Interview | Dave Miley

The former ITF Executive Director of Tennis Development on Irish tennis, developing players and what tennis should and shouldn’t change

Judy Murray
Dave Miley at the 2017 Irish Open | Crosscourt View

By Stephen Higgins | 26 August 2017

At the end of December 2015, Dave Miley stepped down from the International Tennis Federation after 24 years of service. Originally from Malahide, Miley left as Executive Director of Tennis Development for the ITF.

During his tenure at the governing body, the 58-year-old launched the ITF Coach Education Programme, wrote or co-wrote seven books on coaching and initiated the Tennis10s programme for kids. Earlier in his career, Miley was an Irish national doubles champion and ran a tennis facility in Maidstone, England.

In 2016, Miley applied for the position of CEO of Tennis Ireland. He lasted until the final round of interviews where he was beaten to the job by Richard Fahey, an executive from the Football Association of Ireland. Miley questioned the interview process and took his complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission. The WRC ruled in Miley's favour on the grounds of age discrimination and awarded him €6,500 in damages. Tennis Ireland disagreed with the finding, calling the interview process “detailed, rigorous and fair” but chose not to appeal the verdict.

In the time since, Miley was appointed Development Director of the Asian Tennis Federation. Usually based in London, I spoke to him during a visit to Dublin for the Irish Open.

How do you feel about not getting the job of Tennis Ireland CEO?

“My position on the whole thing: it’s very disappointing but I wish Richard [Fahey] well because I care about Irish tennis. I hope he’s successful in the position. I’m doing other things internationally now.’

‘I care about Irish tennis, my grandfather [Jack Miley] was the first Irish Davis Cup captain in 1923. He was President of Fitzwilliam. He played Wimbledon. His brother played Wimbledon in 1908/1910, so I’m from an Irish tennis family. I won three national championships - so pretty reasonable player. So I wanted to do something for Irish tennis.’

‘When I finished with the ITF after 24 years - the longest-serving director in the history of the ITF, 17 years running the biggest department of the ITF, 70 people, $10 million budget - I decided to resign.’

‘January after I left, Tennis Ireland invited me over here...I wasn’t interested in the job at first but so many former players contacted me. “C’mon Dave we need you”, I thought OK. I have an apartment here. Two of my kids live here. I thought OK, I’ll give it a go.’

‘I applied. Did three interviews. The interviews all went, I thought, pretty well. There wasn’t one negative question questioning my ability to do the job effectively. I didn’t hear anything from Tennis Ireland from September after the last interview, the 6th, until October 20th when I heard from a journalist that Richard had been appointed. I never heard from Tennis Ireland.’

‘So I was just surprised. Why would a guy from football be appointed when I had, I think, a pretty good background and the interviews had gone pretty well? So I tried to get some information from Tennis Ireland. They weren’t forthcoming with anything so because of the outcry, I decided to take a case to a tribunal.’

‘What that allowed me to do is to get a lot of information about what happened. So I got to see the marking sheets. I got to see the comments the interviewers made, the rankings and stuff like that. So I understand much better what happened. But the bottom line was it went to the tribunal. They put forward their case, I put forward my case, and the adjudicator ruled that they acted unlawfully.’

‘Maybe it’s because the ten board members - none of them have played past class 5 tennis. It’s amazing to me that there isn’t one former player or anybody involved. I’m not saying that it should all be tennis people but you need some tennis people in there. So maybe they would have felt threatened by me. They’re silly because my job was always to make the elected people look good at the ITF. But anyway, they decided not to hire me.’

‘So my position on all this is: Richard Fahey I wish you well. I’m ready any time to give advice or stuff from my experience. But the board of Tennis Ireland, their position is untenable...They should resign and what should happen in my opinion is there should be an EGM where a new board is elected which has a mix of business and tennis people involved.’

If you could name three things, given your experience, that you would look at immediately when it comes to Irish tennis, what would they be?

“The first thing would be the surface. I think the court surface - synthetic grass - is not the right surface. I know there’s different combinations - because technical was in my department and I had an indoor centre myself - but I think the surface needs a lot of work. Whether it’s Har Tru [green clay] or other things but, taking the weather into account, that needs some work.’

‘Indoor courts I don’t think is a big problem. Yes, Munster needs indoor courts but tell me a performance player who doesn’t have access to sufficient indoor court time? There isn’t. So indoor court time - yeah it would be great to have more indoor courts but that’s not the big problem. For me, the big problem for the players is to be organised from a training and competition point of view.’

To be a good player, you have to be playing 80 to 100 good matches on different surfaces with a 2:1 win-loss ratio between the age of 13 and 20.

'So, for me, the big thing that the Irish players are not doing is they’re not playing the right tournaments.’

‘Now people say to me “oh but the education’s hard here”. C’mon, you think Federer didn’t go to school? Ok, so the education’s hard in lots of places but you’ve got 16 to 18 weeks of holidays so organise to play the tournaments. If you go away during your education you can study.‘

‘The second thing is organising the training and competition. It’s not complicated. Ireland’s very small. You can bring the players together very easily, it’s not like a huge country. So small is a benefit.’

‘The last thing is to have good funding to support the players. So, for me, one of the things that I put forward to Tennis Ireland in one of my presentations was the idea to get sponsors to give money to the best players based on world performance targets.’

‘To give you an example, if you’re going to be a good player in the future, if you’re female, at the age of 15 you should be top 100 junior ITF. At the age of 16 in the boys you should be top 100 juniTF.’

‘So for example, if at 15 [an Irish female player is] top 100, you say to her sponsor “give her €50,000, she’ll play this schedule this year and by the end of the year if she’s top 40, you give her the €50,000 again”. By the following year, if she’s top 20, she gets the €50,000 again. Then if she’s top 500 in the WTA by age 18 etc. etc. So that’s easy to do because then the sponsor [knows] they’re not giving the money for charity, they’re giving the money based on world standards that show that most players, if they’re this age, they have a good chance to be top 100 by the age of 22/23.’

‘So my point was, if we go back to summarise it three things; the court surface I think is very important, organising the players’ training and competition schedule, especially with the emphasis on international competition, and this third thing is having sufficient funding for them to do that. But sufficient funding based on world targets because also the players have to understand that’s their objective.’

‘Now that doesn’t mean if they don’t make it you forget them because it could be they’re injured or it could be different things. But it’s a target to judge how they are.”

And on the recreational side

“That’s on the performance side. Now for participation side I think that that’s a big objective, for me any federation needs participation, high performance training and probably, income generation. Coaches education kind of services that, so for me the participation is very important as well...I introduced the Play+Stay campaign to the ITF to use the slower balls for kids and stuff and we got the rules changed, which is only the fifth rule change in the history of tennis.

So I think that at the micro level, you have to have a better way of introducing and retaining people in tennis. That doesn’t mean just coaching because the problem in tennis today is a lot of clubs are driven by coaching but what they should be driven on by is play.

‘Play is where recreational players play, keep score. Maybe it’s not recorded but as a result of their playing they go and get coaching so they play better. But [at] a lot of clubs, everybody does coaching but they never play, you understand?

'So for me that would be the thing to do for participation, is to get the clubs to be a little bit more active, to have ratings where people can move up the ratings, to have people of the same level play different play competitions. But play involving social things so people actually enjoy their tennis.’

‘So maybe I babbled on too much but the point is three things for the performance side, for participation, this kind of retention, attracting and retaining players. And the use of the slower balls is very important because the best part of tennis as we know is hit it over, hit it back, play out the point. And a lot of people never get to do that because they’re using the ordinary balls. But the slower balls mean that even people who aren’t that coordinated can actually rally and once you get the taste of rallying, that’s the best part of tennis!”

Where are you on the all-whites rule?

[Laughs] “Look, I’m a member of the All England club so I better be careful with what I say!

'At tournaments like Wimbledon it’s very, very good because it’s tradition. It’s like Augusta for golf, so they’re very careful about stuff and that’s why it’s a great tournament.’

‘What I love about the grand slams is the four grand slams are so different. The French is chic, US is in your face, Australian is real relaxed and Wimbledon is formal ok. So that’s the way it is.’

‘For me, it’s more important outside of Wimbledon is that [for] kids the less barriers the better. So for me, kids being able to use clothes, to wear things that make them feel comfortable and still play tennis is very very important."

More on adapting tennis to meet the changing world

"...Tennis, for me, is a product. The thing that you know about selling products is the customer is never wrong. The customer is always right. When people don’t buy your product, you don’t blame the customer. What you’ve got to do is adapt your product to the customer.’

‘So at the moment, in the world, people have less time. They’ve more choice for their leisure. Their attention span is less. They want instant success. So you’ve got to think about these things and so the sport has to adapt and what we did at the ITF - which I think was very successful - we changed the rules so now you can play short sets, tie-break in the third set instead of a third set. You can play timed matches even, we’ve got in the rules of tennis so you can play a 20-minute match, blow the whistle. All of these things allow people now at the micro level, and even at the more top level, if they want, to adapt the sport to the user.'

'People today, in my opinion, most people [though] maybe the performance people don’t mind it so much, they don’t want to pitch up on Friday and not know when they’re playing on Saturday and Sunday because they have other things to do. What they want, what the parents love is with rugby, drop them at 10 on a Saturday, pick them up at 12 and they can still have their dinner in the afternoon. [What] they hate about tennis is ‘“ok well we’re playing the tournament. Yeah he might be free, it depends whether he loses or he wins and whether he’ll be free on Sunday” so it messes the family up completely.’

‘So you’ve got to be more conscious of the customer and adapting tennis in a more user-friendly way. That’s one of the things we were working on a lot at the ITF and one of the things I was leading is adapting the sport to the needs and lifestyles of the customers whether they’re senior players or performance players or recreational players because a healthy sport is people play the game...So we need people to be playing and want to watch and because they play, they want to buy things that help them play better. And that means they buy equipment and they buy coaching and that’s a healthy sport.’

‘The problem today is that there’s maybe people watching the grand slams but are they actually playing the sport? Are they buying things to help the sport? If they don’t then the industry is going to have ball sales that are down, coaches will be less busy etc. etc.”

Where are you on changing from five sets to three in Davis Cup?

“Personally, now I can speak because I’m not working with the ITF, I think the first step would have been to go four sets and a tie-break. So we would play four sets and if it’s two sets-all you play a champion’s tie-break instead of playing the fifth set. So that would reduce the matches by about an hour if there’s a long match and it would be more exciting.’

‘The problem for me with three sets is that, what I see, especially in the men obviously, is you can beat Nadal over three sets. To beat Nadal or Federer over five sets - that’s hard! So to win a grand slam you know nobody’s been lucky. They won it. The same with Davis Cup. You don’t win Davis Cup unless you really win it. You have to work hard. So that’s why I think three sets is too little. I would have gone four sets and a tie-break.’

‘But Davis Cup, the problem you have now is the players - they play a lot. They see Davis Cup as being something that puts a lot of demands on them but when you’re at a Davis Cup match, it’s unbelieveable. And so when a player looks back at their career, I think they look back at grand slams, they look back at Davis Cup and Fed Cup as the things that were the climax of their career. Olympics as well for people who play that.’

‘I think they should be very careful about changing it to three sets. I think that they’ll lose something.”

[At the ITF’s AGM on August 4th, 2017, a motion to change Davis Cup singles matches from five to three sets failed.]

What about alternate years for the Davis Cup?

“Well look, all those things are looked at by the ITF so I don’t want to be double guessing the committee. But they’ve looked at all these things and obviously there’s an element of the competition and there’s an element about sponsorship and income generation. So, which is the best model?’

‘There are formats that have been put forward which would involve a two-year process with a final every two years but at the moment it’s not considered to be a viable format for both the competition reasons and the reasons of the income generation but who knows in the future?”

How far is Ireland from hosting an ATP or WTA level tournament?

“Look, when I made a presentation to the [Tennis Ireland] board about income generation, about what I would do, for me it’s a no-brainer. Ireland should have an ATP and WTA event. C’mon, it’s got one of the best economies. I know there’s been tough times but it’s got one of the best economies at the moment.’

‘...Why does Belgium have an ATP/WTA event and Ireland doesn’t? Of course Ireland should have one and in fact, before I did my second interview, I went to Abbotstown and I saw the construction of the new centre there which is perfect for an indoor tournament. It’s like Bercy, you can have a centre court and another court and a practice court. Everything’s there. You can do an event here.”

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Crosscourt View contacted Tennis Ireland ahead of publication. This was its response:

"Tennis Ireland has not at any time made a comment in the media on this matter and while we appreciate very much the courtesy of the request, we will not be making any specific remark on this occasion either.

It may however be helpful for you to see the communication that we have shared with members via their clubs and to that end please find attached a letter written to members in August this year. It is a public document.

We think it is important to note there are a number of inaccuracies in comments reported in the interview which you attached. For example eight international events were hosted in Ireland in 2017 which is up from five in 2016. These international events ranged from Under 14, Under 18 to Ladies and Men’s Professional events."

On the prospect of hosting an ATP or WTA level tournament at the National Indoor Arena. Sport Ireland's Communications Manager, David Gash, told me the following:

"The Sport Ireland National Indoor Arena could potentially host an ATP 250 sized event. Conversations have taken place around the possibility of hosting tennis events in the future, however no events are planned at the moment."