The Talent

August 29, 2008 6:03 PM

John McEnroe, Sr., Looking to Shake Up Men's Tennis

Posted by Brian Baxter


John McEnroe, Sr.--father of tennis legends John and Patrick McEnroe, and of counsel at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison--wants to become the new head of the ATP Tour. Like his sons, he's not shy about sharing his ideas to change men's tennis.

McEnroe, 73, joined Paul Weiss in 1967 after a three-year stint at Kelley Drye & Warren, and was promoted to partner in 1974.

Representing several tennis pros, including his sons, McEnroe has negotiated endorsement agreements and other contracts with various tennis tournaments and events across the globe. And over the years, the work has given him an insider's look into the world of professional tennis.

Now McEnroe is vying to be the next executive chairman of the ATP Tour, the men's tennis association which was founded in 1972 as the Association of Tennis Professionals. ATP's current chair, Etienne de Villiers, recently announced he'd be stepping down from the job once his contract expires at the end of the year.

(A quick note: Professional tennis is split into the Women's Tennis Association, known today as the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, and the ATP Tour.)

The Am Law Daily caught up with McEnroe on August 27--days into this year's U.S. Open tennis tournament--for a little volley and serve about his plans to reshape men's tennis.

So how did you come to throw your racket onto the court here?
Before de Villiers resigned, I wrote a letter to the players saying I was a candidate and wanted to take over his job. I've never met [de Villiers], I've never spoken to him, and I don't have anything against him, but the man hardly did anything right. He had lost the support of all of his constituencies, particularly from the players and the tournaments. There was no question he was going to be let go or not renewed.

Who do you apply to for the position?
I have to apply to the board of directors of the ATP Tour, which is comprised of three tournament and three player representatives. To the extent that there's a tie vote on any matter, de Villiers casts the deciding vote. So there's a chance that [de Villiers] could vote on his successor but I doubt very much that will happen since he's on the way out.

What has gone wrong for the ATP these past few years?
[de Villiers] passed rules that the top ranked players were extremely unhappy with, namely ones that required they play in any Tier I tournament, whether they like it or not. And [those players] also had an obligation to play in a certain number of Tier II tournaments. If you missed one, for example, you would have a portion of your bonus money at the end of the year docked. And of course that didn't suit the top players because nobody likes to be told where to go.

How would you change things if you take over?
One thing that has happened is Mercedes-Benz, which is the overall tour sponsor, has announced that it will not renew its sponsorship at the end of the year. So the next guy in charge is going to have to get a new worldwide sponsor. I happen to have dealt with almost every major corporate involvement in tennis, be it Nike, Dunlop, Sergio Tacchini, you name them. I've done contracts with those companies for one or both of my sons.

And I also believe that no player should be told that he has to play any place and that as long as his ranking qualifies him for entry, he's entitled to go wherever he wishes to go. I keep saying 'he' here because I'm only talking about the ATP. The WTA has its own rules, which for the moment I don't care about.

Some in tennis circles--your son John included--have advocated consolidating the ATP and WTA under one person, a so-called 'Commissioner of Tennis.' Would you be interested in such a position?
John's been talking about that for a long time and while I don't think it's a terrible idea, I don't think it's very likely to happen in the near term. John also thinks of himself as the best candidate for commissioner, and while I wouldn't argue with that, that's not what we're dealing with now.

Besides your prodigious tennis progeny, what else qualifies you for the position?
When John was at the very top of the game, 25 or so years ago, I represented the "quintessential quintet," which were, in alphabetical order, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Vitas Gerulaitis, McEnroe, and Guillermo Vilas. They were the top five players in the world [at the time].

Having represented them, John, and Patrick throughout their careers, I'm quite familiar with the issues facing the players. I also have over 25 years of experience here as a partner at Paul Weiss in the corporate department and I think that I'm probably the most qualified person alive to take over this job. I know that's a big statement but I would not say that about other jobs.

I take it your sons are supporting you in this endeavor?
Before I sent the letter to the players I cleared it with John and Patrick first. Because a few years ago I entertained the notion that I might be able to do some television commentary. They both were all over me. As I remember John telling David Letterman, 'Two McEnroes are a party and three is a crowd,' or something like that.

I understand that another one of your sons followed you into the legal field.
That's right, Mark, who used to work in the New York office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. Mark also worked in-house for Young & Rubicam and His wife, Diane, is of counsel with Sidley Austin in New York. In most people's houses he would be a fantastic tennis player!

Have you been out to the U.S. Open yet? Have you spoken to any player representatives regarding the position?
I was out [Tuesday] night and late in the afternoon. I spoke with Justin Gimelstob, who is a newly-elected member of the [ATP] board on the players' side. He and I spoke about possibly having meetings during the course of the [U.S.] Open. That hasn't yet taken place but the players are here to play tennis, not meet with me.

Do your sons get their temper from you?
Oh no, they get that from their mother.

Interviews are condensed and edited for grammar and style.

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I believe it would be a conflict of interest for this lawyer to represent the ATP if any tennis pro he or his firm ever represented is still in active play.

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