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Men's Group Hasn't Quite Found Its Way

IMTA, a players-only trade association, creates stir, but its effect on ATP remains unclear.

June 28, 2003|Lauren Peterson | Times Staff Writer

Is it a player or a pawn?

Deciphering the role of the International Men's Tennis Assn. in the power play going on outside the lines in professional tennis isn't easy, even for the fledgling players-only trade association.

"The IMTA has created a lot of reaction and action," said Henri-James Tieleman, the administrative director of the group. "But if you ask if the players' lives are being affected and changed for the better, no. We haven't achieved what we could achieve yet."

Formed in March, the IMTA has tried to improve communication between players and the ATP Tour, as well as to gain information on business issues such as pension plans, prize money and the marketing and promotion of tennis.

"Since we started the IMTA, things have been going in the right direction," said Wayne Ferreira of South Africa, an Australian Open semifinalist in January who has been serving as the front man of the group. "It's working [and] hopefully, it'll continue."

IMTA counts among its members an eclectic mix of active and inactive players, top singles and doubles competitors, a slew of mid-level players and some up-and-coming young stars.

The leaders include Tieleman, the owner of an Italian tennis-clothing firm who never played professionally, and a pair of injured veteran workhorses of the ATP Tour, Ferreira and Laurence Tieleman, Henri-James' younger brother.

Ferreira, a 31-year-old former ATP Tour player-council member, has been sidelined recently because of a torn tendon in his right hip. Laurence Tieleman, 30, is a 10-year pro contemplating retirement because of a 2001 back injury that has relegated him to the comeback trail on the challenger circuit.

The highest-ranked player among IMTA supporters is world No. 2 Lleyton Hewitt. He has a $1.5-million lawsuit pending against the ATP, prompted by a $106,000 fine levied against him for failing to do a television interview at a tournament in Cincinnati in August. In January, the fine was reduced to $20,000 on appeal, but Hewitt believes he was punished unfairly and wants an apology from ATP officials.

Jeff Tarango -- an American best remembered for a 1995 incident in which he argued wildly with a chair umpire and became the first player in Wimbledon history to walk off the court in the middle of a match -- is also on a recently released list of 62 IMTA supporters. So are 1993 French Open doubles champions Luke and Murphy Jensen, retired brothers who were known as much for their flamboyance as their tennis prowess.

"We've been in the game so long, I see both sides of it," Luke Jensen said. "My thing is, there is no tour and there's no tennis without the players."

Still, IMTA hasn't fostered credibility with the ATP.

"In my opinion, a lot of the players who first signed on to the IMTA did it to get information," said tour veteran Todd Martin, the president of the ATP player council, which provides input to player representatives on the tour's board of directors. "And now that they have, that's it. They feel like, 'No, the IMTA does not represent me, the ATP does.' I don't think the 62 players who signed the form are a fair representation of all the players in the ATP."

Laurence Tieleman is concerned that valid issues and opinions may be obscured in attempts to minimize the IMTA. He also said that the tour owed all players full disclosure of and as much assistance as is needed in understanding complicated business issues, adding that the ATP has not provided it.

"Really, I'm a bit upset and surprised about the way the ATP is handling itself in all this," Tieleman said. "We wouldn't have 62 players signed up with us if everything was perfect, and I think it's time for a change."

Matthew Rapp, ATP vice president of communications, contends that tour officials have been as forthcoming as possible with information, but it is up to players to be sure they understand it.

"The fact of the matter is, most of these guys have spent their entire lives playing tennis," he said. "There are some very bright guys out there who are interested in and understand a lot of this stuff. There are others who never paid any attention to it. It's just the nature of the sport. Many of them have not finished high school, let alone gone to college. There's a lot of stuff going on, and it's not simple."

IMTA's genesis can be traced to 2001, when a $1.2-billion marketing deal between ATP and ISL Worldwide fell through, contributing to recent financial and promotional woes of the tour, and when Laurence Tieleman suffered a back injury. Tieleman, ranked as high as 76th in 1999, suffered a herniated disk in February of 2001, underwent surgery in July of that year, has not played in a tour event since and is headed for retirement. Under ATP policy, Tieleman said, he does not qualify for a pension, despite a decade-long career.

"I had a lot of time on my hands, and it seemed like a good time to look into these types of things," he said. "I didn't really think it was going to come down to this."

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