A Tennis History Lesson

For six years prior to joining Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) Steve Johns was CEO of Tennis New Zealand (TNZ). Two years ago he was appointed CEO of SNZ. There are two aspects of that change that are worthwhile looking at.

  1. How has TNZ faired since Johns departure? What happens to a business after the departure of a CEO often tells us a lot about the quality of the departing CEO. Good CEO’s leave behind a business that will continue to grow and prosper. Poor CEO’s often leave behind a declining wreck.
  2. Are there aspects of Johns’ management or mis-management of TNZ that hold lessons or possibly signal dangers for SNZ?

Let’s consider each of these in more detail. First the question of succession. What happened when Johns left TNZ? Were there elements of deserting a sinking ship or was TNZ a thriving business bounding from strength to strength?

“I don’t know” is the answers to those questions. However I was interested in an article written by Stuff reporter David Long. Here is a summarised version of his report on the health of TNZ.

It could be argued that New Zealand tennis has hit rock bottom. The country doesn’t have any players in the top 550 of men’s and women’s singles rankings. The depressing picture the current rankings paint didn’t occur overnight, but was the result of a number of factors, including more than a decade of poor decisions by Tennis New Zealand.

Tennis NZ CEO Julie Paterson said, “We’ve had to change things so significantly in the last 18 months and we’ve got to let that change bed in.

As for Erakovic, who proved to the exception rather than the rule. She believes a number of factors need to be in place before New Zealand has another top 100 singles player. Unity still remains an issue. While it’s less divisive than it used to be a number of sources who didn’t want to speak on the record felt that Tennis NZ was still too Auckland focused with its development of players.

So the question remains, when will New Zealand have another top 100 singles player?

Unfortunately it’s not going to be any time soon. At the earliest it will be in two year’s time but it could take six more years or longer.

Wow, that report card makes pretty shocking reading. TNZ is a wasteland caused by, “a number of factors, including more than a decade of poor decisions by Tennis New Zealand.” Who knows what the poor decisions were? David Long does not say. But we do know that for six years of that decade Steve Johns was in charge. If the buck stops at the top, it seems Steve Johns has some questions to answer.

But David Long’s report doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that “unity remains an issue” and “Tennis New Zealand was still too Auckland focused” and fixing the mess “could take six years or longer”.

From this report it seems that Steve Johns did leave behind a sinking ship. Two years after his departure the fallout from a decade of mis-management is coming home to haunt the sport. At least that’s what this report seems to be saying. The new CEO says, “We’ve had to change things so significantly in the last 18 months.” That is effectively since Steve Johns left.

Sadly I can believe that is the case. In my opinion the last two years in SNZ have been equally characterised by poor decisions. Swimming’s world rankings have also “hit rock bottom.” It seems like swimming has a disaster of tennis proportions on its hands. And it sure seems like the same person is a common factor in both cases. Swimwatch has made no secret of that opinion.

I also take issue with what TNZ plan to do about their crumbling sport. Just as I take issue with what Steve Johns and Gary Francis are doing at SNZ. In both cases there is an insufferable arrogance characteristic of New Zealand sports management that results in their pathetic little head offices believing they are the source of all wisdom, the providers of all solutions. And, of course, they are not. Steve Johns did some age group swimming at high school. Gary Francis was a club age-group coach. In my opinion both of them are ill-equipped to be telling Jon Winter, Monica Cooper, Donna Bouzaid, William Benson, Gary Hollywood, Dave Prattley or a dozen other coaches around New Zealand what’s best for their swimmers. Each one of those coaches has forgotten more about swimming than Johns and Francis together ever knew.

Take for example the decision of TNZ to focus on a selected few players. In this case David Long tells me their names are Corban Crowther and Vivian Yang. Long goes on to explain that, “There are a number of promising players who’ve missed out and not surprisingly there is some resentment around the country.” I bet there is. But does the arrogant selection process sound familiar? Of course it does. It is exactly what Johns and Francis have done in swimming. And it will not work. Why? Because it misses dozens of potential winners; it ignores the Peter Snell and Toni Jeffs late developers. Johns’ policies failed at TNZ and they will be no more successful in swimming.

But worse than that, what Steve Johns and Gary Francis should be doing – they don’t. They should be finding the money to send a New Zealand swim team to a World Championship. Instead they swan off to Japan and China, paid for by the sport, and send each swimmer an invoice for $5,300. I have no doubt that sort of decision is exactly what David Long means when he refers to “a decade of poor decisions at Tennis New Zealand.”

If these people keep going the way they are David Long is right about one other thing. Repair is going to take “six more years or longer.” My money right now is on, “longer”.

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