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November 20, 2005

Francesco Ricci Bitti

Franklin Johnson

Tim Phillips

Geoff Pollard

Etienne de Villiers


ETIENNE de VILLIERS: Welcome, everybody. Thank you very much for coming. We figured you have nothing better to do than to come and talk to a bunch of old geezers, but maybe you do. We would like to spend this time with you, talk about things that are on your mind, ask any questions you'd like. We'll try and give you as straight an answer as we can. I'm particularly very, very thankful to my partners on the left and the right of me for being incredibly supportive, not just of this tournament but for the time that I've been -- the short time that I've been here. I'm really looking forward to working with these guys. I think together we're going to grow this game of tennis, make it an even better product than it is and even bigger sport than it is. So I'm really excited. I'm real tired, too. That's because they keep me up all night with good food and wine and the occasional problem. The floor is really open. I'm going to ask Geoff to say a few words, but then be brutal but be kind.

GEOFF POLLARD: Thanks Etienne. I'd like to add our welcome from the ITF and the Grand Slams to be here with the ATP to celebrate this Tennis Masters Cup year-ending event, and congratulate the Chinese organizers in particular for the wonderful job they have done. This absolutely magnificent stadium really is state-of-the-art, now a challenge for other tournaments around the world to replicate. We do want to congratulate the whole team here in Shanghai for the wonderful job they've done.

CRAIG GABRIEL: Ladies and Gentlemen, if you have questions for any of the gentlemen up here, if you could direct your question to a particular chairman or president, please.

Q. Presumably the fact that you're around this desk here this morning, you have had the chance to sit together in private and discuss the issues facing the game. Any common themes from those talks? Any resolutions in any way?

CRAIG GABRIEL: Who is that directed to?

Q. I'll take potluck and say Etienne.

ETIENNE de VILLIERS: Ridiculous. They find a guy that knows nothing about the game and ask him all the questions (laughter). I'll say one thing that has come out of the conversations that I've had with my colleagues is that irrespective of what happened in the past, because I really -- I think one needs to learn from the past, but in reality we have to go forward, I've given them every assurance that during my tenure at the ATP, the ATP is going to be a really, really good partner to these guys. The slams and the Davis Cup are the jewels in the crowns of tennis. They are what most fans think of when they come to the game, and it should be our role at the ATP to make those jewels brighter and to make the crown more valuable. It's wonderful that we have the Tennis Masters Cup, but those should complement the slams and the Davis Cup. I think we're going to be stronger if we stand together and work together. I know this sounds almost patronizing and self-evident, but the truth is we need to work together. There is a real, real resolve, and we will tackle the problems and tackle the opportunities with one voice if we can. That's I think the most positive thing that I have taken from the brief time that I've spent, because I've been met with open arms and I've been met with encouragement and support. These are great people, they've done great things, they have great tournaments. I have to believe that they're great and honorable people. I'm very encouraged.

Q. Gentlemen, because of the problems that we've had here in terms of player participation, injuries, what have you, I wonder whether the schedule and the calendar has been one of those things that's been uppermost in your minds and if you've resolved perhaps to change it, shorten it, move it around a little bit. Any discussion on that and where you see a situation where players are perhaps asked to do less than they're asked to do at the moment? Anyone who wants to answer.

FRANKLIN JOHNSON: I guess, let me take a stab at that. I've heard the general perception that the remarkable and I hope very highly unusual problem of withdrawals here is because of overplaying, too many events. Yet when you examine the various withdrawals, many people did not play that much after the US Open prior to this event. Andre Agassi did not play at all. Lleyton Hewitt hardly played at all. I really don't accept the premise that the unusual withdrawals were because of overplaying. I think that we've had an unusual number of injuries of top players, and it's most unfortunate, but I don't myself subscribe to the judgment that if we had had a few fewer tournaments between this event and the US Open that it would have made a major difference. I don't believe that it would have. I think that each player has to look at their own health situation and moderate the amount of play. But I hope that this situation is, in retrospect, quite unusual and that it will not recur is what my hope is, and my belief is that it will be that way.

Q. A slightly French question to any of the Grand Slam chairmen. Any reason why the French chairman is not amongst you today?

GEOFF POLLARD: Well, he was obviously here for the Grand Slam Committee meetings.

FRANCESCO RICCI BITTI: Injured (smiling).

GEOFF POLLARD: We all have other commitments. He's obviously got other commitments. Three out of four is not a bad turn-up.

ETIENNE de VILLIERS: And it's very hard to win the French (smiling).

Q. It's not only Shanghai which suffered, but the Masters Series in Madrid and Paris also took quite a belting from player non-participation. Although I understand, Franklin, where you're coming from, perhaps it isn't overplaying, there is a perception, be it right or wrong, players at the end of a season are getting very tired. It's a long and arduous season. Perhaps there could be some maneuvering in the system that alleviated the problems we seem to be suffering, and certainly are suffering this week whether it's by fair means or foul.

ETIENNE de VILLIERS: It's an issue that we need to deal with, there's no question. We have to get the right players playing the right tournaments. It's not a homogeneous problem because, as Franklin rightly says, you ask most of the players, they feel the season is just about the right length, and the number of tournaments are about right, because it's the way they earn their living. They have to tournaments that fit their schedules best. Our issues are a very specific issue. Rightly or wrongly, there are six names in the game that attract audiences, that talk to the fans and to the stakeholders in the sport. We have to try to ensure that these superstars are playing in the tournaments that ideally the tour would like them to play in. It's not a question of coercion, it's not a question of cajoling or even bribing them in a sense, it's certainly not a question of sanctioning them. These are very, very responsible people, who need to be taken into the fold. We need to talk more to them and get to understand what they need. This is a work in progress. It's an ATP problem. It's definitely not a slams problem. It's not a season problem. I have figured out how we're going to sort the whole thing out: I've persuaded the slams to have all slams in an eight-week block from January. We'll play all of them straight. No, there are calendar issues we need to look at. These are all things that my very, very capable team at the ATP is addressing right now. It starts with analysis. As Franklin says, you really have to look at the facts and you have to look to see whether a situation is systemic or whether it's a trend or whether it's just a perfect storm, as this tournament was termed. In fact, those same injuries were self-evident in Madrid and Paris. But it could be more. I think that's your point. It could be more, so we need to look at that.

Q. The China Open last month is the tournament to use the new scoring system. The board of directors will discuss that during the Masters Cup? Have you made the final decision for the next season?

ETIENNE de VILLIERS: Yes, we have. We've decided that we will, as a board, which was passed by the Player Council, to introduce a new scoring system. It was a scoring system that I consulted with my colleagues on at the slams, at the ITF, and would not have proceeded were they not comfortable. In fact, they were not only comfortable with what we were doing, but they were very encouraged by what we were doing. We are introducing a scoring system that was not tested here at the China Open. It's a scoring system that has two full sets with a tiebreak at 6-All with no ads, as the innovation within the traditional set. The third set will be a full match tiebreak, which is first to 10. We hope that that will be more exciting. We know that it will provide a shorter playing time which will give the tournaments more opportunity to schedule the doubles which, frankly if you were at the two semifinals last night, it was just absolutely absorbing, exciting. The fans were excited. We want to get that product in front of more fans. The way to do that is to promote it more, which we will do, get it in front of more fans by putting it on show courts, which we can now do because it's predictable. Promote the players, the teams involved, and hopefully persuade you guys in the media to write more about it, to get more enthusiastic about it, and hopefully even to persuade television that this is a really exciting product and they should carry it, because I'm a great believer in doubles. I know Francesco here will talk and will wax lyrically on the doubles as an integral part of the Davis Cup. I think my colleagues at the Slams think that doubles has always been and should always be a great tradition. We just want to try to make it more exciting. We want to make it more attractive. We want to get more people to watch this wonderful game of doubles, and we think this will do it.

Q. The perfect storm appeared to have been weathered. The organizers, sponsors, were pacified by the promise that there will be more entertaining, closer matches. Then as this tournament moves to the sharp end, we had a score line yesterday which we normally see in the first round of women's Grand Slam matches.

ETIENNE de VILLIERS: Not that that's a politically incorrect statement.

Q. Those of us that have seen a bit of tennis wonder about the commitment of the player that lost 6-Love, 6-Love. I understand the referee was even consulted about whether some action should be taken. How dismayed were you, with the world looking, at a performance like that?

ETIENNE de VILLIERS: I was very encouraged that I could have got the same result against Roger, as well. No, it's never helpful when something like that happens. But Gaston is a great athlete. He's a committed professional. I mean, you can't tell me that a guy who played his socks off the night before, came back from 5-3 down with González serving for the match, holds three match points, that's not a guy who doesn't care. I've played enough sport to know sometimes you have a good day and sometimes you have a bad day. Ivan Ljubicic was one of my favorites to go through to the final on this surface. He's such a great guy, and he's really, really on. He just completely did not play against -- he just didn't come out and play against Davydenko. That's not because he wasn't trying. I know Ivan real well. He's the one players I have a really great relationship with. He wanted to win this so badly. Was he not trying? I don't think so. It just happens. I think Gaston, you talk to him today, he's probably gutted. It's just humiliating. Nobody wants to go out there and be humiliated, and he was humiliated. I don't think he wasn't trying; I just think it's just one of those things that happened.

Q. He was so humiliated that he admitted to us he was going to go out and celebrate - seriously.

FRANKLIN JOHNSON: I think you're under-selling the superb quality of tennis of Roger Federer. He's such a remarkable, remarkable player. I remind you in the finals of this same event in Houston, in the finals, that he beat Lleyton Hewitt, two of the three sets he won were 6-Love. That's quite remarkable there also, that someone of Lleyton Hewitt's ability and grit and everything can lose two out of the three sets 6-Love to Roger Federer. He's just such a tremendous player.

Q. My question came to my mind after a former press conference with the Chinese and the organizers. As this has been a friendly floor and a friendly meeting, may I ask it. I'll start my question a Confucian saying. The saying is, "A visitor discovers all disadvantages." I'm going to ask you, gentlemen, why have we not met here Li Ting and Sun Tian Tian, the famous Olympic athletes from Athens, the Chinese ladies? With Li Ting and Sun meeting the press at the Masters, after so many withdrawals, they could benefit a lot here. Thank you.

GEOFF POLLARD: I think that's a statement more than a question. I think that's a statement rather than a question. This is a Tennis Masters Cup. Maybe the appropriate time was, in fact, last Wednesday when there was a whole seminar on Chinese tennis rather than here today. You heard the president or vice president of the Chinese association on that day as well as Francesco and other people involved in Chinese tennis. Maybe we should have added them on that day, as well.

Q. I assume you five gentlemen have sat down in a room together. If you could put each one wish for tennis in the future, if you each had one wish for tennis, could I ask you what that one wish would be?

TIM PHILLIPS: Well, I mean, I very much hope that Etienne's initiative on the doubles really bears fruit. I think doubles is a core part of the sport. As we've seen here, there have been some spectacular doubles here. The world is kind of hung up on celebrity these days, so there's always talk about one or two celebrities not being around. But actually the quality of the doubles play I think has been absolutely wonderful. I would like to see a major rebirth of doubles. Certainly as far as Wimbledon is concerned, we'll continue to play best-of-five sets championship doubles. We'll provide plenty of space for the players there. You could say, well, we don't provide much Centre Court time, and that is the problem, of course, that Etienne is dealing with because a five-set men's doubles takes a long time. That's kind of our issue, is to how to create enough space on Centre Court to showcase the men's doubles.

GEOFF POLLARD: I think you get this wonderful, huge media coverage during the Australian Open, during Wimbledon, so on. I'd love to see a much broader coverage of tennis throughout the year. Instead of almost overcoverage for a couple of weeks and undercoverage the rest of the time, I'd like to see much more coverage of the game throughout the whole 12 months of the year, like soccer and in our case Aussie football, Australian Rules football seems to get in our country.

ETIENNE de VILLIERS: Mine now? My personal wish is for eternal youth and adulation from the masses, but that's another story. I would like the ATP Tour to be a $100 million tour in three years. I think with my friends on either side we could do that. I would like people of my age to say, "You know, I used to watch tennis when Newcombe and Roche played, and I watched McEnroe, Nastase, tennis was so important to my life, and it's even more important to my life now. It's better than it was then."

FRANCESCO RICCI BITTI: I am on the same track of Etienne. I wish this sport to continue to be successful and credible as it is, because it's good to be self-critical and to look at the negative sides as we are looking here. But I want to articulate the fact, I am very involved in the Olympic movement. I would say how the people look at us is much better than what we believe. We are a great sport. We should not disregard also mentioning the calendar problem that you mentioned in particular. I would say this will be a permanent problem of the profession. We should not disregard what the tour, and I want to give credit to the tour, because we represent the other side, of what has been the step the tour has moved our sport from a sport of exhibition-oriented sport to a much more credible sport. We have to accept some problem of balance between the player commitment and the tournament requirement will permanently exist. This is the job mainly of the ATP. If we can, we can give our support. But we are a great sport. We are going to continue to be a great sport and to be better. We are not so bad, only talking about withdrawal, only talking about the negative side. It is important, it is your job as the press. I would like to thank all of you because tennis receives great press and international support. I believe that we have to continue like that, but we are not so bad as sometimes we want to look.

FRANKLIN JOHNSON: I certainly endorse everything that's been said before me. I think all of us here have a great passion for the sport of tennis and want to see it flourish worldwide. I think what's exciting is tennis is already the most international of all sports, but it's exciting to see the growth of interest in tennis here in China. I think hopefully in the future that will flourish and develop in other countries like India where so much of the world's population is. I'd just like to see tennis succeed and flourish everywhere, which is great for the sport worldwide. From self-interest, we all sell television time all around the world, so if tennis is popular everywhere, it's good for the financial health of the sport as well. I think we're on the right track and things are moving very positively. But I just hope that that continues particularly throughout the entire world.

Q. Etienne, we've had player after player come into this room this week grumbling about the court surface, how apparently quick it is. One even resorted to describing this medium-paced surface like playing on ice. Is that a problem for the sport in the sense that there is so much clay court tennis played, that we invariably have a lot of clay-courters playing the game, and when they come onto a medium-fast surface, medium surface, they think it is too fast for them? Is that a problem?

ETIENNE de VILLIERS: You've sort of highlighted a problem that has two aspects to it. One is a generic aspect, which is what is the appropriate surface to try and resolve, find a champion out of a round-robin format. Champions have the opportunity with the slams to play on the surfaces. Unless you're Roger Federer, you're unlikely to see any one individual win on all of those surfaces. We're trying to get a compromise surface here. The degree to which one provides a slower or faster court is going to determine who ultimately will win it. We have to find as neutral a surface as we can. That's the generic answer. The specific answer with this particular court surface is that I think it has raised certain issues. There are concerns that have been expressed, not just by the players but by my colleagues here as well. It is something that we are addressing with Gerflor. They have been wonderful partners and will remain very good partners. They're very mindful of the problems that surface has caused for this tournament. In any other tournament, it is clay or it is grass or it is hard court and it is Gerflor's Taraflex. It is what it is. But here it needs to find that middle ground. We need to work on that one.

Q. Just on the point that the fact is, in the olden days, this would not be seen as a fast court, would it? I'm sure some of the other guys around the table might agree with that. It's a pretty medium-paced court. The perception now, because there are so many slow-court players, is that it's a fast court.

FRANCESCO RICCI BITTI: We have the experience of Davis Cup that is very meaningful because we have the home and away and the choice. In fact, we are working on limiting the gaps between the fast and slow courts. We are going to a system, perhaps Geoff could expand because he's chairman of the technical committee, what the ITF is going to do. That means that the pace of the court is an issue to some extent. But there is no ideal court for a competition because there is no ideal surface for each player competing. What we have to keep we should not be extreme. We should limit, relatively, what is the frame in which an important competition should be played. Davis Cup is very important because we want to limit the advantage already of the home nation, so we are more sensitive. But in a competition, individual tournament, I think we should start, we could expand this system to see better. But I don't think we have a solution for each player competing because everybody has his own desire. I was a player - not so good as this one - but I remember as I was, if I was in a good shape, the court was always good, and if I was not in a good shape, everything was wrong. You have to consider many, many factors. I believe we are on the right track and I would like to ask Geoff to spend a few minutes talking about what we are doing in terms of pace testing systems. It's very important. In the past, the tradition of tennis was to give judgment on the brand. You can see we have discovered through Davis Cup, through the Davis Cup, that the brand could be the same, but the pace could be very different because according to the thickness of the layers that you lay down and what is under the surface. We are getting a little bit better technically. I'd ask Geoff if he wants to expand with a few words.

GEOFF POLLARD: Thanks, Francesco. I think one of the great attractions of our sport is the range of surfaces on which it is played. You do see a different game at Wimbledon, at Roland Garros, in Australia or the US or here at the Tennis Masters Cup. I don't think we ever want to lose that range of surfaces on which the game is played. We don't want that degree of uniformity. There is no doubt that some players, therefore, prefer the slowest possible court and some the fastest possible court. We'll always have a degree of variation. With hard courts in particular, it does appear that you can end up with quite a wide range of speeds, probably more so than used to happen. As Francesco indicated, it used to be if you said you were playing on a particular brand of surface, it seemed to be the same speed all the time. Now it seems to vary quite substantially. The request of the Davis Cup Committee is really how it started. The ITF's technical department is currently measuring the speed -- developed a way to measure the speed of court surfaces. It is currently measuring the speed of as many hard court surfaces as possible that are used around the world. Certainly they were at Bercy, they came here, measured the speed of the court. We'll measure the speed of the court at the Davis Cup final. It's collecting a lot of data on the speed of these various hard court surfaces that are used either on the ATP Tour or Davis Cup or Grand Slams. Hopefully by sometime in the middle or late 2006, we'll be looking at actually having a rule that defines more clearly what that range of speeds should be, at least for Davis Cup. Whether or not the tour wants to look at it, as well, is up to the tour. At the moment, it's very much in the data-collection process. It's fairly recent we've actually had this technology to measure the court, speed of surfaces. It's fairly recently that there seems to be a much wider variation from what used to be just one particular brand name.

Q. A couple of days ago in the Asian tennis forum, Paul said if an Australian team can qualify for the World Cup, a Chinese player can qualify for the Masters Cup. I'm not so optimistic because the best player we have so far is ranked 300 in the world. What do you think about the Chinese men's tennis situation? What kind of advice could you give to us if we want players to not play the Masters Cup but get into the top 100 first?

GEOFF POLLARD: I think the future for Chinese tennis is very exciting. I think there is a huge commitment, as it shown by the Tennis Masters Cup here in Shanghai, as will be shown by the Olympics in Beijing. I think it was demonstrated at the seminar on Wednesday. You'll be surprised how quickly players can move, like Nadal from 300 in the world to the top couple, within a couple of years. The fact that no one is ranked higher than 300 at the moment doesn't mean that within a couple years they can't move up fairly quickly. I think what you have is a commitment from the tennis world - I know from Australia in particular - but from the tennis world. China has a quarter of the world's population, we want tennis to grow in this country, in this market. The whole world does, not just the Chinese people. You will see that a lot of people would love to help if there's any way that we can. People are willing and available. I think you will see success much more quickly than you're currently thinking. We'll watch with interest. I think Paul said with a Chinese team in the Hopman Cup for the first time, we'll see what happens. That's mixed, of course, but I think you'll find the men will come much more quickly than you're suggesting at the moment.

FRANCESCO RICCI BITTI: If I can add that I will fly tomorrow to Beijing to discuss the last details of the Olympic stadium. Having said that, I believe following what Geoff said, from the ITF point of view, we put a lot of energy, the most populated country has shown a great enthusiasm, a great interest in our sport. The slogan is that we should not lose the Olympic opportunity to make this sport in this country to have a huge improvement. It's not easy. The quantity of problems is huge, but you are building many centers practically in all provinces. You are working on player development, on coach education. I believe these are all the ingredients to get a great country of tennis very soon. But the Olympics are a great tool because all the public authority are committed, all the people. I believe to have great players, I would stick on what Mr. Yang Shu An, director of sport for the Olympics, said on Wednesday. They aim to have competitive players and a great organization. He said competitive players. Medal is more difficult in our sport. But I think in 2008 you are able to have competitive players, I think is a great step for the future.

CRAIG GABRIEL: Our thanks and appreciation to Tim Phillips from Wimbledon, Geoff Pollard from the Australian Open, Etienne de Villiers from the ATP, Francesco Ricci Bitti from the ITF, and Franklin Johnson from the USTA.

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