Michael Downey, 50 years old is the CEO of Tennis Canada since June 2004. He came to tennis after serving leadership roles with Molson and Skydome. Michael is married to Beth, lives in the Beach area of Toronto, has two sons Mackenzie 12 and Sam 10, an overweight but lovable dog, a parrot (50th birthday gift from his family) and a lizard (which he has never touched). Michael has brought professionalism to Tennis Canada which makes it one of Canada’s healthiest national sport organizations.
On Court: What is your read on the present situation where professional tennis is under scrutiny for gambling infractions, do you think it is a serious problem and how do you see it being dealt with?
MD: It’s of serious concern and that is why all governing bodies – the ATP, WTA, ITF and the Slams are working together to assess the landscape and develop joint rules of engagement. There will be no tolerance when the integrity of our game is being challenged. I think we will see moving forward tougher rules on who and when people are allowed in the player lounges during tournaments – this is where people may get, the key word being may, information on individual players prior to matches.
On Court: The use of steroid was seen as foreign to tennis in the 90’s, but now with the positive testing of some well known players, isn’t it obvious that tennis which has fast become a power sport is a prime candidate for drug abuse?
MD: No not really. Again, both Tours, the ITF and the Slams have agreed to work with the Anti-doping authorities to make sure testing procedures are world class. Tennis is at the leading edge in this area.
On Court: If international performance is the standard used for player subsidy in this country in most sports, are we not somewhat promoting the use of these illegal substances which in many cases make the difference between a good international showing versus a great one?
MD: We can’t water down the system because of these risks. The best standard is how an elite player ranks in the world – that is always the ultimate test for Canada’s upcoming and best athletes. More so than ever we compete in a Global society.
On Court: The three major sport bodies in tennis are the ITF, the WTA and the ATP. Please describe for us how you perceive these sport institutions and the issues that lie ahead for them in the next five years?
MD: They are well run organizations led by people with sound business minds and passion for the sport. They must have both. We are proud that Stacey Allaster, who started at the OTA, then progressed to be our Toronto Tournament Director is now the President of the WTA. Moving forward these groups must work closer together to ensure the sport moves in unison. They also need to continually embrace change. Change is good. They must also continue to realize that the fan is the ultimate judge. We must become a leading fan friendly sport.
On Court: Do you believe that the structure of professional tennis as it relates to tournament schedules should be altered to provide more tournaments were the top players must participate or do you feel that this would restrict the ability to offer tennis in so many venues?
MD: The schedule for a professional player is rigorous to say the least with numerous competitions in all parts of the world. The season is long – starting in January and ending in November. No other sport has such a short off season.
The changes to be implemented in 2009 by both tours will help the tournaments, the players and ultimately in the players. It is rooted in the principle that the best players should play the best tournaments. Luckily for us – Canada has two of the best tournaments. It will cost us more in prize money for our Rogers Cup events – but the top player commitment will be strengthened further.
On Court: What is your read on the health of the sport in Canada and what do you see as the major obstacles stopping tennis from becoming as popular in Canada as in Europe or South America?
MD: Tennis is in a good place in Canada but we cannot be satisfied – key word being “we”. The health of the sport is not the sole domain of Tennis Canada. Everyone who picks up a racquet, arranges a tournament, coaches a player etc – has to contribute. They should want to contribute because of what the game means to them. Our sport is growing which is a good sign. For the 4th consecutive year, participation is up – now back to 1997 levels with about 1.8 million Canadians claiming to play regularly. For me it all starts with the size of the pond. If the pond is shrinking then the balance of the game will be impacted. It’s also a good sign that the PMB research we purchase indicated that among all sports tennis has grown the most among the future generation – kids 12-18. Tennis is like a religion in some countries in the world. Like hockey is to Canadians. However, that doesn’t mean our sport cannot reach higher heights both in participation and at the elite, professional level. To do so – we need more year round facilities. People need to be able to play tennis 12 months a year. We also need to make the game easier for kids to pick up – we believe progressive tennis which is now used in so many countries will help in this regard. We also need role models for kids – more Daniel Nestor’s. Kids like to emulate the best, whatever sport they love.
On Court: We know you are a private person but news of your recent health battle are known to many in the tennis community, what is the status now of your battle, and how do you cope with this difficult situation.
MD: I’m doing fine. Very well, actually. I weathered 5 weeks of daily radiation and chemotherapy with flying colors if I may say. I got to work most days. My family and friends both in and outside of tennis have been so supportive. That has been very important to me. I also know I’m under the world’s best care at Princess Margaret Hospital. I enjoyed inviting all the ladies of Radiation unit #5 to the Rogers Cup next summer in Toronto on my last day of treatment. I now head to surgery in December and more chemo in January. But it’s all about one day at a time – and staying positive. I am totally convinced that a lot of good will come out of having cancer.
On Court: I you had three wishes for Canadian Tennis, what would they be?
MD: Not in any order. 1) The tennis “family” continues to unite to grow the sport at all levels. 2) Over the next 10 years the sport benefits from an influx of new facilities and facilities upgrades – so participation can continue to flourish and 3) Canada has a continuous group of talented athletes in the top 50 in the world. And maybe a couple in the top 10 or 20.
On Court: Thank you Michael and good luck, our best wishes are with you
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