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in their own words


Former Women's Tennis Association (WTA) chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster

Former Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster says she always wanted to work on the big, international stage.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The former head of the Women’s Tennis Association, 52, stepped down last year in order to focus on her family

I have not played tennis in maybe 20 years. It was not an escape. It was like going to work. And it’s one of those sports that, if you don’t play, your skill level goes down quickly. I was never a great player, but I was competent. So it became frustrating. Alex, my daughter, she played a little bit. I got on the court once with her. She told me I should take a lesson.

My dad was in the building industry. He was in sales. My mom, she was a nurse, but she was injured. A patient took a fall, and she helped to guide the patient’s fall, and ruptured discs in her back. She never got it properly diagnosed. So she became basically partially disabled.

My parents had divorced a couple years after my sister was born. My mom was very industrious. She bought a house in Welland, Ont. It was a duplex. She opened it up and we had eight students living with us who were going to Niagara College. She did all sorts [of things], Avon and Amway. And she could work at night, nursing, so she did a little bit of nursing part time.

Sales, for me, was not a comfortable place. You need sales experience. So before my fourth year of university, instead of going back to the Welland Tennis Club, I got a student painting franchise. I went door to door. I had eight people working for me.

I’ve never really believed in the win-win. The partner needs to win. They’re the ones investing in you.

My first big sponsorship was the Olive Garden Tennis Fair. It was the first time we’d done promotions like that at the Canadian Open. But the biggest moment was when we replaced du Maurier. Everyone said we would not replace du Maurier. I was able to get Rogers and AT&T.

I’ve had a successful track record in sales because people trusted me.

The Tennis Canada president position was open in 2005. I always thought that’s what I wanted, but I knew I wanted something new and different. I wanted pro tennis and I wanted the international stage. I didn’t want the domestic stage. The juice for me was the big stage.

The global financial crisis was incredibly tough. It challenged us to diversify. Let’s take the WTA finals: In the past, we were selling a six-day tennis tournament. We engaged an agency out of London and we re-engineered how we were going to deliver $150 million of media value and economic impact. We created a year-long promotional campaign, The Road to Singapore. It was an entirely new approach, and we took control of the brand. We became the executive producers. We went from a six-day tennis event to a 10-day sport-and-entertainment extravaganza.

Billie [Jean King]: she is a super woman.

In China, I gave my card to a young woman. She looked at it, she looked at me, she looked at the card, she looked back at me. And she said, ‘I’ve never received a business card from a woman with the CEO title.’

It’s a cultural shift that needs to happen. It’s not one thing that’s going to take us to gender equality and the eradication of gender bias. Predominantly, there are men in leadership positions, and we need them to make those smart business decisions, that they should diversify their leadership teams, their boards, to have men and women of different backgrounds to drive economic growth. That takes smarts. It takes guts. It takes courage. And it takes effort.

The U.S. Open was energizing. Everybody got behind Serena and rallied behind the history in the making, for her. The Venus and Serena match was just electric. I loved it. Who knows if we’ll get to see them play again. It was like a big boxing match. But it proves just how hard it is to win the grand slam. It’s been 27 years. I wish Serena had gotten it, but it doesn’t take away from the great year she did have.

I met Genie Bouchard when she was 12. She got the Stacey Allaster excellence award. It was a scholarship Tennis Canada set up when I left. She was strong and confident then, and she is strong and confident now. She had a meteoric rise. That can be a good thing and it can be not so helpful. I’ve said to her, this is a marathon. She’s got to pace herself. I totally believe in her.

I wish I had taken a sabbatical. There was never, ever a real meaningful break in 28 years.

It physically took its toll on me. Just sheer exhaustion. Going to Asia a lot. Going to Singapore is 30-plus hours. It wears on the body. It wasn’t 24-7 but it was pretty near 24-7. And I did it for 10 years. It was the accumulation of it, combined with some terrible things that were going on with our family, [my husband] John’s brother getting brain cancer. It just finally caught up to me.

Everyone said that when you turn 50, I don’t know, something happens, you get different priorities. There was a wake-up call. The kids are 13 and 11. You can have it all – I believe in that – but you do have to prioritize at different stages in your life. And that’s what we’re doing.

We have a ranch home on Tampa Bay and we gutted the inside, with the exception of the bedrooms, and opened it all up so you could actually see the water. The older I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten all modern with my tastes. It’s kind of South Beach. The mix of the glass and white and stainless steel and the blues.

I’ve been paddleboarding about three years. I had never fallen in, but I just fell in this weekend, I couldn’t believe it. It was a bit windy, a little choppy. Not crazy. I see this one guy go by. He goes by almost every day. He’s in sort of the warrior pose. So I was trying to figure out if I wanted my left foot forward or my right foot forward – and in I went.

The water is incredibly peaceful. I’m still in awe of when the dolphins come swimming by. With the paddleboard, they keep their distance, but when there’s three or four of them they don’t mind you paddling along.

I’m taking this sabbatical to reinvest in myself, my family, my friends. But it’s not to say a competitive, goal-driven person like myself is not beginning to think ahead. My kids’ teenage years are the centre of my compass. What I want is flexibility and more control of my time. That could look like some board work, some consulting, some teaching at MBA programs. I’ve recently signed with the Lavin Agency to do speaking. That’s the first contract.

I am happy to report I was back on the court this Christmas. I hit some balls. Not too badly.

- As told to David Ebner

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