The Work

February 20, 2009 1:56 PM

Men's Tennis Tour GC Discusses the Israeli Player Visa Flap

Posted by Zach Lowe

When Mark Young took the general counsel job at the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1990, he didn't expect to be dealing with international crises two decades later. The ATP had just transformed from a players association into the governing body of men's tennis two years earlier, and Young, who had no sports law background, thought he'd stick around for two years or so before moving on. Flash forward 19 years, and he's still the GC--and the CEO of the ATP's North and South American operations. 

We talked to Young this week about the thorniest issue to hit tennis in some time: the United Arab Emirates's decision to ban a female Israeli player from entering a tournament in Dubai this week. That made fans wonder: would the UAE take the same stance against Andy Ram, an Israeli player and the world's No. 7 ranked male doubles player? Under pressure from the ATP and
an outraged tennis community, the UAE decided to grant Ram a visa. We talked to Young about that process, how the ATP decides who gets to host tournaments and several other issues.

Hi, Mark. Thanks for your time. What exactly are the rules for determining which players get to enter a tournament?

Simply stated, if a player, based on his ranking, is eligible to be entered into a tournament, the tournament has to accept him, nationality aside.

So who exactly is "the tournament"? Who "owns" tournaments in general, and in the case of the upcoming Dubai tournament and Andy Ram, does the tournament's owner have any relationship with the government of the United Arab Emirates?

The tournament is normally owned by a private entity that chooses to operate a tournament in accordance with our rules. Our tournament in Miami, for instance, is run by IMG, a sports marketing company. Our event in Cincinnati is run by a local nonprofit.

In this case, the tournament member is Dubai Duty Free, a tourism agency in Dubai. I don't know precisely what its relationship is with the UAE, but I feel comfortable describing it as an agency that receives some government assistance. It's akin to a national chamber of commerce, but they (Dubai Duty Free and the UAE) aren't one and the same.

How does the ownership of a tournament work? Is it something the owners have to renew every year, and can the ATP simply strip an owner of its property?

A tournament is a transferable property, and they have the right to have a tournament on our calendar every year--as long as they pay their annual dues to the ATP and follow our rules and obligations. It's perpetual; it doesn't have to be renewed annually. 

This week, a lot of people in the sports press said the ATP ought to cancel the event if it turned out Andy couldn't go. I'm sure in a big picture way, that's the right answer, but it's not quite that simple. We have due process hearings and requirements we must follow before we can act. Had we canceled, we'd have exposed ourselves and our membership to legal liability for not honoring a member's rights.

Say the UAE government denied Andy Ram a visa, and Dubai Duty Free came to you and claimed it couldn't do anything to stop the government--that the decision was made over its head, even though it owns the tournament. Could you still take the tournament away from Dubai Duty Free and sell it to someone else? And would you have to compensate Dubai Duty Free? 

There is a hearing process, and there is a spectrum of possibilities. But, there is the possibility that the ATP can simply decide it's contrary to the best interests of the ATP and its members to have a particular tournament and to terminate Dubai's membership without compensation. That is a possibility. I'm not saying that's going to happen in this case. I'm only saying it's a possibility.

Did you expect the Andy Ram issue to pop up this year with the Dubai event?

It's been on our radar screen. There wasn't a situation last year. No Israeli player decided to enter the tournament. But we knew that had one decided to do so, that there was the possibility of an issue. Following last year's event, we had a discussion with the tournament member where we emphasized its obligations to follow our rules, including our rules about player eligibility.

In advance of this year's tournament, we communicated with the member and sought assurances that players of all nationalities would be allowed to enter. When the women's event had the issue it had (ed. note: the UAE denied a visa to Shahar Peer, ranked No. 45 in the world), we immediately sent a communication to the tournament seeking its assurance that it would follow our rules. The clock then began ticking. Fortunately, not that many ticks happened before we got the right answer.

I imagine you'll be monitoring this going forward.

We're certainly not going to sleep on it now. But it looks like things are heading in the right direction.

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