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You can lead a tennis horse to water, but you can’t make him drink reform

Matt Zemek

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Robert Deutsch - USA TODAY Sports

So, a very important election occurred on Tuesday. You know, the one involving the ATP Player Council and the ATP Board of Directors, which has been discussed a lot in the news?

Am I overstating the case? Am I being misleading? Am I failing to be accurate in saying this was an important election? It seems like a rather significant element of ATP Player Council business to elect one of the three player representatives to the ATP Board of Directors.

If this was one of 50 player representatives or even 25 representatives, maybe one could downplay and minimize the level of significance here… but this is one of THREE PEOPLE. This new player representative on the ATP Board of Directors receives a considerable say — and therefore, a fair amount of influence — in ATP governance.

No, this isn’t a person who decides how things are done. This isn’t a person who breaks all deadlocks or gains dictatorial power, but this IS one of three people in the room, one of three people who can move and operate in the inner circles of the sport and have the kinds of conversations people on the outside can’t have, or at the very least, can’t have quite as readily with as much urgency from other board members and council players.

I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic or fundamentally inaccurate in saying that this position — the one vacated by Justin Gimelstob — is important. It’s not the most important position in tennis (a hyperbolic and irresponsible assertion). It’s not a position in which failure makes a person more responsible for the flaws and problems in the sport than anyone else (also an irresponsible assertion to make).

Yet, on its own terms, this IS important. It doesn’t mean EVERYTHING, no, but it sure means SOMETHING. If you’re one of only three people in a structure of governance and consultation, that’s a pretty big deal. No one — NO ONE — should dispute this.

So, how many members of the ATP Player Council actually showed up for this important election?

Two, if you note the reply to this @hotdog6969 tweet below, made by Stephanie Myles (@OpenCourt):

You can say that a lower carbon footprint was made, helping the environment.

You can say that a 5-5 vote was anticipated, meaning that the players knew this would not be the final say on the matter of who became the newest player board representative.

Those two statements might be true.

Nevertheless: This was very important council business in relationship to the future of the ATP Board of Directors.

If ever there was a time for all relevant parties to show up in person, communicate IN PERSON, and hash out disagreements IN PERSON, this was it.

Two out of 10 players showed up.

Can you communicate via conference call? Sure you can… but part of communication — as any good student of communication knows — is picking up nonverbal cues and reading the temperature in the room. Part of good, COMPLETE communication involves emotional intelligence, not just an understanding of the actual words that are spoken. Part of good communication means being able to look at a person and sense concern, reticence, aggression, or other qualities and ask follow-up questions to flesh out meanings and offer assurances if needed.

Complete communication demands having people in the room if there is appreciable uncertainty and/or importance involved in the process. If a matter is a formality, sure, no one has to be on hand (no one beyond the absolute minimum), but this isn’t and wasn’t a formality.

This was serious business in a sport where communication is so regularly and annoyingly elusive, where various subgroups and factions, all these fragmented constituencies, have a very hard time getting on the same page and working together.

For the process itself to work well, maximum communication — complete communication, in which you can be in the room face-to-face with colleagues — must exist. For the broader tennis community to RESPECT the process happening inside the corridors of tennis governance, maximum communication must also exist.

Two people out of 10 showed up.

If only two people had a realistic chance of being on hand for this part of the process, the meeting never should have been scheduled at this time. It should have been held when all 10 people could have shown up.

Now we are left with a situation in which the process of reducing the field to 15 candidates, then six, then two, was not done entirely in person, but at least in part through conference calls.

A player representative still hasn’t been decided, and yet a lot of people weren’t included in the consultative process because they weren’t allowed among the group of 15 candidates which was then reduced to six and two.

If this process is stretching out over a longer period of time — which I DON’T have a problem with (this means more consultation and more chances for communication) — why was this election scheduled on May 14?

Let’s say that May 14 had to be the date for the election due to various protocols.

I offer the very simple follow-up question: Why do these protocols exist as they currently do?

The next follow-up is similarly obvious: Who governs the process of governance? Who oversees the overseers?

Remember that the fact that Justin Gimelstob was sentenced (the sentence was light, but he WAS sentenced in court) did not automatically remove him from the ATP Board as a player representative. There was — and still is — no “automatic trigger” provision which removes conflicts of interest or takes decisions out of the players’ hands. Pressure forced Gimelstob out, but Gimelstob could have stuck around if he had wanted to. As it was, he remained a player rep far longer than he ever should have.

The point I am making: Maybe this May 14 election followed protocol, and maybe to the players, this process is hardly abnormal or anything to be worried about. If that’s the case, something is profoundly wrong.

Protocols can be wrong. Procedures can be unenlightened. Processes can be terribly unfair. You don’t follow a procedure because “it’s the way things always have been done.” You follow a procedure because it is good — in process and outcome — for a wide range of constituents, benefiting the whole rather than a few.

The fact — and it is a fact — that a majority of the ATP Player Council couldn’t meet in person on May 14 to discuss the election of one of its three player representatives on the ATP Board of Directors shows a profound lack of understanding of how problems get solved.

In a sport CRYING OUT for better communication, ATP players (without viewing any single person as uniquely or profoundly responsible for what is happening — I assign no unique or added blame on any one man) couldn’t be bothered to meet in person to elect Justin Gimelstob’s replacement.

Could the eventual representative — whoever ultimately wins the election — be good for the council and the board? Sure.

Yet, if the process by which that representative is selected leaves a lot to be desired, chiefly in terms of lacking the very thing (complete, effective communication) the sport needs more than anything else, who among us can seriously think the sport is likely to become healthier and more cohesive in all (or at least most) of the way it needs to be?

Maybe the process is being followed — I am not contesting that assertion.

If the process as mapped out, and as conducted in the past, is terrible, though, no one should have any interest in following it, let alone repeating it.

Oh, tennis. You have to show you are willing to change your attitude and your approach to problems inside the sport if you want to credibly reform yourself. If you don’t display good habits and practices in the attempt to solve problems, those problems won’t ultimately be solved — not in any meaningful or lasting way.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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