ATP Head Chris Kermode Says ATP Is A “Very Political Environment”

Chris Kermode at the NextGen Finals
LONDON-

ATP President Chris Kermode is coming to the end of his tenure after the player council, led by current-world #2 Novak Djokovic, opted not to offer to extend his contract during the Indian Wells Masters in March. The 55-year-old has led the ATP for six years and is also the tournament chairman at the ATP Finals. Kermode, a former professional player, spoke to the press on Wednesday about both his past achievements in the game and the future of the ATP.

The ATP Cup

Kermode’s final contribution to the men’s game will be the ATP Cup, with the inaugural event to be held across Australia in January. The new tournament will see 24 nations represented by their top two available players, serving both as a competitor to the ITF’s Davis Cup, which has undergone significant changes itself, and as a warm-up event for the Australian Open. However, the proximity of the ATP Cup to the new Davis Cup Finals has led to scepticism about the potential marketability of both.

The ATP Cup also received a surprise blow when Roger Federer withdrew, citing a desire to spend more time with his family ahead of the start of the 2020 season. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are both currently set to compete, but the absence of Federer, a stalwart of the now defunct Hopman Cup, from the field has unquestionably damaged the prestige of the ATP Cup. However, Kermode remains adamant that the ATP Cup will prove a success, stating that:

“So just like the ITF did with the Davis Cup, just like we did with ATP Cup. It’s change. And people don’t like it… I think it will all calm down… We’re all in the same business. We all want tennis to be bigger. I think once that emotion is gone from the two events starting, I think it will calm down.”

The Olympics 

Though perhaps not the most significant of Kermode’s reforms, the removal of ranking points from the Olympic tennis event was still a source of some controversy. But Kermode argues that as the Olympics is an event where there is a limit to the number of national representatives allowed, it would be inappropriate and unfair to award ranking points when some players are unable to compete, despite owning a ranking inside the cut off.

“The ranking points for me are all about merit-based. The ranking system is purely merit-based… For me with events [like the Olympics] where people can’t compete is pretty tough to give ranking points, is my view, unless someone has earned it,” Kermode said.

Although Kermode acknowledged that there had been some movement towards returning ranking points to the Olympic tennis tournament, it proved impossible to strike a deal.

“So we have had those conversations, but we never got across the line,” said Kermode.

When further asked if ranking points would return to the Olympics, Kermode replied that it was a matter for his successor.

NextGen Finals

In 2017, Kermode and his team came up with the concept of a tournament where the world’s top eight players under the age of 21 compete. Known as the ATP NextGen Finals, it is currently held in Milan, the week before the ATP Finals. When Kermode first pitched the idea, it met with a mixed response, with concerns about whether there would be a significant appetite amongst the public to watch tennis players who had not yet established themselves at the top of the game.

“When I was first touting this around and trying to sell it and gain interest, people were sort of saying, What’s Chris doing with this funny little junior tournament?”

But the tournament has proven to be a real success. The 2019 edition was arguably the best yet, with ticket sales helped by the presence of the rising Italian star Jannik Sinner, who went on to win the title, beating Alex De Minaur in the final. A further mark of the tournament’s success have been the achievements of its champions in the following seasons. Both the 2017 champion Hyeon Chung and 2018 winner Stefanos Tsitsipas have since made Grand Slam semifinals, with the Greek currently in the field at the ATP Finals in London.

“I have always, and I genuinely mean this, [believed] the game will carry on when Roger, Rafa, Novak, and Andy will all leave the game… But the game will survive and the talent that’s coming through is incredible.”

Kermode also believes that the value of the tournament lies not only in it serving as a showcase for the next generation of global talent, but also because it can inspire the next generation of tennis fans to get them excited about tennis.

“But the biggest issue for me is where is the next generation of fans. That’s really what the event was designed for,” Kermode stated.

ATP Politics

The players’ council was the centre of considerable media attention earlier this season when they, led by Djokovic, elected not to renew Kermode’s contract. It was a decision that surprised some considering the success Kermode had in growing the revenue and global audience of the men’s game. Kermode openly admitted that the realization that his term was to end this season was an emotional one, as he felt he had much more to bring to the men’s game.

“It was difficult in March [after being ousted]. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt,” smiled Kermode.

The new chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, another former professional, will be in charge from in January, but his role will be split in two, with a Chief Executive Officer coming in to run the business side of the ATP. But although Kermode acknowledges the logic behind splitting the role, he still believes that Gaudenzi will have a difficult job.

“It’s a very political environment… In terms of the political side, it’s just the nature of the job… It happens. I feel it’s a great achievement to have done six years. I’m extremely proud of what I have done.”

Legacy

During Kermode’s six-year tenure one of the most significant reforms he has made is the increase of prize money for lower-ranked players, particularly by increasing the prize money for first-round defeats. For example, this year at Wimbledon the prize money for losing in the first round was £39,000, a 66% increase compared with when Kermode started as ATP President. However, a sizable number of players, seemingly including Djokovic, believed that this was not enough.

“I arrived in a toxic prize-money negotiation between players and [tournament] promoters… End of that first year, I voted the biggest single increase for players in the history of the tour… So obviously I wasn’t the tournament’s favorite person for quite a while after that,” Kermode said.

However, one area in which Kermode has enjoyed unquestionable success is in his role as tournament chairman at the ATP Finals. It was Kermode who was the mastermind behind its move to London in 2009, which has seen the tournament grow into arguably the most significant event on the men’s tour behind the Grand Slams.

“In terms of areas that I’m proud of and legacy, I think this event (Nitto ATP Finals)… We had 2.5 million people attend. This event has become a proper spot in the sporting calendar.”

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images

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