Helfant's message: Expect tweaks, but few major changes

Updated: September 8, 2009

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.

Five things we learned on Day 9

1. Juan Martin del Potro looks ready to take the next step: He first reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event at last year's U.S. Open. Then he did it again this year at the Australian Open and the French Open. Now, the 20-year-old Argentine has done it a fourth time in the past five majors .

Del Potro's 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Juan Carlos Ferrero was as clean as it was swift. He had 22 aces and one double fault and a plus-11 ratio of winners to unforced errors in 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Now, can Del Potro beat Marin Cilic -- an upset winner over Andy Murray -- and reach the first major semifinal of his career?

"Here I have another chance to be better," Del Potro said. "If I be good with my weapons, with my game, I can beat him."

2. The U.S. boys are a different story: While the men were no-shows in the quarterfinals of the main draw for the first time in the 129-year history of this event, the boys are doing just fine.

On Tuesday four advanced in the junior tournament. Seventeen-year-old Chicago native Evan King scored a 7-6 (4), 6-4 upset of No. 5 seed Augustin Velotti of Argentina. Denis Kudla, Raymond Sarmiento and Jack Sock were also winners.

King also teamed with Kudla to knock off the No. 1-seeded doubles team of Yuki Bhambra and Liang-Chi Huang in a 10-6 super tiebreaker.

Two American women, Beatrice Capra and Asia Muhammad, advanced. Great Britain's Laura Robson, playing the U.S. Open juniors for the first time, eliminated the No. 7-seeded American Lauren Embree.

3. The women's rankings are, uh, less than accurate: No. 1-ranked Dinara Safina departed early, in the third round. Kim Clijsters could reach the low 50s with a win in the semifinals.

4. Marin Cilic finally has solved the blockade crisis: "I don't have this blockade in my head, I can focus on the next matches," he said after drilling No. 2 Andy Murray in straight sets.

Huh?

"Blockade was just in my head after losing four times in the last 16 [of majors]," the young Croatian said. "So by getting into this match, it wasn't easy to prepare."

5. Fernando Gonzalez is generous to a fault: After string snapped on his racket, Gonzo handed his red-and-black Babolat Pure Storm to an elderly blonde woman sitting in the front at Louis Armstrong Stadium. Delighted, she blew him kisses.

With a new stick in hand, Gonzalez fell behind Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 1-4 in the first set.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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Comeback continues

Clijsters

Li Na is a credible tennis player. Really.

She was the first player from China to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam (2006 Wimbledon) and has made two finals this year on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. On Tuesday, she was trying to become the first Chinese semifinalist at the U.S. Open.

Kim Clijsters has her own history to consider. She is only two matches away from becoming the first mother to win a Grand Slam in 29 years, since Evonne Goolagong won Wimbledon in 1980. Clijsters beat Li 6-2, 6-4 to advance to a presumed semifinal meeting with Serena Williams -- in many minds, the match that will determine the U.S. Open champion.

There have been a few dips in her performance to date -- Clijsters dropped a set in her second- and fourth-round matches, but those came against No. 14 seed Marion Bartoli and No. 3 seed Venus Williams. This effort against Li was surgically clean.

Clijsters kept the pressure on, creating 10 opportunities to break serve, and finished the job in a scant 63 minutes. This was a Grand Slam quarterfinal, after all. Never mind that Li won their last meeting, in the fourth round at Miami two years ago.

When her comeback began after the birth of her daughter, Clijsters' short-term goal was to get her bearings and position herself for a proper run at the top -- next year.

"I never had that kind of mentality before the tournament knowing that I was going to get to a semifinal or final at the Grand Slams, obviously," Clijsters said. "I definitely didn't have that idea. But something switched with me after Toronto where I felt like, 'OK, I can compete with these girls.'

"Because that was obviously a big question in my mind. Although I was hitting the balls really good in practice and I felt physically I was doing well and everything, you still want to know what it's like to play against those girls and get a feel for how the level has changed, how girls are playing different tennis maybe these days."

As Serena Williams noted, it looks like she's been gone for about a week.

"I saw she come back in her first tournament," Li said. "I know she have high level. She's much stronger than other girls. So if she come back, must be strong comeback. I wasn't so surprised. I think it was normal for her."

Said Clijsters: "I am surprised that I'm sitting here talking to you right now, but I'm very happy, and flattered that I get to do that."

Tweets of the Day

Delic

Amer Delic: No American made the U.S. Open men's quarters? Hey kids under 18 -- put down the effing Wii/PS3 controller& pick up a racket.

Sam Querrey: About to sleep in my own bed for the first time in a long time

Stewartcink: At risk of sounding redundant, more OTP cheers today for Oudin! Hope she keeps rolling -- she's making me into a tennis fan.

Critic's Choice

Federer

Roger Federer versus Robin Soderling: They meet for the third consecutive time in a Grand Slam event and, so far, anyway, it hasn't been close. When Federer broke through with his first title at Roland Garros, it was Soderling who was his foil in the final, losing in straight sets. Wimbledon, too, went Federer's way in straights.

ESPN.com prediction: Why not? Federer in three sets.

Melanie Oudin versus Caroline Wozniacki: It's been a great run for the 17-year-old Georgian. She has beaten four consecutive Russians, three of them named Dementieva, Sharapova and Petrova, but Wozniacki is from Denmark. She's also further along in her evolution as a player equipped to deal with her first career Grand Slam quarterfinal.

ESPN.com prediction: Wozniacki in three.