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March 24, 2009 - Larry Scott completes the tennis trifecta

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By Charles Bricker

First, Arlen Kantarian resigns as head of professional tennis for the USTA, in part because of a major philosophical and organizational split with CEO Gordon Smith.

Next, ATP CEO Etienne de Villiers doesn't have his contract renewed when it expires on Dec. 31, though we knew that was going to happen months previously.

Now, in what surely is more than a mild surprise, Sony Ericsson WTA CEO Larry Scott quit this afternoon after six years of boot-strapping the women's tour into the 21st Century.

So there you have it. A clean sweep of the three most powerful figures in professional tennis in the course of a few months. However, unlike the USTA and ATP situations, it is unlikely there is anything controversial about Scott's departure. He's had some fires to put out the last couple years, but he did a fairly good job of dousing them, and we'll get into a couple of them in a moment -- the Dubai situation and the Williams sisters/Indian Wells controversy.

On balance, however, you'd have to say Scott's tenure was strong, and certainly good enough to land him one of the plum jobs in college athletics as commissioner of the Pac-10 Conference. His salary is well over $1 million at the WTA and no doubt he's going to be closer to $2 million when he moves into a much bigger office at the Pac-10. He'll remain on at the WTA to ease the transition to a replacement.

He leaves behind a women's tour that is world's better than it was when he took over for former Nike executive Kevin Wolff, who richly earned a reputation as the invisible CEO. He leaves the WTA with a couple years left on an $88 million sponsorship contract with Sony Ericsson. He leaves behind a tour which now has equal prize money with men at the four Slams. He leaves behind a tour being governed by Road Map 2009, which has streamlined the tournament schedule, given the women a longer off-season and gone a long way toward getting the tour's best players to the biggest tournaments.

But there are problems. Justine Henin's retirement in 2008 left a void at No. 1 that hasn't been filled and Maria Sharapova, probably the No. 1 drawing card, hasn't played a singles match in months. We've seen Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina flirt with the No. 1 ranking. Serena Williams has been there, but she'll have a hard time holding onto it because she plays fewer tournaments than her competitors. No one seems to be able to put a hammerlock on the No. 1 ranking, and the tour needs that one ultra-strong player to shoot at.

In addition, there are those two nettlesome problems lingering on -- Dubai and the sisters animosity toward Indian Wells.

You probably know most of the details. A few weeks ago, as a result of the month-long Israeli incursion into the Gaza, the Dubai tournament refused to issue Israel's Shahar Peer a visa to play. Despite calls by some for Scott to cancel the tournament, he chose to let the event go on and then hit the tournament with a huge fine, even after the tournament vowed that no player would again be denied the right to compete because of politics. Women players spoke out against the decision to go on with Dubai, but none of them boycotted in support of Peer. In fact, the only player to refuse to play was Andy Roddick, in the men's tournament that runs consecutively with the women's.

I thought Scott made the right decision. There was sponsor money at stake and the tournament was a day away from starting. He let the world chastise Dubai and then he hit the tournament with massive penalties -- so bad that reliable sources say the tournament will be off the calendar in 2010.

Then there was the Williams problem with Indian Wells. When Scott unveiled his Road Map at Wimbledon last year, it proclaimed that all top 10 players would have to play the four major WTA tournaments (not the Grand Slams, which are run by the ITF), and that includes Indian Wells. If a player didn't have a health excuse, she would be suspended for the next two events. Strong punishment and justifiable. But the Williamses refused to budge and father Richard Williams threatened to sue the WTA if his daughters were suspended and barred from playing their hometown tournament at Key Biscayne. That put Scott in a very difficult spot. Two black players sue the WTA. Not a good look. And even though, no doubt, most people would applaud the WTA for taking a tough stand against the Williamses, the publicity would have been extremely harmful.

So Scott came up with the alternative of allowing any player to miss one of the big four without cause as long as she did publicity for the tournament at some later date. Scott justified that by saying it would apply to all players. Which is true, but it was obviously put in to accommodate the Williamses. It was the best of a series of bad alternatives he could have come up with.

What the WTA is going to miss is Scott's people skills. He was tough in the boardroom, extremely convivial in public. He cajoled, never demanded. He negotiated, never ordered. He also surrounded himself with some superb people and it wouldn't be surprising if his successor is his No. 2, Stacey Allaster, who might be the most powerful woman executive in women's sports.

Personally, I'll miss Scott . . . a lot. I'll miss his good humor, his sense of family, his vision, and maybe most of all the stunning view from his office in the high-rise Bank of America building in St. Petersburg, looking out over Tampa Bay.

Charles Bricker can be reached at bricker@tennisnews.com

 


 

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