Delegates from the record 155 national tennis associations attending the 2019 ITF Conference and AGM were challenged to continue driving change in the sport to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the global sporting landscape.
Welcoming the delegates to the conference in Lisbon, ITF President David Haggerty introduced the overarching theme of the conference: transforming tennis.
“Transforming means bringing about tangible, significant change,” he said. “It means delivering a step-change in the role, ambition and abilities of the ITF and member nations. So when we talk about transforming tennis you can see that it is real, and it is already having a positive impact throughout the tennis world.”
Among the key reforms of recent years, the ITF has restructured both the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, with the new Finals formats making their debuts in Madrid in 2019 and Budapest in 2020 respectively.
The revamped ITF World Tennis Tour Junior World Tennis Tour and World Tennis Ranking were introduced this in 2019 to provide a pathway from junior and entry-level tiers of the sport towards the ATP and WTA Tours, with many top juniors already reaping the benefits as they make their first strides into the senior ranks.
And the World Tennis Number was launched in July 2019, with the aim of helping players of all abilities worldwide to determine their individual level so they can identify opponents and competitions of an appropriate standard, leading to more competitive and enjoyable playing opportunities.
After a social media workshop with speakers from social media agency Livewire Sport, who work with the ITF, and Facebook on Wednesday morning, the theme of transformation continued during the afternoon sessions as Chief Operating Officer Kelly Fairweather discussed the shifts in the traditional federation model in an increasingly data-driven, digital and consumer-focused world.
“The need to transform is real, and urgent,” he urged in his summary of the findings of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations report into the future of global sport.
“When you look across all major sports and the rapid change and disruptions, the best place to start is by looking at young consumers and the different demands they are making on sports and leisure time. PWC lists shifting behaviour of the younger generation as the number one threat to the sports industry.
“Our content has to be increasingly innovative to appeal to fans who are digital-first in order to keep their attention. It’s clear to us that digital transformation will become a major focus in the coming years.”
“It’s not about if we have to transform, it’s how we have to transform,” host Annabel Croft echoed ahead of a panel discussion featuring Jennifer Bishop of Tennis Canada, Tennis Kenya’s Wanjiru Mbugua-Karani, Roger Davids of the Netherlands and Rithivit Tep of Tennis Cambodia shared their nations’ experiences, success stories and goals in growing the sport.
The debate touched on a range of subjects, from the challenges of retaining youngsters in sport after leaving school in the Netherlands, to the impact of affirmative efforts to form diverse committees that truly represents Kenya, as well as the framework that allowed a nation with 25 qualified coaches to target reaching 20,000 kids in Cambodia, and the issue of making tennis accessible to both urban and remote communities in Canada.
At the heart of each story, however, was one abiding theme: the passion for tennis is truly global.
“We were a war-torn nation, and to rebuild tennis in our country was extremely challenging,” Tep said of his own 25-year involvement Cambodia’s tennis renaissance since the sport was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. “But if we fast-forward, our programmes now engage 13,000 kids in tennis twice a week.”
In a rapidly changing world, the ITF is intent on future-proofing the sport, in step with the goals of the ITF’s fellow Olympic federations, as laid out by David Luckes of the IOC.
“We need to identify the trends, the threats and the opportunities within the world of tennis,” Luckes said. “The pace of change within sport means all organisations will have to be mobile, flexible enough in their approach to be able to adapt to a changing landscape that we will all encounter.
“The IOC’s vision is aimed at delivering a better world through sport, and this will be very similar to many sporting organisations that aim to demonstrate the positive value that sport can offer to current and future generations,” he continued, before adding: “Athletes are the most valuable resource that any sports organisation can have.”