Implementing change within any organisation is a long-term process, one that takes patience, collaboration and reflection. It can also require an admission of guilt, an acceptance that internal processes have failed.
For the ITF, that reform has been played out in public since January, when a major match-fixing scandal hit the headlines on the eve of the Australian Open. It was alleged that more than a dozen players who have been ranked in the top 50 had been repeatedly flagged up over suspicions they had thrown matches in the past decade.
But an even bigger scandal was to hit new ITF president David Haggerty’s desk two months later, when it emerged that Maria Sharapova, one of the biggest names in international sport, had tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open. She was later handed a two-year ban by the ITF.
It wasn’t the start that Haggerty had planned, after he was elected in September 2015 on a pledge to strengthen the ITF’s financial position – music to any governing body’s ears – through a review of the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, the annual national teams’ competition for men and women, respectively, that have failed to grip players and spectators alike.
“Dealing with allegations of match-fixing, then leading into a high-profile anti-doping case with Maria, just 90 days into my tenure were not really things I was expecting to be on my agenda as I took office,” Haggerty says, bluntly. “But that’s where the leadership instinct kicks in.”
The softly-spoken American, the former chair, president and chief executive of the US Tennis Association, pulls no punches when it comes to identifying past errors.
“One of the first things I did when I started was establish an integrity department within the ITF,” he says. “I think integrity is so critical for an international federation; it’s important that you are trusted by the players and the fans. What you see on the court and what happens in the boardroom and committee rooms has to be beyond reproach.
“Transparency is critical, and I think it is an area that tennis must improve on. There are steps that are being taken with the Tennis Integrity Unit now publishing figures on a quarterly basis and being more open with what we do. It’s what we should be doing, it’s what we should have been doing.
“We will now be making public any provisional suspensions from an anti-doping perspective. The reason for that is to take away any doubt, remove speculation. We believe it is the right thing to do.”
Away from match-fixing and doping, Haggerty’s focus has been, as his election manifesto stated, on revamping the Davis Cup and Fed Cup.
A preferred amendment is to stage the semi-finals and final of Davis Cup and Fed Cup at a neutral venue, in a move likely to be implemented from 2018.
In late September the ITF brought in CSM Sport & Entertainment, tasking the UK-based sports marketing agency with attracting expressions of interest from cities about hosting the new-look finals.
Other proposals include allowing the previous year’s finalists to have a bye into the second round, in a bid to ensure that top players do not skip the first round of matches, and ensuring that the reigning cup holders play their first match of the new season at home.
“We have been talking to the nations, the players and all the stakeholders, and they’re saying ‘OK sounds interesting, take it to the next level and let us know what it looks like,” Haggerty says. “The next step for us will be to go to the market and be able to test the hypothesis and ensure that the value is there.
“My goal is to be able to come to the board next May with the recommendations, and say ‘we’ve gone to the market, we have this contract that we have signed contingent upon the board’s approval’. I want to go to the AGM with something very specific as opposed to speculation. That is the goal.”
As for Haggerty’s ultimate vision for the national team competitions, the American is unequivocal: “The World Cup of tennis. The first step is to strongly insert it into the men’s and women’s calendars for tennis and have the backing and support of the ATP and WTA, which I know I will have, where the players will want to play in it not just once and win, but will continue to play year after year.”
As with issues of integrity, Haggerty is not afraid to admit that mistakes have been made in the past with the competitions, noting: “In certain ways our approach and perceived attitude to the tours and the players of not being good listeners, of being so traditional that we have not considered reform, has hurt us.”
He continues: “Many of the top players play; I just want to have all the top players playing more consistently year after year. I think we lost some of the respect and confidence of some of the stakeholders. So to me it’s gaining that back by being a good listener, by demonstrating the desire for change. That is what is going to help elevate it back to not just where it was, but beyond where it was.”
If Haggerty’s legacy lives or dies by the future success of the Davis and Fed Cup, is he concerned about the emergence of the Laver Cup, an international men’s tennis team competition set to debut in Prague in September 2017?
The Laver Cup, named after Australian legend Rod Laver, has been marketed as tennis’ version of golf’s Ryder Cup with teams competing in both singles and doubles over three days.
Haggerty says: “Any time there is something that comes in that is new - and we know that the players play a very rigorous schedule to begin with - you worry about the health of the players. In my opinion, Laver Cup is an exhibition, and while there are top players who may choose to participate in it, it’s not a live match, it’s not a Davis Cup moment, it’s not something where you dig down deep for your nation, it isn’t a grand slam final where you find that fifth gear. It’s merely something to entertain audiences, and we’ll see how compelling it is.”
As for Haggerty’s plans for his remaining three years in office, airport departure lounges will feature strongly, it seems: “My relationships with the ATP and WTA, the grand slams, the 211 member nations, are very important’, he says. “I have travelled to about 35 nations, with the goal to get to every one within the four years, to tell them about our vision and to listen and work with them. For me, the best feeling I have is what we are doing in collaboration. That way, we’ll be in a very good place to make a big difference to tennis.”