- Kamakshi Tandon
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The story of the top of the men's game in recent years has been about stability and orderly succession. Not so at the top of the ATP itself.
The governing body of the men's tour began 2012 with its third chairman and CEO in the past five years, and earlier this year came the news that it will again be seeking another -- this time for a very unfortunate reason. Current head Brad Drewett has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease and is stepping down from his post.
The shock and sadness were palpable when the news was made public during the Australian Open, for Drewett's accessibility and long involvement in the game, both as an executive and as a player, meant the impact was felt by many. His ascendance to the position at the start of 2012 was a long time coming and had been expected to provide stable, long-term leadership following two short and very different periods in the post.
From the fall of 2005 to 2008, it was held by Etienne de Villiers, a vocal presence whose time in charge was marked by changes and conflict. Embattled and a little confused, he did not seek a renewal of his contract. From 2009 to 2011 came Adam Helfant, a barely perceptible presence despite signing a lot of commercial deals and shortening the schedule by two weeks. Salary issues were reportedly behind his departure.
It might be tempting to say what the tour needed was a combination of these two opposites, but the problem more likely lay in what they had in common -- very little background in tennis.
By contrast, Drewett came in with both experience at navigating tennis' complex labyrinth of power and support from inside the organization.
As a player, he reached the Australian Open quarterfinals as a 17-year-old in 1975 and was described by Tennis Australia as "the pin-up boy of Australian tennis in the 1980s," winning two titles and achieving a career-high ranking of No. 34 in 1984. Seemingly aware he was not going to be a world beater, Drewett took an interest in the administrative side of the game even in his playing days, serving as a member of the player council and later going on to be a player representative on the ATP Board.
He took over as tournament director of the ATP season-ending Masters Cup in 2001 when it was held in Sydney, where he lived, and continued in that role for a decade while also helping spearhead the tour's move into China and the Middle East as CEO of the International Group.
Having been in the running for ATP chairman and CEO on previous occasions, Drewett was finally appointed at the end of 2011 as something of a compromise candidate. Since then, he has used his experience to make inroads into some of the game's most intractable issues.
There have been some deals and renewals signed with sponsors like Emirates, Tecnifibre, Rolex and Ricoh, but the main focus has been on governance -- prize money, scheduling and various rule changes. Despite struggling with his voice for much of past year, he managed to get plenty of talks under way.
Changes under Drewett
The big development has been getting the Grand Slams to increase their payouts.
Drewett is said to have made that his priority after the player meeting at last year's Australian Open showed how strongly the players felt about the issue.
Despite steady annual increases in revenue, the players were dissatisfied at receiving only a reported 10-17 percent generated by the majors, well below the 20-30 percent paid by ATP events and far short of the 40-50 percent split that exists in some American sports. The response from the Grand Slams had been that they already offer the highest prize money and, unlike most tournaments, put much of their profits back into grassroots programs.
It has been a point of contention for years, but over the past year the players began to make headway, with increases of 7 percent from the French Open, 10 percent from Wimbledon, 11 percent from the U.S. Open and then the big one -- a 15 percent increase from the Australian Open to a record $30 million-plus total purse, with the tournament promising that there was more to come.
Many believe the breakthrough came when Drewett organized a meeting last year at Indian Wells between Grand Slam organizers and the ATP's big four of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. Taking advantage of the top players' commitment and letting them be the face of the movement proved effective -- conducting quiet negotiations based on percentage amounts has also been more persuasive than the aggressive up-front amounts demanded a decade ago. In the backrooms, as on the tennis court, the details can make all the difference.
Within the ATP itself, the tournament calendar has usually been the most persistent bugbear. The top players want lighter and more flexible schedules. The lower ranks want bigger and more playing opportunities. Every tournament wants the choicest dates and best players. No one gets exactly what they want. But Drewett was willing to take on the challenge he aptly described as a "Rubik's cube" in one interview last year.
Elsewhere, he made it clear that he did not want a "status quo" calendar, leading the board to explore several changes such as moving the Paris Masters to February from October and shifting the South American tournaments to a "postseason" in November. Not everything met with approval, but a broad conceptual understanding of the structure was evident.
A competition committee was also formed last August to suggest changes at the match level, two of which were adopted for this year. The first was experimenting with removing service lets at the challenger level, a move which has received a mixed reaction from the players. The other was a modification to the 20-second rule for time allowed between points, which involves stricter enforcement, but lesser penalties. This caused an uproar at the beginning of the season when players used to dawdling suddenly found themselves being hit with warnings and point penalties.
One more change to the rulebook tackles another one of the players' grumbles and helps them make more money from endorsements. They are now allowed to put logos from non-clothing and equipment companies on their caps and on the front of their shirts, and can now be sponsored by betting companies as long as those companies do not take wagers on tennis.
And reflecting his interest in the game's history, a pet project of Drewett's has been starting the ATP Heritage Program, which this year will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ATP rankings by recognizing the former No.1s of the game.
What will happen to this targeted, incremental approach as Drewett prepares to transition out of his role?
The plan is for him to remain while the board searches for a new chairman and CEO, perhaps for up to a year. It is likely that he will concentrate on the major issues and increasingly leave the day-to-day operations to others, such as Mark Young, the legal head and CEO of ATP Americas.
It is a complex time. The negotiations with the Grand Slams are in a delicate stage -- pressure is now being put on the upcoming French Open to match the prize money commitment of its counterpart Down Under, while the U.S. Open has signaled that it will resist when its turn comes later this year. The USTA said it will give the players an increase of $4 million, similar to the Australian Open, but did not agree when the ATP said more should be given because U.S. Open revenues are much bigger than those of the Australian.
The next stage of the plan apparently was to try to push prize money up at Masters 1000 events once increases had been secured from the Grand Slams. If so, that would be a far more awkward and complicated situation for an ATP CEO, heading a board with three player and three tournament representatives and having to cast a deciding vote when the two sides are evenly split.
A version of this explosive situation is taking place right now, with Indian Wells offering to raise prize money by $1.6 million across the tournament this year, but threatening to withdraw its previous increase if the current offer is not accepted. For months now, the player and tournament votes on the board have been 3-3 for and against accepting the offer, respectively, and the players are becoming increasingly restless and vocal as the tournament approaches.
In addition to the other negotiations, a review of the prize money and commitment requirements for 500-level events was also planned for next year.
The schedule also remains an ongoing project, with the main goal to somehow give the top players a two-month offseason break. The only significant change made for next year, however, is putting back the week between the Paris Masters and the season-ending World Tour Final.
But how this will all be taken up is now cast into doubt. Finding someone who has walked so many miles in both the players' and tournament directors' shoes will not be easy.
Drewett's leadership of the tour may have been unexpectedly cut short, but few have had an impact on the game for as long as he has.