Culture Clash On The ISDA Tour
by Rob Dinerman

December 3, 2003 -As if the ISDA doubles tour has not been plagued by enough adversity this fall, during which there have been two cancellations (in Vancouver and Philadelphia, both of which are established sites) in the first four ranking tournaments of the 2003-2004 schedule, Executive Director James Hewitt sent an email to all tour members yesterday morning in which he enclosed a copy of a letter of complaint about player conduct written to ISDA President Gary Waite last spring by Samuel F. Abernethy, the Chairman of the Racquets, Tennis & Squash Committee of the Racquet & Tennis Club in New York, which is by any measure one of the most influential clubs currently supporting the ISDA tour.

In the accompanying statement Hewitt appended to the copy, he advised the membership that this letter "was only one example of some of the complaints that the ISDA has been receiving with respect to the poor behavior on and off court of some ISDA players" and asserted that going forward the ISDA would be "more diligent about issuing fines and suspensions to those players who do not abide by the ISDA code of conduct as a means of ensuring the professionalism at ISDA events."

Mr. Abernethy focused the bulk of his comments on the final round of last spring's Kellner Cup, which is arguably the most coveted title of the entire season due to its substantial purse ($80,000), its late-April time slot as a kind of climactic moment of the lengthy season, its continuous presence throughout the first four years of the ISDA's short but incandescent existence and its mid-town Manhattan location at the University (quarter-finals), Union (semis) and Racquet & Tennis (final) Clubs.

The 2003 final was particularly well played, exciting, competitive and intense, with three-time defending champions and perennial No. 1 Waite and Damien Mudge winning the second game by one point (on a daring Mudge serve-return winner) to go up two games to love, only to then lose the third and fourth games to their most serious rival (and authors of their lone previous 2002-2003 defeat) Blair Horler and Clive Leach, who then went up 14-10 in the fifth.

Mudge and Waite saved three consecutive match-points against them to climb back to 13-14 before a Horler backhand-reverse volley winner gave him and his partner
by far the most important and dramatic victory and title of their careers.

The play was extremely physical, especially during the latter tension-filled laps of this nearly two-hour classic, as befits a match of this magnitude played, as this one was, as part of a growing rivalry between two teams whose members are particularly motivated for reasons professional, financial and personal to defeat each other. Understandably in view of the foregoing, the repartee with referee Larry Sconzo, who had to make a number of close and (given the tightness of the score) important calls, was correspondingly forceful and spirited. But in the view of almost all of the ISDA players who were present that night, nothing that happened either during the points or between them exceeded the bounds of acceptable conduct; indeed, the passion and desire demonstrated by all four ISDA stars doing battle actually added to rather than detracted from the evening's charged atmosphere and constituted a celebration of the professional strides this still very young organization has already taken.

The thrust and gist of Mr. Abernethy's eloquent letter, whose genesis lay not only in his own observations from his front-row gallery perch that night but also from three separate letters the Committee he chairs subsequently received from influential club members criticizing the way the players acted, was significantly contrary to this latter view, a dissonance which itself points up a growing and troublesome phenomenon that has begun to present itself during the ISDA tour's evolution. As

Mr. Abernethy explicitly noted in the closing passage of his two-page letter, clubs like Racquet & Tennis provide a considerable portion of the prize money for the ISDA tour, and the potential disaffection of these member/patrons who essentially underwrite the purses for these events would consequently have destructive consequences for the tour's vitality and for the ability of its performers to reap the financial rewards of their praiseworthy skills and athleticism.

To a degree that for the most part exceeds that of the WPSA hardball and PSA softball tours, the ISDA tour plays almost entirely in exclusive and prestigious private clubs, since those are the only type that possess doubles courts. A kind of culture clash appears to have arisen between the genteel, sportsmanship-oriented aura that pervades this kind of institution and the aggressive on- (and occasionally off-) court personalities that to a noteworthy degree characterize the sport's most successful practitioners. Mr. Abernethy himself hit upon this emerging mismatch when he decried the "glaring demeanor and outright criticism of the referee" and asserted that the player comportment during the final "significantly detracts from our enjoyment of the game and is entirely at odds with the values and culture of our clubs and those of other clubs supporting the game."

While the top players definitely need the support of these clubs' membership in order for a pro doubles tour of any substance to exist, they are having an understandably difficult time re-calibrating (which for the most part entails consciously toning down, perhaps to the detriment of their won-loss records, a reduction most players will not abide) the approach that has heretofore served them so well to meet the expectations (indeed, requirements) of a patron group on whose goodwill their viability depends. The collision between these two life forces appears to have left both sides smarting a bit, a situation Mr. Abernethy's letter brought into sharp relief, and it will be interesting to see if Hewitt and the player group that he and ISDA President Waite head can reach a successful resolution to this potentially nettlesome issue and regain the momentum that the ISDA tour enjoyed throughout the first few years of the 21st century prior to encountering the various difficulties that have arisen in recent months.

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