Leadership and Tennis


Growing up in Tarzana, CA in the heart of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, I loved playing sports at every possible opportunity. I spent most summers at a camp in the park playing ball in heat that would often hit triple digits, and I loved it. I especially loved playing baseball, but one summer my parents decided to send me to a tennis camp. I had never played tennis in any organized way before - I had picked up a racket and hit the ball around, but I was not very good. That summer was the extent of my tennis career. The instructor did not appreciate my propensity to play baseball on the tennis court, as I loved playing home run derby with the tennis racket any time I got a chance to hit against the pitching machine.

Todd Martin’s tennis career was a little more decorated than mine. He was once the #4 player in the world. He has 8 career titles and earned $8,232,355 (to be exact) from his playing days. Today Todd is the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. I had a chance to go one on one with Todd - fortunately, not on the tennis court - as part of my Lessons In Leadership series in Thrive Global. Here are some highlights:

Adam: How did you get to where you are today?

Todd: I retired in 2004 and knew that I wanted to go into coaching and had a few opportunities very soon. I coached Mardy Fish for three years, he was one of the top Americans of the next generation after me, and then I coached Novak Djokovic for a year. Two great talents, two really interesting people and great coaching opportunities for me. But it was very clear in working in those scenarios that coaching on the tour wasn’t really right for me, both from an exclusivity of relationship, the one coach-one player dynamic can be stifling and was a real challenge, and the lifestyle – traveling all the time.

The primary reason I stopped playing was because the travel was no longer worth it with a wife and young children, and so it became clear that coaching was not a realistic, appropriate place for me to be professionally. I realized that I still wanted to teach, so I started a business and ran that business with a notion of getting kids involved in tennis at an early age, helping elite athletes become better at tennis, and helping young, developing rookie professionals by giving them guidance. It was fun, I enjoyed running the business, but I didn’t enjoy all of the elements of what I aspired to do from a teaching standpoint, and this was eight years after I retired from playing. Relatively early in the life of that business, I was approached to consider becoming the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and I looked at the opportunity and realized that in running my business in Florida I was not getting to teach as much as I wanted to or the way I wanted to. Being asked to run a business that had the potential to have global impact and a massive responsibility to the sport would give me an opportunity for personal growth that dwarfed that of my own business. It was exciting for me to have the opportunity to take on the responsibility of running the Hall of Fame.

Adam: What is something about you that would surprise people about life as a star tennis player? What surprised you?

Todd: I think a lot of people think that professional athletes simply retire and end up on a golf course. Part of me would love to do that, but a larger part of me can’t afford to do that. I think that some people’s perspective of professional athletes is not always accurate, especially in the more niche sports like tennis.

One really surprising thing about being a professional athlete is how lonely it was initially when I first got started, but as I became more familiar and more comfortable as a professional tennis player, I realized how big of a family in the tennis world you truly have

Adam: Who was your favorite player to play against and least favorite player to play against and why?

Todd: My favorite player to play against was Patrick Rafter, a Hall of Famer from Australia. Patrick and I were matched up well against one another. On top of that, he respected the game more than anyone else that I remember, playing with a professionalism and intensity that very few others did. My least favorite was Pete Sampras. The reason I liked playing Patrick was because of his character, it was just a fun experience no matter the outcome, and the reason I didn’t like to play Pete was because of the result. I was good friends with Pete, but he beat the dickens out of me for years.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Todd: I think it starts with the embracing of mistakes or mini-failures. One of the more challenging things to do as a leader is to put responsibility on those who are not used to having ownership of something, but if you don’t, you’ll be the only person capable of leading that organization. There has to be succession planning, a mind for what coordinators are future managers, what managers are future directors, what directors are future VPs, and so on. Unless you put the onus of owning responsibility on others, it becomes a stagnant workplace.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Todd: An effective leader knows when to follow and the importance to listen to others opinions. They also take enough time to gather the input of the team around them. An effective leader is decisive, not afraid to disappoint people and at the same time, carries with them a level of compassion to understand where someone else is coming from in sharing an idea or carrying out a project.

Check out the full interview at https://thriveglobal.com/stories/tips-from-the-top-one-on-one-with-todd-martin/

Adam Mendler