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Monday, October 13, 2008
Most influential people of the Open era

Since we're celebrating 40 years of Open tennis, it's appropriate to look at some of the most influential people of the era, so let's get right to work:

1. Gladys Heldman: Billie Jean King is roundly acknowledged as the game-changer in women's tennis, but while she had all the right instincts and ideas, it was Gladys Heldman, a Houston magazine publisher (of the now-defunct World Tennis) who made it possible for Billie Jean to realize her ambitions. An outspoken critic of the status quo, she was also a practical nuts-and-bolts thinker and risk-taker who backed the fledgling Virginia Slims tour.

Heldman saw the legitimacy of King's ambitions, and the market for a women's tour. Heldman got along with men and could butt heads with the best of them. She cracked the old-boy network and convinced the movers and shakers of the value and potential of the cause. She raised enough cash and came up with the strategy to launch what would become the world's most successful (by far) women's pro sport. King was the frontwoman, but Heldman was the one who made it happen.

2. Mark McCormack: He was the founder of IMG, the enormous sports marketing firm. Tennis was very lucky he had a penchant for individual sports. McCormack, whose first client was golfer Arnold Palmer, single-handedly invented the role of the sports agent. He added Australian tennis icon Rod Laver to his list of clients early on, and his roster of tennis stars expanded virally, ultimately including legends Bjorn Borg, Ilie Nastase, Evonne Goolagong, Monica Seles and Pete Sampras.

But McCormack might have exerted an even greater influence on tennis via his gradual entry into areas like tournament promotion and the management of rights (including broadcast). IMG ultimately represented not just Borg, but Wimbledon itself, and the strategies McCormack pursued on behalf of his players, along with his expertise in marketing and promotion, exerted a constant influence on how the game was administered and run.

3. Philippe Chatrier: A former international-grade tennis player and journalist, Chatrier is the individual most responsible for the tennis boom in Europe. Today, the continent has eclipsed the U.S. and Australia as the wellspring of the game. American tennis fans can only drool over the extent to which tennis is a mainstream sport in Europe.

Chatrier took over the French Tennis Federation in 1973, and his first order of business was to re-invent Roland Garros -- once seen as merely the European Championships on Clay -- into a co-equal of the other three Grand Slam events. You have him to thank for a new world order that values clay-court tennis as highly as tennis on any other surface.

4. Slew Hester: The U.S. created the tennis boom (with a whole lot of help from a bunch of Aussies named Laver, Rosewall, Newcombe and Roche), and until Andre Agassi retired, it still represented the gold standard in the world game. That makes it easy to overlook what a profound and bold move it was for former USTA president Slew Hester to turn his back on the Wimbledon model and embrace and promote tennis as a broadly popular sport.

But that's just what this gruff, charming, visionary former oil wildcatter from Jackson, Miss., accomplished in 1978, when he decided to move the U.S. Open from a private club (much like Wimbledon's host All-England Club) to a public park and thereby promote tennis in a new way to an expanding audience in a new place. For about the next two decades, the U.S. Open was a perfect counterbalance to Wimbledon, which kept alive the elitist appeal of the game while its American counterpart seeded the ground for a much larger fan base.

5. Arthur Ashe: The not-so-sexy truth about choosing most influential figures is that they are almost always men and women of commerce (McCormack) or great administrative ability (Chatrier). But Ashe is no feel-good selection -- he's my deeply felt selection, which is a very different thing.

Ashe had an enormous impact on the game -- as a player, a politician (in the ATP), a role model (it's very possible that without Ashe, Venus and Serena Williams would not have started playing tennis) and, perhaps most importantly, a cultural icon who never disavowed or turned his back on the sport. The only player in his league as a cultural figure is Billie Jean King, but Ashe's reach, intellectual contributions and stature in the eyes of the rest of the world are greater.