Steve Simon: Who is the WTA boss taking on China?

Steve Simon at the 2019 WTA Finals
Steve Simon (far left) has appeared at many trophy ceremonies but his stance on China has earned him plaudits of his own

The first words of the brief profile page about Steve Simon in his organisation’s media handbook are quite telling.

“From day one … an instigator of change”.

The chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has been widely praised for putting principles above pockets in suspending all of its tournaments in China amid concern for Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.

And maybe no-one should be surprised – the 66-year-old American’s ethos has long been about ‘the right thing to do’, even if it has previously been in a much quieter way.

So, just who is the man taking on China because the case of Peng – who disappeared from public view for three weeks after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault – is “bigger than business”?

Tennis player and innovator

Born in California, Simon took up tennis at the age of 10 and went on to play college tennis at Long Beach State.

He qualified for the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1981 where he lost in the first round alongside compatriot Lea Antonoplis.

After graduating he moved into coaching and then sports sponsorship and sales, joining the Indian Wells event in 1989 and eventually becoming its tournament director in 2004.

He held that role for 12 years, overseeing innovations such as the becoming the first tournament to introduce Hawk-Eye video replay technology on all of its courts in 2011.

And he helped turn the joint men’s and women’s event into ‘the fifth major’ – behind only the four Grand Slams in terms of prestige, and one of the most popular with players.

Listener and supporter

When he left Indian Wells to take up the top job at the WTA, his appointment was backed by WTA founder Billie Jean King, who described him as “thoughtful, respectful”, and was supported by top players Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki.

Williams in particular had at that point experienced Simon’s reputation of helping players.

The American 23-time Grand Slam champion had boycotted Indian Wells for 14 years after suffering racist abuse before eventually returning to the event in 2015, with Simon heavily involved in persuading her back.

“When I returned to Indian Wells this year Steve could not have been more helpful, professional and supportive,” Williams said at the time. “I know how much he cares about the opinions of the players. He’s a good listener and he has our best interests in mind.”

Simon also backed up Williams’ claim of sexism in the way she was treated by umpire Carlos Ramos during the 2018 US Open final, saying the matter had brought up the question of “whether different standards are applied to men and women” in officiating.

And at the 2019 French Open he spoke out about what he called the “unfair and inappropriate” decision to bump the women’s semi-final matches off the main court after weather disruption to the schedule.

His support of his players has not always been without controversy, though.

When Maria Sharapova returned from a drug ban in 2017, the decision to award her wildcards to tournaments was criticised by some players but Simon defended it, saying it was in keeping with how former dopers are treated in other sports.

Negotiator and businessman – with a conscience

Not only has Simon looked after players’ interests in terms of welfare, their finances have improved too.

When Ashleigh Barty received a record $4.42m for winning the 2019 WTA Finals in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, it was the largest prize ever awarded in men’s and women’s tennis.

That was part of a huge expansion of the tour into Asia that he negotiated and which included a 10-year deal for Shenzhen to host the season-ending event.

At the time Simon described the deal as “easily the largest and most significant Finals deal in the 45 years since the WTA was founded” – and it is now at the heart of the financial repercussions if it leaves China permanently.

He has admitted he is worried about the cost implications but that “this is something that we simply cannot walk away from”.

“If we walk away from what we have requested, what we are telling the world is [that] not addressing sexual assault with the respect and seriousness that it requires is OK, and it is just not.”

In response, China has said it “opposes the politicisation of sports”.

Simon’s skills as a businessman and negotiator may yet face their stiffest challenge in the weeks and months ahead.


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