The ATP and the parking lot conference: how a revolution began

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The ATP and the parking lot conference: how a revolution began

New rules, shorter sets, no-lets and no-ads, shot clocks and free coachings. Tennis is living in the future in Milan, but none of this has happened yet. More than 30 years ago, in 1988, men's tennis experienced the most defining players-driven revolution of modern times. The ATP World Tour as we know it was born in the unlikeliest place, a parking lot at Flushing Meadows.

Mats Wilander, soon to be the World No.1 at the time, eight days after his 24th birthday, became the first and most vocal supporter of that new calendar. In a memorable press conference, he mentioned that he had only played three top 10 players thus far. “That’s no fun,” he said. “Playing No. 40 in the semifinals every week presents no sort of challenge. It’s difficult to find the motivation week after week unless we’re playing against players as good as ourselves”

“It’s not about money,” John McEnroe said. “That’s what needs to be said straight off. What we’re trying to do is present a better image of tennis to the public, so they’ll see more big matches between the top players”.

In the late 1980s, the four Grand Slam events ruled the game with much more disdain for the players. The Men's Tennis Council, split into a third each to the Grand Slams, tournament directors and players, arranged the annual schedule that led into the majors.

The ATP, during the 1987 season, tried to change the make-up of the MTC, asking for four ATP player representatives, three tournament representatives and two independent businessmen. In a restructured council, the association would have a voting plurality and the federation, which runs the Grand Slams and Davis Cup and presides over Olympic tennis, would be eliminated. ''The I.T.F. will not relinquish its rights,'' David Markin, a federation representative on the council, said, as the New York Times wrote at the time.

Predictably, the ITF rejected this plan and a further request from the ATP to share their television rights.

"The main thing is that the top guys realize we want to do something to better the game for the players," Wilander said. "The top guys want to do something to help the lower-ranked guys.

"The weapon we have is if we stick together and speak with one voice."

"We should be in control of our own destiny," Edberg said. "The ATP was founded for the players by the players, but it has no control. We've been continually told where to go . . . now we want our say”.

The CEO at the ATP was, Ryck Lyman wrote, “a self-proclaimed “political animal” and campaign whiz-kid who, at age 26, ran a successful campaign for governor and, at age 31, a successful presidential campaign for Jimmy Carter, eventually becoming the president’s chief of staff and top confidant”. William Hamilton McWhorter Jordan was soon joined by his aide, Brad Harris, who had previously helped him in 1986. “The ATP and its top players realised that the way the sport was run needed to change,” said Harris. “The conditions were not favourable at the time. Players were not being marketed right to grow the game. The basis for everything that happened was Hamilton’s recruitment.”

Jordan had a vision, he aimed to create a separate ATP circuit, a tour that respected the 12 weeks of Grand Slam events and the Davis Cup ties, ensuring that players could have more money, work and power.

''Tennis has made a lot of progress in the last 20 years, but we see storm clouds on the horizon,' said Jordan, who detailed his project in a 15-page plan, “Tennis at crossroads”.

''There is too much fragmentation in the Council,'' he said. ''I think if we go ahead with this plan, we have a good chance of being successful. We have very significant support from the top players and the tournament directors are our natural allies. We have a good chance of being successful”.

Jordan wanted to hold a press conference on site during the 1988 US Open. Organizers denied the request to use the conference room, so he transformed that into an opportunity. He took that press conference in the parking lot. “It took 15 minutes to set up the podium. We rented a portable PA system, paid off nearby police officers not to give us any trouble and invited the media at the last minute” Harris remembered for a long article on the ATP official website.

It was one of his most decisive victories. "The Grand Slam {tournaments} want to run everything and they forced us outside this great facility," he said. "I don't know of any other sport where the players have less say in running it than in tennis".

"The central issue is improving the game," said John McEnroe. "Money is not an issue whatsoever. I think all I want to see is the sport at its best”.

Top players, added Wilander, “don't play each other anymore. Here it is already September and I haven't played Becker or Lendl in a tournament at all this year, and I've played nine tournaments and won four".

"I think something has to be done now," said Stefan Edberg, seeded third here. "ATP has been a poor organization for some time now. We have to do something and what we'll do is let ATP take control of the game . . . There are a lot of problems with designation and you have people telling you where to go, instead of having ATP control things."

In the space of 30 minutes, men’s professional tennis had changed forever. It was the defining moment in the evolution of the ATP, formed in 1972 under the leadership of Jack Kramer.

At the end of 1988, the ATP was a $3 million-a-year organization that almost made bankrupt that year. Next January, a new 77-tournament tour to be run by the Association of Tennis Professionals was announced. The calendar, worth $38 million, included stops in Moscow, Beijing and Washington and looked skewed in favor of European events, with 43 on that continent, to 23 in North America. There were 15 tournaments offering at least $1 million, 11 were the so-called 11 “single-week championship events”, major tournaments that remained as the only event in the ATP calendar that week: they would become the Super 9, then the Masters Series, and now the Masters 1000.

Twenty-two of the top 25 players in the world have signed contracts agreeing to play on the ATP tour, except Jimmy Connors, who supported a player-run tour anyway, Ivan Lendl and Andrei Chesnokov of the Soviet Union. But no exception could stop the revolution.