Expect tweaks, but few major changes

NEW YORK -- Since becoming ATP World Tour executive chairman and president nearly nine months ago, Adam Helfant has maintained an exceedingly low profile.

When James Martin of Tennis.com wrote recently that people could be forgiven for thinking that Helfant had been enrolled in the witness protection program, even the tour chief had to laugh.

"It's a great line," Helfant said Tuesday. "I got a great kick out of it.

"If I've been hiding, it's been in plain sight."

For the first time since taking office, Helfant met the media for a formal news conference. He offered a mini-state-of-the-union speech to about 25 reporters, then fielded questions. Later, in a private audience with ESPN.com in a broadcast booth overlooking Arthur Ashe Stadium, Helfant was asked how he had done.

"I survived," he said, smiling.

As the "new guy," Helfant said he wanted to sound out the players and those involved in tournaments before going public. He wanted to listen, not "pontificate." The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Law School graduate could not be more different from his predecessor, Etienne de Villiers, whose underlings sometimes learned things for the first time when he mentioned them publicly.

Helfant, a former Nike executive, said he learned that there is great concern about the global financial situation and the tennis calendar that stretches across nearly 11 months. The ATP is still without a tourwide sponsor but hopes to announce a replacement for Mercedes-Benz in time for the 2010 season. Attendance, he said, is "flat to slightly up," and corporate sponsorship is "basically holding."

"There always will be issues with the calendar," he conceded. "We will work to refine it. But I think the system is actually working. Our top guys are showing up on the biggest stages and performing.

"It's a nice problem. We have a great demand for our product."

Helfant, who might have used the word "exciting" a dozen times, does not think the game is in terrible shape, and his basic message was that there would be very few major changes.

The news that came out of Tuesday's session was modest but intriguing.

In line with baseball and basketball, there will be a two-day all-star event in March, scheduled a day or two ahead of main-draw play at Indian Wells in California. It will involve a skills competition, which could include contests for fastest serve, forehands and backhands as well as accuracy. The event, leveraging its proximity to Los Angeles, also will feature celebrity doubles and an awards show.

The goal is to reach the casual tennis fan and lifestyle media, and Helfant reported that the players "are excited about it."

The other initiative, less defined, is an event in Australia that would draw attention to the opening of the season.

"The tennis season has a middle and an end, but no real beginning," Helfant said.

Helfant said that, realistically, this tournament won't happen until 2011. The Australian Open, he added, is instituting a promotion similar to the U.S. Open Series. Helfant also said that the Malaysia Open in Kuala Lumpur beat out three other bids for a vacant spot on the calendar in late September.

With Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on the influential ATP Players Council, the players' concerns certainly will be articulated to Helfant.

"I think Adam is doing a good job," Federer said. "I really think he's close to the players. We have good interaction. We have a great product at the moment obviously with great players at the top, great characters.

"I think the future looks good. It's very exciting now."

There's that word again.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.