the fans still feel like I'm Bosnian. They're proud of me and I'm proud of them. What's wrong with cheering for your country?"

It was the fifth time Mathieu blew a two-set lead in his career.

"I can't hide," Mathieu said. "It was a bad loss. I should have won in three."

Mark Dadswell/Getty Images

David Nalbandian became the highest-seeded player to lose at the Australian Open.

2. Nalbandian is Nalbandian: Whenever you expect little from David Nalbandian (think back to the past two falls), he produces. Whenever you expect a lot, he disappoints.

Wednesday was another example of the latter. Looking fitter and coming off a title win in Sydney on Saturday, logic dictated the Argentinean would at least reach the fourth round thanks to a cushy draw. Instead, Nalbandian exited in the second round to little-known Yen-Hsun Lu of Taipei 6-4, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.

In a dozen previous majors, the 25-year-old had never reached the third round.

Now firmly the national No. 1, Juan Martin Del Potro showed Nalbandian how to do it, polishing off German qualifier Florian Mayer in straight sets.

3. The magician isn't 36: It must be a typo. Fabrice Santoro, 36?

Santoro, playing a limited schedule this year as he eases into retirement, outlasted fellow little guy Philipp Kohlschreiber 5-7, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 after 4 hours and 6 minutes of entertaining tennis on Court 6.

Hampered by leg cramps, he could barely walk to his chair when it ended.

"I was worried before the match," Santoro said. "I thought it would be very difficult to beat him. He pushed me to play my best, and I did that."

Kohlschreiber, who displayed his hefty artillery in an upset win over Roddick in the third round last year, hit 94 winners. Santoro replied with 51.

4. Ana is oh so polite: As Serbian Ana Ivanovic gets more popular, the inquiries into her private life mount. Ivanovic dated Spanish pro Fernando Verdasco for a few months, although reports this week suggested their relationship was over.

How does the 21-year-old cope with all the attention?

"I try to stay positive," she said in the wake of a comfortable second-round win. "I'm very, very flattered because it means that you achieved something good on the court if people are more interested in what you do off the court. Sometimes you do wish you have a little more privacy or you can go shopping or [to] dinners and no one recognizes you. But it's still very, very flattering."

5. There's life in Jelena Dokic yet: The locals haven't been overly happy the previous two days, since their top two title hopes (faint as they were), Lleyton Hewitt and Casey Dellacqua, fell in the first round. Dokic is giving them hope.

Continuing her comeback, Dokic, a former world No. 4 besieged by personal problems, edged 17th-seeded Russian Anna Chakvetadze 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-3. It was all the more impressive considering Dokic, currently the world No. 187, blew a 5-3 lead in the second.

She's into the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time since Wimbledon in 2003.

"Things are going well at the moment," she said. "I couldn't have imagined a better start to the year."

-- Ravi Ubha



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Early thumbs up


New ATP chief Adam Helfant's first official trip here at the Australian Open included addressing the players' meeting and also some private get-togethers with a number of key players. Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic walked away encouraged for the future of the ATP World Tour after their chats with Helfant.

Andy Roddick: "I actually was lucky enough to have dinner with him the other night. I was pretty impressed. He didn't come in with kind of this braggadocio attitude of what he's done, whatever. He kind of came in and he had his notepad and his pen and he asked questions and he wrote down notes. He didn't come in like a know-it-all. He was kind of concerned about a number of issues. If he didn't quite understand it, he would ask why we thought that. It was an impressive meeting, that's for sure. After the meeting, I was glad that they had chosen him."

Novak Djokovic: "I had a meeting with him. Hopefully he's the right guy. It's not easy to find a CEO for such an important sport. There is a lot of things that we need to improve. We players are concerned about some subjects. We just need to go slowly, step by step. One thing is for sure: We can't do it overnight. There are things that are complicated, as the ranking system and schedule, prize money and so forth."

Board job opening


Word hasn't really hit the street yet, but if anyone is looking for a job, there's an opening for a player representative for Europe on the ATP board of directors. The position became available on Wednesday morning when Croatian Ivan Ljubicic decided to resign from the board position he was elected to in August. Apparently, Ljubicic was a bit dismayed after the ATP player meeting -- at the outset of the Australian Open -- became heated.

Others currently serving on the board: David Edges, a senior vice president at the Tennis Channel; TV analyst Justin Gimelstob; senior vice president, managing director of IMG tennis, Gavin Forbes; former player and tournament director Zeljko Franulovic; and CEO of Auckland tennis, Graham Pearce. Those applying should know the job requires a heavy-duty involvement in the game, and the position comes along with a few choice trips during the year to events such as the Australian Open.

Federer the adviser


If President Barack Obama needs an extra adviser, he might want to call Roger Federer.

Reigning French Open champion Ana Ivanovic believes Federer offers excellent counsel.

Ivanovic spoke of the best advice Federer offered her at one U.S. Open: "He said that you just basically have to enjoy and try to don't think too much. Because I used to stress a lot about traveling so much and using so much time in traffic. He said, 'You know, you can't change that. You just have to basically accept it.'"

Down Under news


President Barack Obama dominated the headlines in Australia's newspapers on Wednesday, but on the sporting front it was about two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt's continued demise after a five-set, first-round loss.

• In the sporting life column in "The Age" on Wednesday, we learned who world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic's favorite musical artists are: 1. Leona Lewis, 2. Beyonce, 3. Rihanna, 4. Justin Timberlake, 5. Amy Winehouse.

• Both The Age and the Herald Sun quoted former Australian Davis Cup player Phil Dent, who expressed concern about the rude comments from Bosnian fans toward his son, Taylor, who lost a first-round encounter to Bosnian-born American Amer Delic. The elder Dent was quoted as saying, "The crowd was out of control and was let to get out of control, and if it happens again and you have another group of people on the other side, there will be a riot." Serbian player Janko Tipsarevic addressed the matter of the recent war between Serbia and Croatia before his match against Croatian Marin Cilic: "I would like to see as many supporters as possible, but I wouldn't like them to chant about the war, which took place who knows how many years ago." Cilic won the encounter in four sets.

Mardy's take


Mardy Fish told ESPN.com he's picking Pittsburgh over Arizona in the Super Bowl.

"I think Pittsburgh is the most diverse team in the NFL, in offense and defense," he said. "I think it will be a blowout, like 30-10. Mike Tomlin used to be the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings [state where Fish was born], so what's better than that?"

Critic's choice


No. 6 Venus Williams vs. Carla Suarez Navarro: Playing in her fourth career Grand Slam tournament, Suarez Navarro hit it big when she reached the French Open quarterfinals last year. That surprise result came on the Spaniard's favorite clay surface, where she could challenge opponents with her favorite cross-court backhand shot. Unfortunately, Suarez Navarro's skills won't translate as well to the hard courts at Melbourne Park, but she will put up a fight. A seven-time Grand Slam champion, Williams' best result at the Australian Open was a showing in the finals in 2003. Williams has the game to go the distance -- big serve and sizzling groundstrokes -- and when she doesn't shy away from approaching the net, her volleys pack a punch.

ESPN.com prediction: Williams in three sets.