Tuesday was a day of drama at Indian Wells as both Australian Open champions exited the tournament earlier than expected.
Naomi Osaka, who made her global breakthrough at this event last year, lost in straight sets to the revitalised Belinda Bencic. Then, in a significant shock, Novak Djokovic also fell to Philipp Kohlschreiber.
Five times a champion in the desert, the world no.1 was beaten 6-4 6-4 by the German. It was only the Serb’s second loss to the world no.39 in 10 meetings.
The 15-time major winner called it “one of those days” afterwards. One wonders though if recent controversy of the boardroom variety contributed to the defeat?
Less than a week ago, it was confirmed that the head of the ATP Tour, Chris Kermode, will pack his bags after six years in the role. The Englishman is not leaving by choice.
The head of men’s tennis is there by the grace of a seven-man board of directors. It comprises three tournament representatives, three player reps and Kermode (the Chairman). The player representatives are there on behalf of the ATP Player Council, currently presided over by Novak Djokovic.
Kermode got three votes from the tournament officials and none from the players’ side meaning a taxi for the Englishman. This came as a shock to the sport as unlike a manager who’s just lost eight of his last nine games, Kermode is widely considered to be an excellent leader.
A former player and tournament director at Queen’s, Kermode has received praise for boosting prize money, growing the year-end ATP Finals and introducing the Next Gen tournament for talented young players. On the other hand, the ATP’s decision to create an international event to rival the Davis Cup (ATP Cup) has caused confusion. The playing calendar is still too long and few players beyond the top 100 can make a living in the sport.
Could Kermode have done better in these areas? Perhaps. Or, given the multitude of stakeholders including players, tournaments, sponsors, broadcasters and four separate grand slam bodies, he may have done brilliantly to improve what he did.
In the end, we don’t know because no official reasons were given.
The Player Council was split on whether to keep him but Djokovic, as President, has been blamed for his part in the final judgement. After his first-round win over Bjorn Fratangelo in Indian Wells, the world no.1 was asked for his thoughts on the decision to cut Kermode.
Like optimistic players hitting weak approaches to Djokovic’s baseline, the journalists got nothing from the tight-lipped Serb.
“I don’t want to express myself as for or against. I’m part of the council and as President of the council I have responsibility and confidentiality that I have to be responsible to.”
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were less shy.
Federer, a supporter of keeping Kermode, told the New York Times that he tried to meet with Djokovic in Indian Wells ahead of the vote but was rebuffed. Meanwhile, Nadal said he was waiting to hear from the Council ahead of the vote, but nobody contacted him.
“They are representing us, so normally they have to ask, what’s our opinion? Not in every small decision, but in big decisions. In my opinion, this one was a big decision,” Nadal told the Times.
Andy Murray has previously voiced support for Kermode and this week, three-time major winner Stan Wawrinka gave his thoughts.
“I’m really, really sad and disappointed about [Kermode’s exit],” he said to Metro. “If you look what Chris achieved for the tennis, for every player, for every fans, for everyone around the tennis, it’s been amazing.”
If you step back from the sport, it’s a peculiar tennis-specific situation. Imagine if Lionel Messi had enormous influence over who should head FIFA and that he would receive blame if Cristiano Ronaldo’s opinion wasn’t considered.
The secrecy around the decision has led to scuttlebut, rumours and that familiar partition of followers into Djokovic, Federer and Nadal camps. This does the sport no good.
While the decision of who leads the men’s game is rightly taken by representatives for the players and tournaments, fans are entitled to know the score.
Now I’m not proposing a Twitter poll on who should be CEO of the ATP. But, there should be more transparency around what the tour is trying to achieve and what is required of its chief administrator.
For tennis to improve, there needs to be more reasonable debate in front of the lights and less talking behind closed doors.