Bringing change by serving his sport

WTA chief will study truncated options while ensuring that tennis retains its prime billing

Steve Simon looks like he has a pulse rate lower than Bjorn Borg in his prime and probably thinks raising his voice by an octave is ill-mannered. These are useful qualities while leading a sport, for negotiating change predictably attracts criticism. A few weeks ago the CEO of the Women's Tennis Association suggested that shortening women's matches - no ad-scoring perhaps and 10-point tie-breakers to replace third sets - was a possibility, only for Rafael Nadal to take a forehand swipe at the idea.

In Beijing, Simon barely blinks at this minor fracas. "First of all," he says, "what should be clear is that we do not have changes that are imminent. The question that was asked was, am I open to looking at it, and the answer is yes, I think we have a responsibility to look at it."

TV, he knows, swoons over sports such as football which have a precise duration, unlike tennis matches whose length is as predictable as a philosophical conversation. Furthermore, Simon believes that the modern audience's attention span does not extend to "sitting in one place for three hours and watching a match even though it's maybe the most exciting thing they have ever seen". Cricket has embraced Twenty20 and rugby is selling Sevens stylishly. Tennis cannot ignore the anecdotal evidence.

Simon doesn't seem afraid of the audacious step. Even in 1981, when he was doing some coaching, he wrote to then Wimbledon secretary Chris Gorringe to request that he and his friend Lea Antonoplis be considered for an entry into the mixed doubles qualifying. "I never expected to get a letter back from him," he says, and yet he did.

So off he went, qualified for Wimbledon, lost in the first round on the old Court No. 1 and completed his experience by watching John McEnroe tell an umpire: "You guys are the absolute pits of the world".

Having been a doubles player, Simon finds a value in this darting game of quick hands which spectators themselves primarily play on weekends. "Doubles is a key part of our sport," he says. "It's a key part of our product and it is a needed part... I find that onsite fans enjoy watching doubles. TV hasn't necessarily picked it up, as of yet."

Simon knows that doubles stars do draw attention, like the Indian No. 1. Sania Mirza, who has 4.48 million Twitter followers - more than Maria Sharapova - and he is clearly keen to harness that market. As he says, "We need to be promoting doubles in the manner it deserves and the athletes deserve". In sport, he appreciates, you have to tell stories and Mirza, who even appeared in The New Yorker in September, is having her story heard.

Every story on women athletes matters, especially because the coverage of sport in the media leans flagrantly towards men; every story also matters because this tour - 2,500 players playing events in 34 nations for US$137 million (S$190.5 million) in prize money - represents the only women's sport that receives constant global attention. I ask Simon if he sees the tour as a powerful role model for women in sports but also if he wants it to compete in the marketplace not purely as a women's sport but simply as a successful sporting league.

"The answer to it is both," he says. "We have to... not be satisfied with just being the No. 1 women's sports league, which we clearly are and we're very proud of that. But we want to be able to compete alongside professional sports, irrespective of gender.

"From a business perspective, we compete against all of those sports, for sponsorship, for broadcast time, for television time, for media space. So we need to be in a position where we're in that game, up there.

"The other thing is that when we're competing at that level, and it's irrespective of gender, then we're really getting to equality. Which is where I really want to get to and where I think as a world we need to get to."

Of course, he adds, "we definitely want our athletes to be role models to young women and girls growing up". Out there, on court, tennis' frauleins are well-paid, colourful, assertive examples to young women of what is possible in life. As Simon says: "I would hope that tennis becomes a way where (young women) see they can become our future stars of the world, irrespective of what their career might be."

Then, interview over, he stands up in polished shoes, this quietly upbeat gent who now has to deal with growing injuries, a schedule that requires tinkering and a tour eventually without Serena. How well he will succeed we cannot say. But we can somewhat guarantee that the stress of leadership will eventually abrade whatever is left of Simon's hair.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline Bringing change by serving his sport. Subscribe