Steve Simon: Women’s tennis exec tries to make the tour more accessible to men

BEIJING — Steve Simon, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, can see all five courts of the Beijing airport. He’s landed in his birthplace China, after a week-long journey from Los Angeles and a half-century’s worth of trying to leave the impression that women have more value, more allure and more relevance to the male dominated world of sport than their male counterparts.

“My dad always told me growing up that if I couldn’t see my dad make it happen, then I didn’t see anything happening,” Simon said in an interview during the Beijing WTA tournament. “So I haven’t had a father figure in my life … in most respects I still don’t have one but I hope he is proud of the fact that I am able to help where I can.”

Simon’s journey this week seems at once simple and the culmination of those hard-fought expectations. For one, Simon, the only men’s executive on the WTA board of directors, joined the board in 2014, alongside Lianne Sanderson, a manager at Armani Exchange and tennis agent.

More than a passing moment, that has led to a pair of breakthroughs:

The rise of Maria Sharapova, whose return from her 15-month doping ban was delayed due to her rival Vania King’s taxing pregnancy and ill-advised decision to stop playing the course.

And a venue change in the 2016 Miami tournament that is expected to ease traffic and make the experience for tennis players a little less stressful. “It is a big deal,” Sanderson says. “I know it is for many people on the women’s side.”

So when Simon’s return from the airport, he set out to lobby to keep the entire tournament in Florida, in time for the business process to be coordinated. “It was his thing. He was just such a great catalyst for that,” says Sanderson.

In New York in 2014, Simon made an offhand comment, and now it’s been put on permanent display. “In New York, I remember mentioning a year ago there were better ways to get there,” he said.

His follow-up conversation: “Aww, didn’t think they had more flights.”

Finally the airports in Atlanta and Shanghai are offering direct flights to New York, making it possible to get to the tournament. “My daughter was in tears the other day. She couldn’t believe it,” Sanderson said.

He’s trying to take it all in stride and keep building his portfolio. “When you walk around in airports or when you’re at airports or when you are out in the world you never know what you’re going to run into,” he said. “I’m here.”

For Simon, who represents two dozen players on the tour, the enormity of the job he faces is simple and straight forward. He has to get every player of global renown to agree to play in tournaments that aren’t the same week as the Wimbledon championships. In many ways, the players’ priorities remain linear, especially when it comes to grass. Most players to play the Swiss Indoors in October in Montreal didn’t agree to play the WTA events the week before at New Haven and the U.S. Open.

On the day Simon was interviewed, Na Li, a former world No. 1 and three-time Grand Slam winner and current television analyst, won the event. She followed Li Na, another Chinese player, with both the quarterfinals and the final before beating Abigail Spears in the finals.

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