Friday @USOpen Feature: @WorldTeamTennis CEO @CarlosSilva Is Bringing The Fight To American Tennis
Steve Fogleman in Flushing Meadows
I sat down with WTT CEO Carlos Silva during a rain delay at the US Open on Wednesday and was instantly inspired on that drizzly day as he laid out his plans to assist the sport in North America. As evidence, he backed up his claim with the love of the sport since he was a kid. It turns out a chance encounter with a neighbor may have hooked him for life.
His family moved to a different neighborhood in suburban Washington, DC when he was a youngster and “right across the street was a guy named Gus Castillo,” he explained. Castillo was a former Davis Cup player from Colombia and head coach at Indian Spring Country Club in Maryland at the time. Silva, who considers Castillo a “second father”, would walk across the street to his house and hit on the former pro’s clay court, a rarity in a Mid-Atlantic backyard. The super bonus for Silva was a revolving door of professional players who came to the neighborhood to visit and hit with Castillo. “It was pretty much tennis heaven for a kid who wanted to make tennis his life, so I got lucky that way.”
Forty years on and his good luck streak is still going strong, demonstrated by making the sport a full-time career after being named CEO of World Team Tennis in January. Silva has spent a quarter of a century honing managerial and media talents to make things bigger: he credits his work with establishing the Professional Fighting League (PFL) and the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) as commercial success stories. Prior to his work in those leagues, Silva spent time at NBC Universal and AOL Sports.
The transition from managing fighters to tennis players was “seamless,” he says without hesitation. “Everyone looks at me a little bit peculiar, because most people know tennis as a sport, but most people still don’t know MMA (Mixed Martial Arts),” he said. “They’re still very intimidated by it. It’s violent, but tennis is a lot of the same. It sounds silly, but when you go on a tennis court, there’s two people and you have to figure it out. When you jump into a cage, it’s two people and you’ve got to figure it out.”
The tennis player in Silva taught the brawlers a thing or two. “A lot of my tennis upbringing helped power the PFL regular season and the playoff system that I designed, and was the first time an MMA league started to go to regular seasons,” Silva explained. “It’s kind of funny, because I introduced lucky losers in MMA,” he said. “People would say ‘What happens if someone hurts their hand?’ and I’d say, ‘Then they’re a lucky loser’. If a fighter lost in the quarterfinals to the guy who broke his hand when he hit him, he’s now going to advance to the semis as a lucky loser. They’d say, ‘What’s a lucky loser?’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it,” Silva said with a smile.
Silva points out that the sports have similar infrastructures. “The transition wasn’t that hard. Venues, running teams, working with athletes, I’ve done that my whole career,” he said. “MMA was something I had to learn because it was never a sport I participated in. But tennis–I’m very comfortable on the court or walking around talking with players, comfortable talking about the rules because it’s been in my blood since I was a kid.”
At the core, Silva wants to make sure the US get its fill of professional tennis competition.
“If you look at the States right now,” he explained, “part of the problem is there’s not many premier tournaments left here. World Team Tennis is premier. We have the best players in the world. We’re in great cities, from New York to Philly to D.C. to maybe Baltimore, because we’ve talked about that. A new team in Orlando and we’re super happy to be in Vegas. Springfield has a great vibe when you go out there and Orange County and San Diego, too.”
Silva’s outlook on the game is particularly prescient given the loss of tournaments and the Heartland void of the sport at the highest professional level. “We’d like to get in the Northwest. We’ve talked about Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Texas, where WTT has been in the past,” he told me. “We’re also talking about Canada and Mexico as ways to put ‘World’ back in World Team Tennis. We’re likely to go to 10 teams again and expand by 2 more in 2020. We’re working on that right now. The cities I mentioned are on a list. We’re continuing to work through it. You can say there’s world class tennis in Orlando. There’s world class tennis in Vegas now and there hasn’t been in a long time.”
“Although our season is only three and a half weeks long, we’ve played 59 matches in that time. You’re running around just like the players are. You’re traveling everywhere and you’re tired. It feels a little like Major League Baseball. Multiple matches on multiple nights, and then the season came down to the last match of the regular season. There were still seven teams in the hunt for the playoffs. That makes for a lot of excitement and that was the real value to get to eight teams in order to have a real postseason, whereas we didn’t before with only six teams. That’s the tension you want to create. You want to make the players play harder. That makes them want to grind out every point so they’re not the one to let their team down.”
“It’s great being the CEO of World Team Tennis,” he said. “I feel like I put everything that I put into my media and sports career, and now I get to bring it back to a sport I love. I love the people and I love everything the sport taught me and I want to continue growing it, because I don’t think tennis in America is what it should be and it certainly isn’t where it was a few years ago. Hopefully, World Team Tennis can be a nice piece of that and help the sport grow.”
Silva was further enthused about leading WTT because he grew up with Washington Kastles and Citi Open tournament owner Mark Ein, who played tennis for Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Silva, who competed at Winston Churchill High in Potomac, said “we beat each other up a bunch as kids.” Both of their parents were physicians in Washington and they’ve shared a friendship since they were 12 years old.
What exactly is he doing at America’s Open? “We’re meeting with agents and coaches,” he concluded. “Being on CBS, being on ESPN, players notice. They want to be on TV, too. You treat the players well, you build a league they’re proud of and all of a sudden they want to win championships. That’s how you build it. You’ve got to be a part of the fabric of tennis. That’s why we’re here at the US Open. It’s the biggest event in tennis.”
After our interview, I can say that I am particularly pleased to have Carlos Silva in our corner fighting to make tennis bigger in North America.