by Stacy China
After winning his first Grand Slam tournament at the age of 22, Roger Federer did not spend a lot of his time on parties and celebrations. Nor did he go inward, redoubling his efforts to make his world smaller such as to focus on achieving more success. Instead, he started the Roger Federer Foundation, which is committed to improving the quality of education and life for children in impoverished countries. That kind of global awareness and moral example was at the center of Credit Suisse’s second Tennis Debate, titled, “What can tennis do to improve lives in Africa?”
Credit Suisse vice president Daniel Huber said their unique partnership with Federer grew out of his being a bank client who developed into a global phenomenon. “We usually don’t work with single sportsmen; we work with groups and cultural institutions,” Huber said, such as the Swiss Football Association and the New York Philharmonic. “We were in discussions [with Federer] for a long time, so this was a logical coming together in the end.” The bank started a long-term commitment with the foundation in 2009, providing $1 million per year for the next 10 years.
Janine Handel, CEO of the Roger Federer Foundation, spoke passionately about the group’s recent work in Malawi, where they are building pre-schools and providing education for pre-school teachers. She pointed out that Federer actively works with the staff by visiting worksites, attending board meetings and helping to make vital decisions. While she was supportive of other players starting their own foundations, she stressed that they understand that running such an enterprise is a “lifelong commitment,” and that’s its equivalent to taking on “another job.” This is why finding a particular niche is crucial to long-term success. “Find something you are emotionally attached to, and then try to do it right – which is hard to do,” she advised. “In the end, it’s not about how much money we raise or how much money we spend. It’s about how many children we’ve had a positive impact on.”
Stacey Allaster, CEO of the WTA, said that the women’s tour begins speaking to its athletes about philanthropy early on. Each year, tennis great Billie Jean King hosts a “Power Hour” where she speaks with the young women making the transition from junior to professional careers, and charity is talked about along with financial planning and legacy gifts. While everyone will not be interested in starting their own group, there are still plenty of other ways to be of service. “There are many charities you can have a significant impact on,” Allaster stated.
CBS Sports and Tennis Channel announcer Bill Macatee served as debate moderator. He talked about how charitable giving has become mandatory in sports leagues such as the NFL and the PGA, and asked if such a model would work in tennis. Lorne Abony, member of the ATP’s Competition Committee and Chairman and CEO of Mood Media, was not a fan. “No. That’s tantamount to making it a tax,” he said. “It’s gotta come from the heart.”
Macatee clarified that he meant the giving of time, as well as money. Allaster pointed to the ACES program, which helps players with the logistics of visiting hospitals, donating sports equipment, or doing whatever they’d like in a specific community. “It’s there for us. It’s just not in the NBA Cares model,” she said. She did see the WTA moving in that direction, however, as players are better educated about the need around them and are inspired by their fellow athletes from tennis and beyond. For example, Allaster brought up the work of Venus and Serena Williams, who have funded several charitable projects in Africa. Serena is working on opening a third school in Kenya, while Venus is working on funding water filtration programs and providing school scholarships.
When the panel was asked about how current players could integrate charity work into their already busy schedules, ATP board member and former player Justin Gimelstob urged players to not hide behind busyness. “Think of it this way – if Roger Federer has time, and Novak Djokovic has time…there’s no excuse. Everyone can do something.” Gimelstob pointed out how Djokovic has actively raised money for his foundation this season even after difficult losses. He also recognized Mike and Bob Bryan, Ryan Harrison and other players who work hard on smaller philanthropy projects, often with little fanfare or media attention.
In the end, all agreed that players have a moral obligation to give back – not just as players, but as people. “What you do is relative to the amount the society gives to you,” said Abony.