The State of Tennis: USTA Chief Michael Dowse

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Bill Simons

Few other sports executives have had initiations by fire quite like USTA Executive Director Michael Dowse, who began his job January 1, 2020. Soon he spearheaded the inspired and unrelenting effort to stage the US Open. Then after the Open he had his hip replaced. Now he’s trying to counter the gloom of COVID news with a Dowse of sunshine, as our sport navigates the most baffling and asymmetrical era it has ever faced. Here’s our state of the game interview with the USTA chief.

So, Mike, how do things look? COVID is still with us. What’s the state of tennis? Are there any silver linings? 

There sure are. We just got the Tennis Industry Association quarterly report, and overall, wholesale racket sales are up 38% over last year.

Wow, that’s incredible! We’re used to such dreary stats. 

It’s just shocking – it’s great, isn’t it? You go by courts and you see people playing. And the Physical Activity Council reported that in the third quarter of this year 10% of the American population was playing tennis. Last year it was just 6.75%. So that’s a 29% increase. 

And there are remarkable reports that ball sales have really jumped.

Yes. People are seeing that tennis is the perfect social distancing sport and a great way to stay active and healthy. Plus it’s everything we’ve missed in quarantine – it’s very social. 

We all miss socializing. Billie Jean King said, “Because we are separate, we yearn to be together.”  

We miss exercise. We miss intellectual stimulation. Tennis is challenging – it makes you think. And it’s fun! Let’s not forget fun!

Absolutely – these times are so somber. Sometimes we forget we’re actually allowed to have fun. So, Mike, how would you describe tennis at this point?

I’m optimistic – for a few reasons. We see people discovering tennis because of the pandemic, and that’s something I see continuing for the foreseeable future. People are seeing tennis as a very safe, fun and social sport. Even with the pandemic, there’s optimism. 

Our mission is to engage and retain a new generation of diverse players. We are attracting them. The key is to retain them. With the formation of Tennis Industry United [an alliance of the USTA, USPTA, PTR, the Tennis Industry Association, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and the American Tennis Association], we’re working together and putting programs in place. We need great coaches out there to give these new players an excellent experience.

Photo by Getty Images

So that’s why the USTA is supporting the USPTA and PTR, and paying the pros’ 2021 membership dues?

Exactly. We’ve provided grants for facilities to help them survive and make it through. Unfortunately, we did lose some. But we were able to play a part in saving many, and now that tennis is coming back, those facilities can welcome players. It’s the same with the coaches. We were able to help them weather the storm, and now I’m hearing stories that those clubs have never been busier. 

There seems to be a broad range – some clubs are doing well, others are really struggling.

I don’t know how to measure that, but in talking with the heads of the USPTA and the PTR – John Embree and Dan Santorium – they’re sharing stories about how busy their pros are, and they’re getting a lot of new members. Whether they’re from private or public facilities, there are new people coming out to play the sport. 

Looking back at this year’s US Open, skeptics asked, “How can you possibly stage the Open without fans?” The Open is all about its roar and its explosive atmosphere. But there it was, and it actually thrived – such a success. Obviously it was important for American tennis.

Yes, Bill, you were along for the journey with us. We always had those three guiding principles. Can it be done in a healthy and safe way for all? Is it good for tennis? Does it make sense financially? When questions arose we mapped them back to those three principles. Unfortunately we didn’t have fans on site, but we had fans throughout the world, and that definitely checked the No. 2 box – whether it was good for tennis. 

Let’s look at it globally. Tennis always had a regular rhythm each year, starting with the Australian Open, and to some extent ending with the US Open and the fall events. But in 2020, the only thing that was certain was uncertainty. Everything was helter-skelter. How has that changed tennis and the USTA culture?

What has really come out from all this is an entrepreneurial spirit: doing things differently and reimagining how we approach things, whether it’s league tennis, local junior tournaments or the Open. There was an entrepreneurial spirit that went into moving Cincinnati to New York. People now just say, “Oh, okay,” but everyone really pulled together.

The other thing that stands out was the overall industry collaboration. We know how split the industry can be, but everyone came together. And we continue to, today. Tennis Industry United was formed to help us get through COVID. We still meet on a monthly basis and COVID is still on our agenda, but we’ve pivoted to other initiatives – and one of them is advocacy for tennis. All members have specific plans to advocate for tennis. Our second focus is to increase diversity in tennis. So we are thinking of doing it together instead of being separate entities. That way we are so much stronger. 

Talk about the drive for diversity. 

One of the big parts of diversity is people of color. And we need more women coaching and being teaching pros. We need to increase our inclusion, and our coaches have to reach out more to new communities. 

For years tennis and the USTA have hoped to reach the inner city and diverse populations.

We’re making some good progress, but we have a way to go. The African American population is roughly 13% and tennis participants are roughly 11%. So we are under-representative. And the Hispanic community is roughly 18% of the population and about 13% of tennis. If we are truly representative of America, we should mirror the country. That’s what our job is. 

We have a long road in front of us with many twists and turns. We’ll have to be flexible and light on our feet. What’s your mindset?

We’re already having planning meetings. I’ve talked with our medical advisory group and there’s some positive news about vaccines, rapid testing and treatment. So we’re cautiously optimistic. But that’s only part of the world. We have league and community tennis – we have to navigate that. We’re not out of the woods yet. 

Was it good for the spirit of tennis to see Naomi Osaka come through and win the Open and to have that great five-set men’s final?

It was invigorating. It told the world that tennis can be played in these times. And not only community tennis but pro tennis, with the complexities of the global tour, of moving people around the world, getting them into a big place. We had over 13,000 COVID tests between the Western and Southern and the US Open, and there was a 99.97% negative rate. So our bubble worked, right? The one or two tests that were positive happened when people were coming into the bubble and we were able to isolate them and prevent COVID from spreading. The last positive test was a day or two before the Open. So we actually never had a positive test during the US Open.

What’s your take on the Australian Open? There will be a quarantine period, and they seem to be taking a very professional approach.

We share best practices with Tennis Australia’s Craig Tiley and Jayne Hrdlicka. From my lens they’re doing everything they can to make it safe. They’re really getting prepared and we want them to succeed. 

When you came on board with the USTA you were thrown right into the cauldron. How have you grown? What have you learned? 

I keep going back to the collaboration. There’s no way that any one individual can navigate this. It has to be a collective effort with all the entities. And, within the USTA, the sections, the staff and the districts.

There’s been a lot of tumult and financial hardship. Has the USTA culture held together? Has there been strife or a supportive mindset?

It’s been very supportive. There have been great discussions and collaborations. Unfortunately we couldn’t have the semiannual or annual meetings, so we had virtual versions, and we had regular town halls. 

The tournaments in New York featured such strong initiatives relating to social justice. Will that continue? 

It will continue, but I’d also put it under the umbrella of the Be Open campaign [that promotes diversity] which included a celebration of our first responders, who were such a big part of getting New York to the point where we could play the Open. The Be Open campaign is a perfect mantra for tennis. We are open to everyone playing our sport.

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