Superstars in the Boardroom
Updated: Mar 14, 2020
It was late 2009 and I had been on the ATP Player Council for exactly a year. In 2008 I’d been nominated by Jim Thomas, a fellow U.S. doubles player, who told me he thought I would be a good fit for the job in large part because I was one of the only ones out there with a college degree. Surprisingly, although it was really only my first year on tour, the players elected me to fill one of the 10 spots on the ATP Player Council. The council is a 10-man group that represents the players’ interests on tour. We tackle issues that arise regarding prize money, scheduling, rule changes, the player pension—anything that affects players’ lives on tour.
A completely new group of players was taking over when I joined the Council. This was exciting because we were all learning as we went along. It was also exciting because Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic were three of the 10 players who had offered up their time to be part of the group. Being in the room with stars of this caliber was exhilarating, but also incredibly intimidating. I always listened intently and took diligent notes, but in the first few meetings, I hadn’t mustered the courage to offer anything in verbal form…which is code for, I hadn’t said a word.
Then came the day when I broke my silence. I walked into the U.S. Open boardroom and grabbed my seat. I shook hands politely with our board members, and greeted Roger, Rafa, and Novak, doing my best to act natural. As always, I’d read the ATP documents thoroughly in preparation for the meeting. Our CEO at the time was Adam Helfant, a brilliant, fast-talking New Yorker who demanded 100 percent of everyone's attention—and for me, usually two cups of coffee just to keep up with how fast he operated. This particular meeting got off to a hot start as we were addressing the Madrid Masters; the tournament had proposed that they play the event on blue clay courts - something which had never been done. Adam wasted no time. He started off the meeting by saying, “You’ve all seen the materials. I want to go around the room and get some initial thoughts.”
Then he looked straight to his right and said, “Eric, you go first.”
I mumbled something along the lines of, “Well, in the materials I read, they say it plays the same as red clay…and…if it’s true that you can see the ball better on TV….then I guess I see no harm in trying it?” (voice trailing off at the end)
Adam (firmly): “OK, that sounds like one yes.”
Photo: Madrid Blue Clay
Novak was next. He said, “I actually had the chance to hit on the trial blue clay court last year during the event and it is horrible. So slippery. I think this a terrible idea.”
(I’m thinking, “OK, well, I hadn’t actually hit on the blue court, so that’s information I would have loved to have had before I put the first Yes on the board...”)
Next came Rafa. You know that thing Rafa does after the coin toss where he violently sprints to the baseline? Well, he isn't much different in the boardroom. When he’s passionate about something, he doesn’t hold back. He opened with a line that should have been enough: “All clay should be red.” But apparently that was just his topic sentence, because he continued on, “It is ridiculous to think we would play on blue clay only weeks before Roland Garros…” And then on he went passionately in Spanish for at least a minute making some point that was so important, he needed to make it in his native tongue. We all turned to Giorgio, our European board member anxiously awaiting his translation. “Rafa votes No,” Giorgio said, calmly.
(In my head: “Yeah, good point about Roland Garros....I hadn't really thought of that angle.”)
For me, a product of Minnesota, the very idea of clay is foreign. I wasn’t prepping to win Roland Garros for a fifth time. In terms of clay courts, my main concern is trying to slide without getting injured…color is of less importance.
Of course Roger was next. I was terrified awaiting his response.
He opened with, “I think the blue clay is actually a great idea!”
(I tried not to smile too obviously but my eyes must have brightened….suddenly I was feeling slightly better about my predicament.)
Then Roger continued: “And then we can bring out the clowns and the elephants and have a circus on the court!”
The whole room erupted into laughter at Roger’s joke.
I wanted to crawl under the table and die.
The vote ended 9-1. One of my good friends, fellow doubles player and council member Ashley Fisher, later admitted to me that he was planning on voting “Yes” too, but changed his vote to “No” after hearing the opinions of the Big Three. Luckily for Ashley, and not so luckily for me, he was at the other end of the table.
Photo: Novak expressing his disdain for the blue clay
Being part of the Player Council has been one of the greatest experiences of my tennis career. After that low moment, I knew there was nowhere to go but up. Over time, I gained the confidence to get more involved, and to continue to form my own opinions. In the same way that it often happens on court, I had bottomed out and was ready to start moving forward and upward. On tour, players have a lot of down time, so being on the Council has given me meaningful focus off the court. Additionally, it has given me an identity and helped to shape my entire playing experience. In many ways, the impact I’ve had on the Council dwarfs what I’ve done playing the sport.
As a result of my experience, I’ve come to believe strongly that all pro tennis players should have a second focus on the tour. Professional tennis has some really extreme ups and downs. Two weeks ago, I lost a match 18-16 in the super breaker; we had seven match points. If that result was all I had going on in my life on the road, I would have been distraught for days, nothing to distract me from the on-court failure. Having a hobby or something that you can try to control outside of your tennis performance takes your mind off the game and keeps you from doing counterproductive things, like staring at rankings and other peoples’ results. The Bryans play music, Rafa plays golf, I happened to get really involved with the Council.
After several terms, I was elected to the role of vice president. Some of the other council members thought I would be a good complement to Federer, who was president at the time, because we would see things from “different perspectives.” I wasn’t sure how much complementing Roger needed, but I did know we’d had drastically different experiences on tour. When he stepped down in 2014, I was fortunate enough to take over as president.
Photo: Eric Butorac, left, with his doubles partner, Raven Klaasen, was elected as a member of the player council six years ago.Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
When my term is up next month, I will have served eight years on the Council. Through my tenure, we’ve negotiated directly with the Grand Slams for the biggest prize money increases in history, and have seen a 500 percent increase in the player pension fund. Personally, I’ve learned to work cohesively with players from six different continents (and different tax brackets), and helped get them on the same page to achieve a common goal: growing the tour to a place we didn’t even know was possible. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Madrid and the blue clay…. We finally tried it in 2012, but after countless complaints, the tournament switched back to red the following year. Rafa can rest easy.