Around the World in 50 Courts – International Agreements and Making Matches Competitive All While Avoiding Distracting Advertisements
There is good and bad about playing a small game. By now, you have seen much of the good. Players of small games are more enthusiastic and see themselves as integral to its very existence. After years of involvement, you have met many of the players from other countries and perhaps stayed in their houses and they in yours. You might even have written about it.
But there is a downside: the fewer the players, the less likely it is that there will be enough of them who play at your level. You have to be more open minded about those with and against whom you play.
Like golf, the solution to making matches competitive is handicaps.
For a time, handicaps were determined by one’s home court professional, but this was haphazard. Not only did the different pros apply different standards, but they also felt pressure to adjust handicaps in ways that kept members happy.
Fortunately, most players have sufficient egos that they want their handicaps to be lower so they will feel better about themselves. A few, of course, want their handicaps to be higher so they will win more tournaments. These people are known as bandits, and they are looked upon with disfavor.
There were a few years when the entire United States was out of kilter with the rest of the world because one former great could not bear the idea of his handicap going up as he grew older. He was pegged at 18 and the rest of the country was adjusted around him. As his “18” became the equivalent of a 25 or a 30 in other countries, Americans became less and less competitive.
Here is how the handicap system works in court tennis. It all depends on the odds of one player – me – winning a point against another player – you. For this example, you are a little better than me, so you are likely to win four points out of seven. We solve that by letting me start each game at 15. I only need to win three points (30, 40, game) while you need to win four (15, 30, 40, game). Should a game be tied at 40 all, we play just one point to decide it because playing more points (deuce, advantage) favors the better player.
Yes, our scoring system is just like tennis or, more accurately, theirs is just like ours because we got there first. With the handicap, each of us is likely to win about the same number of games and we will end up with very close sets even though we are of different abilities.
Like so many things, the computer was the solution to the problem of the pros assigning handicaps that were either too high or too low. After adjusting for possible home court advantage, all the computer asks is did you beat me or did I beat you (and what handicap did we use).
If you won, your handicap goes down and mine goes up. Over time, we should all get to the right level and have close matches even if you have to start at minus15 and I started at plus 15. Yes, the player disparities can be sufficient for one player to begin each game below zero.
Golf is different. You play against the course. Your opponent’s skill has no bearing on how you do. Each course is professionally evaluated to determine its level of difficulty relative to all other courses. If you play well on a particular day, the course doesn’t care. All that happens is that your handicap goes down and you get fewer handicap strokes the next time out. Conversely, if you play badly, the course beats you by more than expected and your handicap goes up so you get more handicap strokes in the next round.
In court tennis, your handicap is determined by two factors: how well or badly you played; and how well or badly your opponent played.
Two players can have their best days ever on a golf course and both of their handicaps will go down. The same two players can have their best days ever in court tennis, but one will lose, and his handicap will go up. Over time that tends to even itself out.
In court tennis, everyone has a handicap, and all of the data are kept in a computer called Real Tennis Online or RTO. Today, there are just under 12,000 of us. For part of its life, the RTO computer was located in Ballarat, Australia, and it was operated on sort of a volunteer basis by Tim Graham, a player who had the requisite programming skills.
In the spring of some year, likely between 2004 and 2006, I opened a bill from our country club here in Washington and noticed a line item called handicap fee. It was $25. (Please keep that figure some place handy in your mind.) I asked the head golf professional if anyone had ever objected to the charge.
“No,” he said. “Do you think it is too high?”
I didn’t, but my mind was elsewhere. Court tennis players were paying virtually nothing for handicaps and there were at the time about 10,000 of us. What if our friend in Ballarat, who did it as a labor of love, decided to sell the program to someone who wanted to charge each of us the entirely fair price of $25 per year? The handicap system could easily be worth $2 million. (I discussed this at some length with an investment banker.)
To say nothing of the fact that we had no control whatever over the website or the software itself. “What if Tim Graham (our handicap system manager) gets hit by a bus?” became a significant part of many conversations I was having as Chairman of the United States Court Tennis Preservation Foundation.
There was also the unpleasant prospect of an owner of the handicap system selling ads on the website as is now done in golf. Given the older male court tennis demographic, you can let your mind wander as to what companies might choose to advertise their products. I doubt it will take you very long.
With no authority whatever, I contacted Graham and we talked on the phone and by email. He was tiring of the current arrangement and was open to the idea of selling the handicap system to the game. He also mentioned that the Honorary Treasurer (the title for the volunteer finance person) of the Tennis & Rackets Association (the game’s UK governing body) had been having similar conversations with him. Graham suggested that we talk.
And thus, did I first meet James Walton, a player of roughly similar ability and a really clear thinker. Walton lives in a beautiful village called Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire.
We had several conversations about the RTO handicap system and concluded more or less immediately that the game had no choice but to buy it, lest it fall into unfriendly hands.
Politics suggested that no one country could buy it without raising eyebrows in the other three, because court tennis lacks a distinguished tradition of cooperation among the four national governing bodies. The players do fine but the countries less so. National noses get out of joint faster than individual noses. Fortunately, this situation is improving as the cost of communication and travel decrease.
We began discussions with Graham and arrived at a price relatively easily. The challenge became allocating the ownership among the United Kingdom, France, Australia and the United States. We chose a worldwide percentage-of-players formula in which UK would have 60%, Australia and the United States 17 1/2% each and France 5%. This approximated the share of players in each country.
Walton was able to keep the UK “on side” because of his position on the board, and I kept the US “on side” by not telling anyone what we were doing. Thanks to its status as a tax-exempt charity, the Foundation held most of the cash available to the game in the United States.
Australia was a bit trickier because their $15,000 or $20,000 share of the purchase price was not immediately available. It would only work if spread over two years.
Though the amount in question was minuscule – maybe $3000 to $5000 — France balked. On one visit to Paris, I had one of the most vitriolic conversations ever to be had in sidewalk café. In the end, we had to find a way around their designated spokesman and reduce their share from 5% to 2%, but the deal got done and now all four countries jointly control an important component of the game.
There was one other hurdle. Though the US cash would be provided by the Foundation, it was well outside our purview to make an international decision on behalf of the United States.
The US Court Tennis Association had been formed in 1955 and was possessive of its primacy. The US Court Tennis Preservation Foundation was nearly 40 years younger, but had the ability to raise money as a charity. Since its inception, the Foundation has undertaken several significant fund-raising campaigns.
Graham and Walton flew to Washington and we set the final terms in the garden of my house then went to play tennis together. Walton and I then traveled to New York for a meeting of the US Court Tennis Association where the entire matter would finally be made public.
It did not go well.
Of course, there were accusations of “not staying in my lane.” Entirely accurate I might add.
The most adamant of the board members tried to dismiss us from the meeting after our presentation saying, “we’ll form a committee and get back to you.”
“You can’t,” said Walton (if possible a little less politic than me and definitely with far less at stake).
“Why” asked the board member.
“Because we already bought it.”
That lead to an extremely awkward silence, but sometimes it is just better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Note: Remember how I asked you to keep the $25 golf handicap fee in mind? About 15 years later, the same fee at the same country club is $45. Had we not moved expeditiously, the court tennis handicap system might have been worth $4 million rather than $2 million. The price we paid was less than $100,000. And there are no male enhancement products advertised on the website.
The definitive agreement was signed at a lovely ceremony in the spring of 2008 during the World Championship Fontainebleau. Our hosts could not have been more gracious and they provided champagne to celebrate the occasion of international cooperation for the benefit of the game.
As seems to happen in many transactions, the bargaining positions were quickly forgotten and the benefits continue to be enjoyed by all of the world’s players.