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Masters Cup 2004:
The Return of the King
by Cliff Kurtzman
Publisher and Editor in Chief, Tennis Server

When Roger Federer returns to Houston in November of this year to compete in the 2004 Masters Cup, he arrives having achieved a virtually unparalleled level of dominance of the game over a period that began with the 2003 Masters Cup and has continued over the past eleven months without consistent challenge from any other player on the pro circuit. Andy Roddick received the trophy last year in Houston as the number one player in the world, but it was Roger's show all the way during the Masters Cup tournament. Federer played virtually flawless tennis and was undefeated in his five matches against Agassi, Nalbandian, Ferrero, Roddick and then again against Agassi in the finals, which he won 6-3, 6-0, 6-4. Roger's initial round robin match with Agassi (6-7(3) 6-3 7-6(7)) was the only one in which he was ever seriously in danger of losing.

2003 Masters Cup Champion Roger Federer
2003 Masters Cup Champion Roger Federer
Photo courtesy Getty Images/Clive Brunskill.

This year the Masters Cup again brings the top eight singles players and the top eight doubles teams in the world together for nine days of tennis in Houston. The tournament provides an unrivaled opportunity to see fifteen singles and fifteen doubles matches in which the world's top male players repeatedly square off against each other vying for a share of $3,700,000 in singles prize money and $750,000 in doubles prize money.

2003 Number 1 Player Andy Roddick
While Andy Roddick was named the Number 1 player of the year in Houston, he lost to Federer in the Masters Cup semi-finals
Photo courtesy Getty Images/Clive Brunskill.

In the singles this year, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Gaston Gaudio are guaranteed four of the eight singles slots. Carlos Moya, Marat Safin, Andre Agassi, and Tim Henman appear likely to fill the four remaining slots. In the doubles, defending champions Mike and Bob Bryan will join current World No. 1 pair Mark Knowles and Daniel Nestor and three-time reigning Wimbledon champions Jonas Bjorkman and Todd Woodbridge along with five other teams to compete for the doubles title.

Bringing the Masters Cup to Houston in 2003 and 2004 was the product of Jim and Linda McIngvale's audacious vision of making the city a focal point of the tennis world. And why not? The McIngvale's are no strangers to acting audaciously. The entrepreneurial couple started a company called Gallery Furniture in 1981 with just $5000, and over the past twenty-three years they have amassed a reported 200 million dollar fortune building it into the most successful and profitable home furniture store in the country. Jim is highly visible in the Houston community, saturating television and radio with a steady stream of commercials in which Jim (aka "Mattress Mack") obnoxiously jumps up and down wearing an American Flag shirt and shouting at a rate that seems to approach several hundreds of words a minute explaining how his store will "SAVE YOU MONEY." Obnoxious -- yes, but very successful as well. The profits from Gallery Furniture have enabled the McIngvales to make significant philanthropic and community contributions that have truly touched the lives of many, both inside and outside of the tennis world. Jim has made over 2,000 speeches to area school children about the importance of staying in school, believing in yourself, and saying no to drugs. Their business success has also allowed the McIngvales to indulge their passion for horse racing and tennis at a scale that is well outside the scope of what many of us who love the sports are able to enjoy.

Linda McIngvale, former President George Bush, Jim Mcingvale at the 2003 Masters Cup
Linda McIngvale, former President George Bush, Jim McIngvale at the 2003 Masters Cup
Photo courtesy Getty Images.
And while Roger Federer's dominance of the game is the biggest on court story in men's tennis today, the story of the McIngvales is surely one of the most interesting off court stories. It is a story of sweet and sour, of yin and yang. The first time I met Jim McIngvale was in 1998. We had both won an award called the Blue Chip Enterprise Award, given out by MassMutual and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The award recognized business owners that had overcome adversity to achieve significant success... I won the award for a marketing company I had founded (the company that built and launched the initial Tennis Server venture), and Jim McIngvale was recognized for building Gallery Furniture. Since that time, I've seen Jim speak at many business events I've attended, educating young entrepreneurs and explaining his approach to doing business--one which centers on combining an extraordinary work ethic with a very strong emphasis on understanding and being responsive to the customer.

Since the McIngvales purchased the Westside Tennis Club in 1994, they have spent a fortune renovating and improving Houston's largest tennis venue, which has a total of 46 tennis courts. The club has a full spectrum of outdoor hard courts, red clay courts, and grass courts, ten indoor Rebound Ace courts, a pool, clubhouse, weight and fitness center, and a restaurant. It takes a fairly large staff to run the facility, augmented by a small army of volunteers that come in to support the Masters Cup and the U.S. Clay Court Championship event, which is also held at the Westside Club. The McIngvales spent $10 million dollars building a new 7,500 person stadium to get the Masters Cup to come to Houston, along with $7 million dollars to obtain the rights to the event for two years and reportedly another $10 million dollars on promotions. In contrast to Houston's new football, baseball, and basketball stadiums, which relied on funding through tax dollar subsidies, this stadium was built entirely using private funds. While tickets were sold out for the 2003 Masters Cup, corporate sponsorships were less than expected, resulting in a reported $1.5 million dollar shortfall.

Gallery Furniture Stadium
Gallery Furniture Stadium at 2003 Masters Cup
Photo courtesy Josh Merwin.

Tournament Director Jim McIngvale walking the grounds and giving information to fans
Tournament Director Jim McIngvale walking the grounds and giving information to fans
Photo courtesy Josh Merwin.
Jim is a guy that believes in getting down in the trenches. If you saw the rain-interrupted finals to the 2003 Masters Cup live or on television, you undoubtedly saw him squeegeeing the court after the rain to help his staff dry it off--rather unusual behavior for a tournament director, but totally within his character. He spent considerable time at the event working the grounds and talking with fans. At the end of the U.S. Clay Court Championships this year, I watched him present the winner's check to Tommy Haas while I sat in the stadium stands. By the time I had exited the stadium and headed out to the gate of the Westside Club (the gate is a considerable distance from the stadium), Jim had already beat me there, and was vigorously trying to shake the hand of each fan leaving the venue in order to thank them for having attended the event.

But the McIngvales are also known to be quite abrasive, outspoken, and downright difficult to work with. Jim's loud cheering for Americans Roddick and Agassi during the early round matches at the 2003 Masters Cup upset the six other non-American players, and he was asked to tone down his enthusiasm. The festive atmosphere at the tournament had the energy of a Davis Cup tie--which was a good thing--but whether the tournament director should be publicly partisan towards any specific player is certainly questionable. The situation was exacerbated during the course of the tournament when there were a considerable number of apparently erroneous line calls during the matches, at critical junctures, and with the bad calls nearly always going in favor of an American player and against a non-American player. While the chair umpires at the matches are employed by either the ATP or the ITF, my understanding is that the lines-people calling the points were employees of the tournament and therefore on McIngvale's payroll. While I doubt there was any intentional bias towards the American players on the part of the lines-people, it creates an unavoidable appearance of a conflict-of-interest for them to have their boss so blatantly rooting for one of the contestants.

And there is no doubt that the line call situation has become a true embarrassment to the sport. It should not have taken a series of poor calls against the Williams sisters at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, sparking allegations of racism, to have forced the USTA, ATP, WTA and ITF to consider moving into the 21st century. During several of the disputed line calls at the 2003 Masters Cup, while his opponent was railing the chair umpire about a questionable call, Agassi would look up to the broadcast booth for signals from Mary Carillo and Patrick McEnroe, telling him (and the fans) whether the ball was really in or out after looking at the enhanced replay of the bounce. At a tournament at which so much money is on the line, and for which the entire event is played on just a single court, there is simply no excuse for not giving the chair umpire access to the appropriate technology, and developing protocols for using that technology to resolve disputes at appropriate times. Amazingly enough, after what happened in 2003, I don't believe there are any plans by the ATP to use technology to improve the line calling at the 2004 Masters Cup. And that is a pity, because it would make the event more fun and more fair, and there is no more important or easier place for the sport to demonstrate its ability to modernize than at this event. It would also be a big marketing point for the tournament to promote the event as the first professional tennis tournament using advanced technology for line calls.

One change that will be made for the 2004 event, however, is that the stadium court will be rebuilt with zero slope. During the 2003 event, some of the players were critical of the slightly sloped court--a slight slope is normal for outdoor hard courts--it is necessary for drainage purposes. However, based on the feedback from the players in 2003, the tournament made the decision not to slope the court this year because the surface is only used for two weeks of the year and the grounds crew has the best drying technology available.

Tennis Server readers may recall that as plans began to finalize to bring the 2003 Masters Cup to Houston, I polled our readers to get their input as to what would make it worthwhile for them to travel out to Houston to attend the event. I was overwhelmed with the enthusiastic responses and ideas that came in from our readers. As a Houstonian that is passionate about the sport of tennis and that has been working for ten years through Tennis Server to bolster Houston's place in the tennis community, I viewed the success of Masters Cup in Houston as something I considered to be extremely important, and was willing to put the resources of this publication behind helping it succeed. But when I went to the McIngvales with the results of our readers poll and an interest in working collaboratively to promote the event and create opportunities for our readers, the response was frankly so chilling I gave up on the idea. In all fairness, it should be noted that there was great cooperation later on--during the 2003 event itself, and subsequent to it, Love Advertising (the public relations firm that supports the media on behalf of Westside) has been extremely supportive of Tennis Server in every way possible.

An earlier Tennis Server story U.S. Professional Tennis: In Crisis examined the lack of press coverage at the 2003 Masters Cup, with a particular emphasis on the failure of the ATP to generate adequate interest in the event from the media and public. Tennis Server found the ATP to be quite supportive of the media once the event began. The ATP and Love Advertising provided an extensive media center and resources for the press. Prior to the event, we were told that because Tennis Server was located in Houston, the ATP would favor giving press credentials to non-local media (this made no sense to us whatsoever), and that they didn't know if there would be sufficient media passes available for Tennis Server... but in the end, the event was largely a non-show by much of the U.S. media, and Tennis Server received passes to all of the matches and post match interviews that we wished to attend, along with extensive hospitality.

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick talking to the press at the pre-tournament roundtable
Photo courtesy Cliff Kurtzman.
My only real complaint was that before the tournament began there was a roundtable session held that provided an opportunity for extensive one-on-one interviewing of each of the eight singles players by the media. Tennis Server was not given notice or details of this opportunity in order to adequately prepare for it, so when I learned of it at the last minute I decided to attend as an observer. My primary observation was that most of the questions asked of the players by the media were really idiotic, and the players truly showed great diplomacy in fielding highly repetitive and largely inane questions with grace and smiles. If the roundtable interviews are repeated during the 2004 Masters Cup, I'll hope to have enough notice to prepare for the sessions as well as poll our readers to get your questions for me to ask the players... we tried this approach once before when David Higdon interviewed Pete Sampras on behalf of Tennis Server readers, and the results were extraordinary.

Roger Federer at 2003 Master's Cup.
Roger Federer at 2003 Master's Cup
Photo courtesy Brian Kurtis, Kurtis Photography Inc.

Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi working the press
Photo courtesy Cliff Kurtzman.
In having a chance to watch and interact with the players closely at the 2003 Masters Cup, there were several striking observations. The first was the presence and demeanor of both Agassi and Federer. Both were true gentlemen in every dealing with the press and public. Both seemed at peace with themselves and with their place in the game. Both seemed completely "in the zone" both on and off the court--it is just amazing to watch Agassi work the press--he is an artist at it.

Then there was Roddick and Moya... both showed skills on the court that were absolutely mind boggling, coupled with lapses in concentration and on court judgment that were totally perplexing. If these two player can get their mental game where it needs to be, they can give Federer a run for his money, but if not, they just can't be consistent long enough to beat him unless he is having a very bad day.

Also observed was a noticeable effort on the part of Andy Roddick to be a spokesman and role model for the game, and to be diplomatic with the press, something which I don't think comes as naturally to him as it does for Agassi and Federer. Andy does not suffer fools well, but he clearly makes a determined effort to do it because he knows it is good for the sport. Finally, another observation was in the mental differences between the way the top doubles players play the game and the way it is played at my local club. Noticeable was the patience of the doubles players in waiting for the right ball to try to hit a winner off of, and how the top players gave positive reinforcement to their teammate after each and every point, regardless of whether or not they had won or lost it.

From the perspective of the players, I think that the 2003 Masters Cup was a mixed bag. Agassi and Roddick were clearly appreciative of what the McIngvales have done for the sport, and realize very well that tennis has no greater financial supporter in the U.S. than Jim and Linda. The six non-U.S. players, however, voiced concern over the partisanship of the tournament director, the quality of the line calls, the sloping of the court, the capacity of the stadium, and the facilities for the players. In response to this last concern, another improvement for the 2004 Masters Cup has been the construction of private locker rooms for each of the singles players.

Brad Gilbert and Mandy Moore
Brad Gilbert and Mandy Moore cheered on Andy Roddick
Photo courtesy Cliff Kurtzman.
But what did the fans that attended think? I spoke with quite a few of them during the 2003 Masters Cup, and they were unanimous... they loved the event and the venue. Everyone had a seat with a good view, the food concessions were reasonably priced, there were opportunities to greet and get autographs from the players as they entered and left the stadium, the atmosphere was full of excitement and energy, celebrities ranging from former President Bush to singer/actress Mandy Moore were in attendance, and the level of tennis was incredible. Of fifteen doubles matches, seven were decided in a tiebreaker, as were two of fifteen singles matches. Combining the year end doubles championship with the singles championship had not been done in many years, but it worked brilliantly, and the audience loved watching the drama of the doubles matches. The opening night doubles match in which Bob and Mike Bryan defeated Martin Damm and Cyril Suk 7-5, 6-7(0), 7-6(4) was undoubtedly the most exciting and exceptional tennis match I have ever witnessed, singles or doubles.

Bob and Mike Bryan, 2003 Masters Cup Doubles Champions
Bob and Mike Bryan, 2003 Masters Cup Doubles Champions
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Clive Brunskill.

The season ending WTA Championships, on the other hand, held in a large but largely unattended stadium in Los Angeles, were generally perceived as a complete bust. WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott came out to the 2003 Masters Cup to discuss with Jim McIngvale and ATP CEO Mark Miles the idea of combining the men's and women's year end championships in Houston in 2005. In the end, the idea didn't fly due to logistical difficulties such as conflicts between competing sponsors of each tour, but I suspect that McIngvale is absolutely correct in his assertion that combining the events would be good for the sport and good for the fans.

And the contrasts and contradictions continue. A November 2003 article in Tennis X, Tennis at a Crossroads: Why the Year-end Championships Are a Bust by Richard Vach took a fair and balanced look at the politics behind the scene, discussing McIngvale's important contributions to the game along with the damage control that is sometimes necessary due to his "enthusiasm" for the sport and its American players. Vach stated "McIngvale, when he comes out of the back rooms in front of the TV cameras, appears as an unpolished jingoistic backwoods buffoon to international tennis fans. Then when he opens his mouth, it frequently gets worse... [snip] Here the ATP has a golden goose, a man willing to give millions out-of-pocket to promote the sport, but this goose also craps all over the place and makes European and American fans alike say "Ewww." And don't think that while Mattress Mac is working his business connections to bring the men's and women's championships together, the ATP isn't behind the scenes trying to figure out how to keep this PR nightmare to a minimum. Along with the International Tennis Federation and the Grand Slam Committee, which co-sponsor the Masters Cup, the ATP must now find a way to assure non-U.S. players and fans alike that the tour isn't being draped with the stars and stripes."

Andre Agassi at 2003 Master's Cup.
Andre Agassi at 2003 Master's Cup
Photo courtesy Brian Kurtis
Kurtis Photography Inc.
Compare that assessment with Andre Agassi's statement that "It's incredible to see what they've created. Mack is one the greatest human beings I've ever seen when it comes to his commitment to put his money where his mouth is, to step up to the plate and actually affect the things he claims he cares about. I've seen him care about children, and I've seen him care about tennis. I admire him, and I'm inspired by him. He's absolutely pushing this sport forward single-handedly." At the end of the day both assessments are true, which is why Jim McIngvale is such an amazing bundle of contradictions for the sport to deal with.

Since the 2003 Masters Cup, considerable frustration has been voiced by Jim McIngvale aimed at the ATP, and relations are likely to be chilly when the 2004 event takes place this November. When it became clear that the ATP would be moving the Masters Cup back to Shanghai in 2005 for three years, a story in the Houston Chronicle reported Jim McIngvale calling the ATP "a terrible partner, absolutely terrible," and naming ATP CEO Mark Miles as "worthless," stating that "we had no relations last year so it couldn't be any worse. The guy never called me, not one time all year until he showed up. Then all he wanted to do was whine about how we hadn't spent enough money to entertain their clients." A subsequent Houston Chronicle story discussed the fallout from his comments. Mark Miles responded in a restrained manner, stating that the McIngvales "have done phenomenal things for the promotion of the sport in the United States, for which we are grateful."

Details of the on court action at the 2003 event are at masters-cup.com, and the 2004 event will be covered there as well. A DVD documentary of the 2003 tournament ATP Tennis Masters Cup Uncovered provides some fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses into the lives of the players and the McIngvales. A Tennis Magazine Review of the DVD provides more details.

And for me... I can hardly wait for November 13th, and a chance to see some of the best men's tennis in the world again in my own backyard. I hope many Tennis Server readers will have a chance to join me.

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