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  • Tuesday Talk -- Tennis Chief on Davis Cup, Mixed Doubles at 2012 Olympics


    Francesco Ricci Bitti is a member of both the IOC and the Italian NOC's executive board. (Getty Images)
    (ATR) International Tennis Federation president Francesco Ricci Bitti tells Around the Rings his sport's Olympic reinstatement in 1988 is a major cause of the marked parity present in today's game.

    Ricci Bitti spoke to ATR in between his September reelection and this weekend's Davis Cup finals between 2009 champ Spain and 2008 runner-up Argentina to be staged in Seville.

    Read on for his thoughts about another term as ITF president, the addition of mixed doubles to the Olympic program, the readiness of Wimbledon as the 2012 tennis venue and the well-being of the world’s largest annual team competition.

    Around the Rings: You were re-elected in September to serve as ITF president through 2015. What’s atop your agenda for these next four years?

    Francesco Ricci Bitti: My agenda hasn’t changed. I want to continue our work to strengthen our major competitions, Davis Cup by BNP Paribas and Fed Cup by BNP Paribas; work even harder to make the Olympic tennis event one of the most successful in the Games and concentrate on the important development work that is our mission around the world.

    While tennis has many governing bodies, the ITF and our member regional and national associations are the only ones who work both inside and outside the professional game. Our job is to ensure that tennis continues to prosper at all levels, from grass roots to the top of the game, and to serve as the guardian for the integrity of tennis through the rules of tennis, our science and technical department, the Tennis Anti-Doping Program and the Tennis Integrity Unit.

    This is a full plate of activities making every day of my term as president challenging and enjoyable.

    ATR: Days after contesting the US Open men’s final, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal returned to the court to represent their respective countries in Davis Cup. In those two ties, tennis fans saw the best (Nadal dominating Frenchmen Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) as well as the worst (Djokovic collapsing to the court against Argentine Juan Martin del Potro) of the world’s largest annual team competition on display. Does Davis Cup need to be fixed in any way, or are its current format and scheduling the best players can hope for?
    When Seville's Olympic Stadium last hosted the Davis Cup finals in 2004, Spain walked away the winner and an 18-year-old Rafael Nadal (second from right) the hero. (Getty Images)

    FRB: Davis Cup, as pure competition, is one of the best in any sport. It offers players a chance to compete for their countries on a rotating home-and-away basis. The players are passionate about Davis Cup; they enjoy being part of a team; and the fans, both in the venues and at home on television or the internet, are among the most engaged in tennis. The atmosphere at Davis Cup is really something special and needs to be seen to be appreciated.

    The calendar is another issue, quite apart from Davis Cup although it does affect the competition. Tennis is much more physical today than it was a decade ago and the players need time to recover. The current thinking by many is that a longer off-season is what is required. I don’t necessarily agree with that position, thinking that it is the player commitment rather than the total number of tournaments that is the real issue; however, the calendar is a negotiation between the tours, the Grand Slam tournaments and the ITF and we make up a small portion of that process.

    A few years ago, the players asked us to play Davis Cup in the weeks following the Grand Slam tournaments and we reluctantly agreed. In the past, there was a week (perhaps for many a recovery week) between the Grand Slam tournaments and Davis Cup. Having experienced the current scheduling for a few years, the top players are now not as convinced that the weeks after the Slams work for Davis Cup. It does not present an easy solution.

    If the Tour wants a longer off-season and doesn’t want to cut down on its mandatory commitment events, then the calendar will be squeezed. There are some who say that Davis Cup should change but, in my view, the people who control the largest portion of the professional calendar should be the ones making the adjustments, not the people who control less than 10 percent. We at the ITF are always available to sit down with other parties and suggest ways that the situation regarding the calendar can be improved for everyone. I can assure you that the parties involved will find a viable solution to the issue and that, in the meantime, Davis Cup is strong enough to weather some rough calendar seas.

    Petra Kvitova of Czech Republic won her first grand slam at Wimbledon and finished the year ranked No. 2. (Getty Images)
    ATR: The men now have seven different countries represented in the top 10 of the world rankings, and the women have 13 represented in the top 15. Such parity sure makes for a more exciting Davis Cup, but what does this mean for tennis at large?

    FRB: We at the ITF believe that it is the return of tennis to the Olympic Movement in 1988 that has been a catalyst for the great national diversity that we are enjoying in tennis. The investment by National Olympic Committees in tennis since that time has helped to grow the game in those countries. Coupled with the ITF’s own development efforts and the Grand Slam Development Fund, more and more nations are producing quality players and this has, in my view, been a very positive result for tennis.

    ATR: Switching gears a bit, how did Wimbledon go from an Olympic test event point-of-view?

    FRB: With all due respect to LOCOG, we were able to test very little during the recent Wimbledon Championships. As the Olympic footprint is very different to that of the Championships, there were limited opportunities to test during the tournament itself. We recently completed a technology simulation test that was successful and we look forward to testing other aspects of the competition in the coming months.

    ATR: What concerns do you have about the tight timing between Wimbledon 2012 and the Summer Games? Can the grass grow back in just three weeks?

    FRB: We are assured by the Wimbledon groundskeepers that the grass will be ready for the Olympics but there are other installations, like the new broadcaster booths, that will take time to build and test and I am a bit concerned that we have a limited amount of time to achieve this. Between us, LOCOG and the ITF have a talented and dedicated team working at the Olympic tennis event and I know that they will do their best, even miracles if necessary, to have everything ready on time.

    ATR: Your sport is one of only a few with a new event in store for London 2012. What will mixed doubles add to the Olympic tennis competition?
    Areas around the baseline get especially worn during the two weeks of Wimbledon, demanding the grass be regrown before the Games. (Getty Images)

    FRB: Mixed doubles will add a new and popular element to Olympic tennis. It is very popular with the fans, something we know from the Grand Slam tournaments and from our own Hopman Cup, and we believe that people will be intrigued to see the top players pair up for this new discipline. Mixed doubles has helped us to position the Olympic tennis event as something different from the usual tour and team competitions with the ability to compete both as an individual and a team for your country.

    ATR: Is there any wiggle room in the qualification system for top performers from past Olympics whose rankings very well may be abysmal come 2012 like, say, three-time gold medalist Venus Williams?

    FRB: There is no wiggle room if a country can fill its allotment with qualified players who have also met the requirement to play Davis Cup or Fed Cup for their country. We want a fair and transparent system for entry for everyone. One of the principles for entry into the Olympic tennis event is that an athlete is in good standing with his or her national governing body which means, in practical terms, to make yourself available to compete in Davis Cup or Fed Cup.

    ATR: It’s certainly a trend with plenty of exceptions, but the Olympic tournament is known among tennis fans for producing some pretty random results in the past. Is it good or bad for the sport to have players who aren’t necessarily household names winning medals at the Games?
    Athens 2004 gold medalist Nicholas Massu of Chile is one of the sport's more surprising Olympic champions. (Getty Images)

    FRB: Tennis is a sport with great depth and we have surprising results all the time. However, I think an honor roll that includes Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, Michael Stich, Jennifer Capriati, Andre Agassi, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Todd Woodbridge/Mark Woodforde, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo, Rafael Nadal, Elena Dementieva, Fernando Gonzalez and Roger Federer is something to be proud of. For the others, perhaps less well known, our sport is enhanced by their results, not diminished. They are proud to have won medals and we are proud to list them among our medalists.

    Interview conducted by Matthew Grayson.

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