SBJ/September 19-25, 2011/Labor and Agents

No ordinary agent for Open champ

Samantha Stosur’s victory over Serena Williams last week in the U.S. Open Tennis Championships final is notable not only for the upset, but also for making her perhaps the first Grand Slam winner whose agent is a governing body for the sport.

Indeed, Stosur is the rare, if not the only, elite athlete who is represented by a governing body — in her case, Tennis Australia. The practice has its critics, who charge that the sports group could use its leverage over young players to muscle into their marketing relationships.

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Stosur may be the only elite athlete represented by a governing body.
Tennis Australia owns and operates the Australian Open and funds development of the sport in that country.

“I have had a couple of occasions where we have been unable to sign a kid because the kid worried if they sign with another agency than Tennis Australia, they will lose their funding,” said John Tobias, co-head of tennis at Lagardère Unlimited.

But Paul Kilderry, a former pro player and coach who handles Stosur’s business affairs for Tennis Australia, described the agent role as a service no different than training or coaching. Stosur’s entire team, including training and coaching, is supplied by Tennis Australia. As an established player, she pays for the services.

“We give help to any Australian player who does not have representation,” said Kilderry, speaking after Stosur met with a handful of reporters last week in New York.

Tennis Australia began offering its agent services three or four years ago, Kilderry said. When it signed Stosur, she was ranked No. 70 in the world. Last week, after her U.S. Open win, she was No. 7.

Stacey Allaster, WTA Tour chief executive, voiced no concerns and praised Tennis Australia’s program. “Tennis Australia has a great sports system to help their athletes achieve world-class success,” she said. “This is a very interesting model that is working.”

Other than Stosur, the players represented by Tennis Australia are far down the pecking order, with perhaps the most notable being Casey Dellacqua, who reached No. 39 in the world rankings in 2008. She now is ranked 274th.

A rival agent said that because Australia is so isolated geographically, many players from that country have found it tough to find representation. As a result, this agent predicted the practice would remain only in Australia.

A U.S. Tennis Association spokesman said the subject, to the best of his knowledge, has never arisen at the USTA, which is Tennis Australia’s counterpart in America.

Stosur’s top sponsor, Lacoste, also backs the Australian Open.

While Tobias wondered if Tennis Australia could have basically sold Lacoste a package of Stosur and the event — “Are they leveraging Stosur to help their event?,” he asked — he said he believes the group’s intentions in securing its deals are pure.

For her part, Stosur seemed uninterested in the commercial trappings of her newfound fame, saying she found it stunning to see her face plastered around Melbourne during the Australian Open earlier this year. Speaking to reporters last week, she said her No. 1 goal was always to win a Grand Slam trophy, and she left the business side to Kilderry to worry about.

“This is what I have always played for,” she said, nodding to the U.S. Open trophy resting in front of her. “This is what I want.”

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