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Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Buchholz: Time for everyone to be on the same page

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

The world of men's tennis is about to undergo a face-lift, at least in terms of the person at the helm of the ATP Tour. After top players Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic made it clear that they were unhappy with the decisions of current executive chairman and president Etienne de Villiers, the former Disney exec announced he will leave the ATP at year's end.

Butch Buchholz, the chairman of the successful Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, has indicated an interest in the position de Villiers is vacating. Buchholz, 68, has a long history in the game, starting from his playing days, when he was one of the famed "Handsome Eight" of Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis Circuit in 1968. When his playing days were over, Buchholz stayed in the game, eventually landing as the executive director of the ATP from 1980-83.

Buchholz's maverick ways surfaced in the early days with his hopes of starting a two-week joint men's and women's tournament in the winter. Most thought this notion of a tournament similar to the Grand Slams was a pipe dream. But Buchholz persevered, and the tournament debuted in February 1985. A number of incarnations and bumpy times passed, and the tournament (in Key Biscayne, Fla.) established itself as the fifth-largest in the game.

In 1999, the ATP launched a 10-year sponsorship and television deal with ISL, a sports marketing company in Zurich that was designed to bundle the prestigious Super Nine tournaments into a common package. Buchholz refused to turn against the individual sponsors he had for the Miami tournament and stood his ground, becoming the only one of the nine to keep his corporate sponsorship deals intact. Two years later the ISL deal fell apart, and Buchholz looked incredibly clairvoyant.

de Villiers

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Despite overseeing an extensive set of changes on the ATP Tour, Etienne de Villiers has been heavily criticized.

Buchholz spoke with ESPN.com by phone from Aspen, Colo., about his interest in the ATP job, the problems with today's men's game and where he would like to take the organization.

Question from Sandra Harwitt: Butch, you've thrown your name in the hat for the ATP executive chairman and president's job that is soon to be vacated by Etienne de Villiers. Can you explain why you're interested in the position?

Answer from Butch Buchholz: You know, I was a part of starting all this, and I'm just not real comfortable with the direction it is going. We always envisioned, at least back in 1989, '90, when the players decided to leave the Men's Pro Council [the organization that ran the tournaments; the ATP was solely a players' union before 1990], a joint venture between the players and the tournaments. The concept was that the ATP would be a service organization and it would service the tournaments and service the players, but over the years it's become a commercial organization. I just don't feel that's the direction we need to go.

Building the ATP brand is fine, but not at the expense of sponsors. We're getting ready to put the ATP Tour on the Net, and I think if you did an honest poll of 63 tournaments, I've got to believe 90 percent of them would say, "Please don't do that," and I don't believe the players want it. But they're accepting it because we've sold them the idea that it's going to help. That's just a small example.

I just think we're not the NBA, we're not the NFL; we're a service organization and that's where I think we should go back to. I'm not going out and lobbying for the job. If they think I can help and they want me to help, I'm available. As Jack Kramer said to me when I turned pro, "Your job is to make it better for the next guy," and I still believe that is true. But I don't need a job. I just really do not think that men's professional tennis, or tennis, is reaching the potential that it has, and if I can help make it better, then I'm willing to do it.

Q: What do you see as the problem with the ATP's current structure, and what are your thoughts on how you might change it?

A: In fairness to Mark Miles [de Villiers' predecessor] and to Etienne, it's not easy when you have a situation where you have three tournament reps and three player reps on the board of directors and you've got to vote [the ATP CEO breaks a deadlock]. Mark Miles went something like 12, 13 years and he never voted. He was good because he knew what the conditions were before he went in, and he knew how it was going to go before, so he didn't have to vote. But as soon as he did have to vote, you knew one side was going to try and get rid of him. I don't think that's the structure we want.

I think we need to explore whether it's better to have a strong players' association and strong tournament director's association and do a collective bargaining agreement. I'm not advocating that right now; I'm just advocating that we go out and take a really hard look at this. We might decide what we have is the best system. But on the other hand, we might say what we have is fraught with all sorts of problems, and that's unfair to the tournaments and unfair to the players.

I think we need to bring in some outside people to look at the current setup; not necessarily to vote, but for their insight. For instance, a guy like [former senator] George Mitchell: He's done a great job on the Major League Baseball steroid scandal. Here's a man who loves our sport, and I shouldn't speak for him, but I think he would volunteer some time to help. There are a lot of really smart people who love the sport, and we should have them participate.

Q: You've been a maverick in the game, such as when you spoke out against the ISL deal for a joint marketing deal for the then-Super Nine tournaments. Speak to the significance of the ISL deal crumbling and how it's affected the men's game.

A: I think the ISL deal was the worst thing we could ever agree to. That, to me, was the typical example of when the ATP became a commercial organization. It was all about money and nothing about the sport. To be honest, I've been frustrated with how things have been going since about 1995. The biggest thing is we need to do is pull everyone together because we are so fragmented. We have to look at football, cricket -- the other competitive sports -- and judge how are we doing against our competition. Are we winning that competition; are we falling behind? We need to analyze it and see what we can do better.

Q: Do you see any other major flaws in the current structure?

A: Yes, I feel you have to have the Grand Slams be a part of this whole sport. I know they've benefited by not being a part of [the ATP]. They've gone on to do whatever they want, and have done it extremely well. Look at the money Wimbledon has spent [improving facilities]; the French Open is trying to build another stadium; Australia's done a great job, but they're really not part of the day-to-day operations of the tournaments. I'm not saying they should be, but we can still look at it from the marketing point of view and see how they can help. If you look at what's happened with the Slams, you have to say they've been very, very successful doing it on their own. I don't think anyone wants to stop the creativity and all those things they've done, but I think they should also be at the table with us. I know they'll say we have four meetings a year, but there are marketing and sales issues. We would not want to detract from what they're doing, and in some ways we can leverage what they do.

There's definitely a sense tournaments are disappointed with players not showing up, and the players think the tournaments are making too much money. The board needs to be thinking as one -- if we stay as we are right now.

While television coverage has improved, it still has a way to go, at least here in the States. We need to look at how we can do more things with the women because, as everybody knows, the most successful tournaments are the ones with the men and women together. As you know, everybody thought my Key Biscayne concept was a danger, to have another two-week tournament similar to the Grand Slams, and everybody tried to kill it. But it's what the public wants, so we should be working closely with the WTA.

Q: Do you have a particular philosophy you'd want to follow if you got the ATP position?

A: I would like to have a similar philosophy to how we operated in building Key Biscayne and the stadium: the press were partners, the players were partners and our fans and sponsors were partners. We need to have a culture that shows we want to grow the sport. We have so many great assets; we're worldwide and we have great stars. If you go to a tournament and see a men's first-round match, the quality is great -- it's never been better.

Q: I can't recall in recent history where the top players sought a seat on the player council, as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have recently done, because they were so upset with how things were being run, including a number of key clay-court events being demoted. Is their involvement good for the game?

A: I think it's great that those guys are taking a position. [John] McEnroe, at times, showed some interest. But you go back to Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase, Vitas Gerulaitis, Guillermo Vilas -- most of those guys weren't even ATP members. I think it's great, but it doesn't necessarily help their tennis. But it's great they're voicing an opinion. I have to be honest, I don't know what all their issues were with Etienne, but I do know they were adamant, and there was not going to be any discussion about renewing his agreement.

Q: If you were hired, how long would you see yourself in the position?

A: I'd want to do it for a short period of time. I'd want the job for two or three years at the most, because I think you need to bring in younger people. My feeling is, and maybe I'm being a little self-serving, but I think I can bring some credibility to the position, and I can use whatever credibility I have within the sport to try to bring everybody together to start thinking as one.

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

Stat of the week

Kuznetsova

1 for 11: Svetlana Kuznetsova's record in WTA finals over the last two seasons.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Different strokes

Stosur

As mentioned above, Kuznetsova's performance in finals has been puzzlingly flat. The Russian fell meekly, 6-3, 6-2 to Serbia's Jelena Jankovic in Beijing. Yet for another woman, simply playing in a title match was a triumph. Comeback kid Samantha Stosur of Australia reached her first singles final in two years in a Tier IV tournament in Seoul and started strongly before capitulating to Maria Kirilenko in three sets. Stosur resumed her dual singles and doubles career last spring after an extended bout with viral meningitis, Lyme disease and minor injury. She and partner Lisa Raymond were U.S. Open doubles runners-up, and still have an outside chance to qualify for the WTA year-end championships.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Speaking of comebacks

Tsonga

In only his second tournament since recovering from knee surgery, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga topped Novak Djokovic in Bangkok, reprising their Australian Open finals matchup. The win -- which is, amazingly, Tsonga's first ATP title -- lifts the Frenchman back into the ATP top 20 and makes him a player in the race for the year-ender. Tsonga was idled from mid-May until the U.S. Open, where he looked rusty but intent on proving his magical run in Melbourne was no fluke.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Homeboy travels well

Roddick

Andy Roddick skipped good pal Mardy Fish's wedding to go to Beijing, and it wound up being worth his while. Roddick's title in China was his third of the season along with Dubai and San Jose, and his first in the Far East. The top-ranked American has always had more trouble winning outside U.S. borders. Before 2008, just seven of Roddick's then-total of 23 titles had been won away from home. Four of those were on the grass he loves at Queen's Club in London. His only Masters Series championship on foreign soil came in Canada, in 2003. Roddick had a couple of temper tantrums as he moved through the draw in Beijing, but he left on a gracious note, donating $25,000 to earthquake victims.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Question of the week

Will the sagging U.S. economy affect your plans to play tennis or attend professional tournaments? Send Bonnie your thoughts.

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Race to Shanghai

Nadal

With the season dwindling away, here's a look at where the players stand in the chase to make the Masters Cup in Shanghai, which begins Nov. 10 (the top eight qualify):

1. Rafael Nadal
2. Roger Federer
3. Novak Djokovic
4. Andy Murray
5. Nikolay Davydenko
6. Andy Roddick
7. David Ferrer
8. James Blake

Road to the Sony Ericsson Championships

Jankovic

With a volatile season on the WTA Tour, many players are still fighting for one of the eight spots allotted in the Sony Ericsson Championships, which will begin Nov. 3 in Doha, Qatar.

1. Jelena Jankovic
2. Serena Williams
3. Dinara Safina
4. Elena Dementieva
5. Ana Ivanovic
6. Maria Sharapova
7. Svetlana Kuznetsova
8. Venus Williams