In February, at the opulent, seven-star Burg Al Arab Hotel in Dubai, the titans of men's tennis suddenly glimpsed an end to the years of inertia that have plagued their sport. There, new ATP Tour Inc. Chairman and President Etienne de Villiers had convened a powwow with four of the game's top names, including its biggest star, Andre Agassi. Flanked by No. 1 Roger Federer, No. 2 Rafael Nadal, and 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, Agassi pressed de Villiers about the ATP's stagnant fortunes. "What I want to know," Agassi said, according to those present, "is whether we are in the same play with different characters, or do we have a new plot and actors?"
De Villiers was taken aback but didn't flinch. The Rhodes scholar and former Walt Disney Co. (DIS) executive calmly volleyed Agassi's shot, saying he didn't need the ATP job to fatten his wallet or stroke his ego. De Villiers meant to fix the cracks in the sport even if his moves exacted a short-term price for players and tournaments alike. "I have no agenda here other than to make a difference," de Villiers said to Agassi.
He's already doing that. A tennis outsider who grew up in a segregated South Africa, de Villiers has taken on the army of entities that rule the perennially embroiled sport. The ATP is the governing body of men's tennis, staging a circuit of tourneys around the world. Its constituents are the players and the tournaments, which co-own the organization. But the most important events of the year -- the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, and Wimbledon, known as the Grand Slams -- are owned and run by their respective national federations. The Davis Cup and Fed Cup, the male and female nation-to-nation competitions, fall under the aegis of the International Tennis Federation. And the players are in essence free agents, able to choose what events they play.
This messy structure, de Villiers believes, has led to an arduous, 11-month schedule for players and made it hard for fans to follow clear and suspenseful story lines. "Tennis has to change, not because it's bad, but because it's so damn good, and we're not reaching enough people," he says. To that end, he's using research-based marketing to brand the ATP as never before -- and is questioning some of tennis' most hallowed traditions.
De Villiers inherited an organization molded by the 15-year reign of former CEO Mark Miles, a hands-off leader. Miles, who retired in December, oversaw a disastrous $1.2 billion TV and marketing rights deal in 1999 with Swiss company ISL Marketing. ISL imploded two years later, forcing the ATP to scramble for new sponsor dollars and siphon off prize money to fund the players' pension plan. The tour has stabilized since, but prize money and TV ratings have remained static and are small compared with golf, the sport against which tennis is most often measured.
While the Grand Slams continue to boost prize money, the ATP's total purse has dipped to 2003 levels. The estimated figure for the tour's 64 events in 2006 is $55.8 million, virtually the same as three years ago and 5.3% below 2000 levels. TV ratings are lackluster: For instance, last year's final at Wimbledon between Federer and American Andy Roddick rated a 2.5 on NBC (GE), the lowest in five years.
De Villiers didn't even know if he wanted the job when his friend Richard Davies, head of the tour's sponsorship arm, came calling. After 15 years at Disney, where among other positions he headed the international TV unit, he founded a $1 billion private-equity fund. (His partners are still running it.) That left him time to golf, ski, and focus on his massive collection of music, which includes an iPod stuffed with more than 9,500 songs.
So why would a wealthy man, married to his childhood sweetheart, take on the task of governing the ATP -- especially after nearly dying during surgery for prostate cancer a year ago? Because, he says, he's a sports junkie who saw the chance to elevate the game he grew to love as a child when his mother tore up their garden in Pretoria and built a tennis court.
A raconteur who likes to quote people ranging from Malcolm X to Tolstoy to Woody Allen, de Villiers is also a hard-nosed businessman unafraid to shake up the status quo. Those who have seen him in action say he has a short fuse and shows no compunction about throwing his power around. As one tennis official puts it: "He's scaring the hell out of some people."
De Villiers certainly has big ambitions. In March he hired former Scottish Rugby Union CEO Phil Anderton, a veteran of Coca-Cola Co. (KO) and Procter & Gamble, as the ATP's first-ever chief marketing officer. He has stated his desire to almost double tour prize money, to $100 million, by 2010 by boosting sponsorships, ticket revenue, and winning a better TV contract, among other sources of income. He is pushing to begin events on Sunday rather than the traditional Monday to lure more weekend audiences. De Villiers intends to make this voluntary for all tourneys in 2007. He wants more combined events with the women's tour and is even toying with changing the hallowed single-elimination format in favor of more round-robin draws, guaranteeing audiences and broadcasters marquee players at fixed times for more than one match.
But there's one task facing de Villiers that's the equivalent of handling a 150-mile-an-hour Roddick serve: transforming the tennis calendar so it's more player- and fan-friendly. He's locking horns with the federations that control the Davis Cup, the Grand Slams, and regular ATP events to create regional mini-series leading into the Grand Slams, modeled after the U.S. Open Series, a North American summer hard-court swing that culminates with the U.S. Open. He also wants to revamp the nine Master's Series events -- contested only by the top players, and spread across the calendar and the globe -- into a comprehensible package commanding more TV money.
Sounds good, but De Villiers has learned how hard it is to bring change to a sport with no overarching body and multiple entrenched interests. "That has been the biggest 'aha,"' he says. "It's going to be a lot harder than I thought."
Some observers think de Villiers may get worn down. The skeptics include players who have heard talk of change before. "He's got some things he wants to do," says Federer, who begins his title defense at Wimbledon on June 26. "We'll see if they're really going to happen."
By Douglas Robson