Changing Times – WTA Chief Steve Simon On the State of Tennis

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Bill Simons

Indian Wells

Tennis isn’t the most international sport. Soccer can claim that mantle. Tennis might not be the most athletic. Hoops is pretty amazing. But, by far, tennis is the foremost co-ed sport. It’s the not-so-secret sauce of the sport.

The WTA stands apart as an innovative women’s sports organization, and there’s always intrigue and wonder. 

Going back to names like Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills Moody, Alice Marble, and Althea Gibson through to Billie Jean, Chrissie, Martina, Seles, Graf, Serena, Venus, Kournikova, Sharapova, Li Na, Osaka, Barty and Swiatek, there have always been sizzling story lines and cutting-edge issues. Women’s backhands and we-shall-overcome justice issues have rarely been strangers. 

Fifty years ago, the Battle of the Sexes was a cultural earthquake that forever changed the landscape in sports, and far beyond. The Original 9 were a fearless pioneer group who had the mighty shaking in their boots. The still unfinished fight for equal pay has been an epic battle. And, all the while, girls from Moscow basement apartments, the LA inner city or little known Chinese towns have risen to claim fame and fortune.

In her prime, Maria Sharapova was making $30 million a year. That was nothing, Naomi Osaka made $55 million. And 20-year-old Emma Raducanu, who is No. 77, has a net worth of $5 million.

Now, women’s tennis is navigating some fascinating but treacherous waters. Its most shining personalities are off the scene. Serena has “transitioned” to a world of Super Bowl commercials, super-mothering and super venture capital deals. The long-injured Venus is ranked No. 666. The game’s No. 1 player, Ash Barty, suddenly retired last year. Naomi Osaka is pregnant.

Young players with sizzle, Raducanu and Coco Gauff, have yet to explode into true super stardom. And the game’s highest performing players still have issues. Iga Swiatek is a bold, smart, courageous figure, but doesn’t yet have the charisma or intrinsic charm endearing to casual fans.

Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka is a delightful 24-year-old with a smile that melts your heart. Still, to most, she remains a distant figure. And the current Wimbledon winner, Kazakhstani Elena Rybakina, is about as impassive a champion you can get. Reporters have long been searching for compelling story lines, but with limited success. Good luck if you want to ask her “what makes your boat float” types of questions. 

All the while, the WTA and the ATP remain two very different forces that are still far off from uniting.

Outside of majors, there is still a huge discrepancy in pay. On the circuit, ATP players get about 70% more prize money than the women. And the WTA’s all-chips-in move to make China a huge part of the tour imploded two years ago when the group suspended play due to the accusations of sexual assault that Sheng Puai courageously wrote about.

Here at this year’s BNP Paribas Open, there have been a bounty of WTA stories. The macho Canadian Denis Shapovalov made a lengthy, impassioned plea for men and women’s equality. There are indications that Russian and Belarusian players might not again be banned from Wimbledon. Russia’s Anastasia Potapova was warned by the WTA to not wear a Moscow soccer jersey again.

There are tense relationships like never before in the locker room over Russia’s military invasion, and Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko had a panic attack after she spoke with WTA CEO Steve Simon about the WTA’s relationship to the Ukrainians. She was upset by the WTA’s reported unwillingness to step in and more actively support Ukrainians who can not go home due to devastating war conditions and therefore face astronomical costs as a result of continually being on the road and in hotels. Plus, Tsurenko reportedly called on the WTA to ban Russians and Belarusians from playing in the 2024 Olympics.

Meanwhile, back in the boardroom, after a year and a half of planning the WTA announced a $150 million infusion of capital after agreeing to assign 20% of the WTA Tour to CVC, a respected Luxembourg-based investment group that has bought into many sports: Formula 1, soccer, cricket and volleyball. 

The money will be much appreciated, especially in the absence of massive revenues from China. But some wonder what the impact will be of CVC owning a big chunk of the WTA. Plus, tennis has been battered by the collapse of seemingly appealing pie-in-the sky deals with outside entities that soon failed miserably. 

In 1999, the Swiss Marketing group ISL Worldwide signed a 10-year agreement for $1.2 billion with the ATP that disintegrated in two years. In 2018, the International Tennis Federation signed a 25-year, $3 billion deal with the Spanish investment group Kosmos, which led to devastating changes to the once venerable Davis Cup event. Now the partnership has imploded.

With all this swirl of activity, Inside Tennis decided to sit down with the WTA’s CEO Steve Simon. 

Once a player at Long Beach State, Simon has a long history in the game. He played mixed doubles at Wimbledon, worked for Adidas, and for years drew rave reviews as the low-key but highly effective manager of the Indian Wells tournament. Since he became the WTA’s CEO, he’s been one of the most effective commissioners in sports. His courageous stance relating to the Peng Shuai incident was widely applauded. Here’s our conversation. 

INSIDE TENNIS: There have been so very many extraordinary sports pioneers in the WTA. Why is that so?

STEVE SIMON: That’s an interesting question. It says so much about women and the strength of women and what they stand for. The WTA’s players are just such great athletes. They believe strongly – and they believe strongly in right and wrong. They all bring the same traits. 

They are fierce competitors on the court and fierce competitors in life and have extremely strong beliefs on what’s right, what’s wrong and on equality, and whatever is of interest to them. And that says a lot about women and women athletes.

IT: Did this whole mindset start with Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and the Original 9? 

SIMON: Look, there have been women leaders for decades. With Billie Jean and the Original 9 who were focused on the idea that every young talented woman player who wanted an opportunity to play would have that opportunity. They had a passion for that, they believed in it and they were trailblazers and there were certainly some great trailblazers in the world before that too and they followed them. 

IT: There are players from 31 countries here at Indian Wells. India’s Sania Mirza just retired. A while ago Li Na transformed tennis in Asia. Tunisian Ons Jabeur has been an inspiration. Is there a quality of empowerment that the WTA brings? 

SIMON: What we bring is opportunity. That’s what Billie Jean and the Original 9 started this tour on. That is the opportunity for everybody to have a chance to play. The WTA and our celebration of 50 years and has been about that and how it has grown and have continued to provide a pathway; how we started as just a US-based circuit and now are global. Seeing a Tunisian player and a tournament in Tunisia shows that.

IT: If you could change one thing in tennis what would it be? 

SIMON: I’d like to see the sport be fully integrated. That’s to say that we don’t have the organizational fragmentation. We should be one professional body running the game.

IT: What were your thoughts about the article by the ATP player Denis Shapovalov that called for equality?

SIMON: It’s great. It’s wonderful and strong when a male athlete is speaking up on behalf of female athletes. What he said was right. But it’s a challenging discussion because there’s such a big division between the valuation of the rights that are being realized by a male’s professional life and assets versus a female’s. That’s what creates the economic issues between the two and we have to find a way to close that gap…So and you know I applauded Denis for stepping up and reflecting that. 

IT: Your position is that Wimbledon should be open to all players. 

SIMON: Our position has been consistent that our tournaments should be open to all players who are eligible…That is the WTA’s founding principle.

I don’t know how to condemn strongly enough the invasion of Ukraine from Russia nor the Russian government and everything they stand for…[But] I don’t think that necessarily the athlete should be punished as a result of the decisions that their government has made because we’ve had many other situations in the world where bad things have happened with countries and there have been decisions that we may not agree with and those athletes have competed. 

So I definitely believe the athlete on an individual basis should be able to compete and it is in no way a reflection of what our feeling is as far as what is going on over there.

IT: As for the situation with China’s Peng Shuai, you’ve said that you have had reassurances that she is okay, but you want a personal meeting with her. 

SIMON: We do know that she is safe and doing okay. I do want to speak with her directly. I haven’t yet, and our position on that hasn’t changed. We’ll make a decision on [playing late season tournaments in] Asia towards the end of this month. 

IT: The WTA had made such an investment in the Asian tournaments and so much money was involved. How did suspending play affect the tour?

SIMON: As I said, when we took the position, we knew there would be issues, and it would be complicated. and there would be challenges and we would have to take that on. We certainly have managed it and will continue to manage it and it certainly won’t define our future success.

IT: We have sources that say the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose has been sold to the venture capitalist Mark Ein, who owns the Citibank tournament in Washington DC.

SIMON: That hasn’t been presented to us as of yet.

IT: Serena and Ash Barty retired. Venus has been off the tour. Naomi is pregnant. Talk about the appeal of the WTA in this time of transition.

SIMON: The appeal is that this is an exciting and entertaining group of players to watch. We celebrate Serena and always will…She’s amazing…If you look at this new group of players, it’s very diverse. They are great personalities and unbelievably quality women. For sure, they’re going to be the next trail blazers and, if you look at the quality of play and athleticism, these players are second to none.

IT: There’s a lot of criticism that the WTA circuit is so tough. Yes, players travel the world, but it’s such a solitary life. On the tour, it’s “win or go home.” What would you say to young girls about the WTA? What is its appeal? Is it still an endeavor to go for? 

SIMON: Absolutely! If you have any interest in the sport, if you have the athletic ability, tennis is something that you should definitely focus on. It provides you an opportunity to play on the biggest stages in the world. It’s a global sport and it’s still the No. 1 women’s professional sport. The opportunities that can come from it both on the court and off the court are second to none.

IT: What would you say to critics that argue for women’s matches being the best of three sets and, at the majors, men’s matches being the best of five?

SIMON: I’ve been consistent. If you want us to play best of five, we’ll play tomorrow. But that’s not the issue. I don’t think that the best of five is in the best interest of male players either. The game has changed and all we are doing now is beating up our athletes and getting them hurt.

IT: What’s it like to come back here to Indian Wells? 

SIMON: It’s always special to come back. This was home for 25 years. I feel very humbled to have been a part of it for that long, The team here is very special and I’m so happy to see them striving and doing really well.

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