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New USTA president has plenty on her plate

1/8/2007 - Tennis

Jane Brown Grimes recently succeeded Franklin L. Johnson as USTA President and Chairwoman of the Board. She is only the second woman to hold the position in the organization's 126-year history and will serve for two years. A former Life Magazine reporter and one-time executive director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the 65-year-old Brown Grimes grew up on Long Island and lives in Chadds Ford, Pa., west of Philadelphia. The married mother of three tries her best to keep a twice-a-week tennis date with a "very tolerant" group of friends at the VicMead Hunt Club in nearby Delaware.

Bonnie DeSimone caught up with Brown Grimes by phone to ask about her background and touch base about several issues on the USTA's front burner. (Comments have been edited slightly for continuity.)

Question: Two recent developments on the business side are the USTA's investment in The Tennis Channel and the separate earmarking of $10 million to back an alternative women's circuit if you can't work things out with the WTA over the stature of tournaments here. (Note: A number of U.S.-based tournaments have declined to apply for what the WTA is calling 'A' and 'B' status, referring to the strength of the field, under the proposed new structure.) Can you comment on what led to those decisions?

Brown Grimes: We've begun to make more investments in the tennis world in the last four or five years, in tournaments and now with our partnership with the Evert Tennis Academy. (The academy will begin a residential program for top U.S. juniors this year.) Investing in The Tennis Channel seemed like an obvious outgrowth. But we don't see it just as a connection with the pro game. It's a way to boost overall awareness and visibility of the sport. The Tennis Channel is doing more general programming, televising league championships for example, but just the fact that you can turn it on and see tennis any time is important. We want to encourage businesses who are in the tennis business. It's a small investment, but one we thought was important. (Neither side would confirm the amount, but the Associated Press, citing unnamed sources, reported that it was in the vicinity of $10 million.)

Q: Do you get The Tennis Channel where you live?

Brown Grimes: I get it in (her apartment in) New York, where I am now, but not at home. It's a struggle. We're pushing them very hard, but they have to go market by market.

As for the WTA schedule, you know we've been in discussions. We were not comfortable with the Road Map (a reduced schedule for top pros to be implemented by the 2009 season) from the very beginning. We felt they were taking aim at the U.S. Open Series and our clay court events in the spring. There is no way we're going to sit on the sidelines for that. We've made it clear that we're not happy with the Road Map or the philosophy. We've made some progress, but we're not yet comfortable with where we are. We have to be sure that women's tennis is going to survive and thrive here in the United States, and that means having good, strong fields for our tournaments.

We've lost enough tournaments here. There aren't very many left.

Q: There's been speculation that your prior experience as managing director of the Women's Tennis Council (which merged with the WTA Players' Association in 1995 to form the present-day WTA Tour) could help smooth things out.

Brown Grimes: It goes both ways. It's my wish to come to an agreement that's in everyone's best interests, but only if the U.S. tournaments get what they need. I know too much about player commitments and scheduling and no one's going to be able to take advantage of me.

Q: Do you have a drop-dead timeframe for when you would say, OK, we're not going to be able to work things out and we need to do our own thing?

Brown Grimes: The next couple of months are critical. 2008 will be an unusual year because of the Olympics -- a lot of things will be jockeyed around for that. We don't have an absolute time … but we wouldn't want it to go beyond [the end of 2007].

Q: You're about to attend your first Grand Slam as USTA president, the Australian Open, and it's sort of feast or famine as far as American players are concerned. There are two American men in the top 10, but the highest-ranked American woman aside from Lindsay (Davenport, who is pregnant, still listed at No. 25 but unlikely to return to the pro ranks) is Meghann Shaughnessy at No. 40. How concerned are you about the women's side of the game here?

Brown Grimes: I do believe it's cyclical. I'm sure that out there somewhere is a Richard Williams or a Jim Evert throwing balls across the net to some 8-year-old who's going to be a star. … We've sat here before where it looks bleak, but you can never count the U.S. out.

The competition from other countries has gotten much stronger, especially from France, Spain, Russia and China. France puts one-third of the proceeds from the French Open into development. China is government-backed. The stakes are higher and moves like our partnership with the Evert Academy to house and train top juniors are more critical to our health as an association.

Q: So, are you coming down more on the side of organized development and the academy system rather than letting the free market work its will?

Brown Grimes: I think we need both. So long as I see an American player hoisting the Wimbledon trophy over their head, I don't care if we had anything to do with their development. I'd just like to see American champions. But we have to be in a position to offer hands-on help to those who want and need it.

Q: You've mentioned that you want to see tennis programs beefed up at the elementary, middle and high school levels. It seems that each new USTA leader talks about this kind of grassroots effort, so much so that our eardrums have become a little deadened. Can you be specific about what you're proposing?

Brown Grimes: That's a fair point. This is not a new idea. We've had a schools program for a long time, but it's languished a bit in the last few years. It's so clear to me that we have to bring tennis to where the kids are, and that's the schools.

We have some very talented people on the staff. I've been twice now to Mesa, Ariz., where we have Dr. Pangrazi (author and kinesiology professor Dr. Robert Pangrazi is a USTA consultant), and he has developed a 25-minute program that can be taught in a P.E. class for third- to fifth-graders. I took a class and I led a class. They use what we call transitional equipment, the shorter rackets and lighter balls and a net that can be put up in a gym. I can tell you that they come away from that 25 minutes charged up, wanting to play "real" tennis.

My No. 1 focus is the no-cut high school teams. Our goal is to get 1,000 coaches involved in this, with the idea that if you show up, you're going to make it -- not that if you show up and don't make it, you have to find another sport. They might bring 30 kids to a match. Of course, the top six kids will play each other, but others will play too.

Every USTA section has schools specialists. We're approaching school districts and we're approaching individual schools. Sometimes the USTA goes for big numbers and we say we have thousands of this and thousands of that. One of the things I like about this is that it's a very studied, careful, step-by-step approach. Let's talk again in a year and see where it is.

Q: Speaking of schools, I understand your mother was an educator.

Brown Grimes: Yes, she was a school librarian (note: at the Collegiate School, a private boys' school in Manhattan) and that's part of why schools are so important to me. She so adored reading that she never, ever charged a late fee and the library went further and further into the red. She was also the person who threw endless tennis balls to me across the net.

We played all summer waiting for the day when we would drive down to Forest Hills and spend from 9 in the morning to when it was pitch black watching the U.S. Championships at the West Side Tennis Club. It was the highlight of every summer. After play was over, you could go under the stands and buy the balls that had been used that day. Of course, they were white balls then, covered with green because they played on grass courts. I was always sure Billie Jean King had used the balls I got, or that Althea Gibson had served with my ball.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.