Critical juncture for German Open, ATP

You all remember that the Hamburg Masters event, which traditionally followed the Rome Masters tournament, was elbowed out of the calendar two years ago to make room for the new dual event in Madrid.

The German tennis federation, which owned and operated Hamburg (and still does in its reconfigured state as a July ATP 500 event), went to court in an effort to keep its position as a Road to Roland Garros, top-tier Masters 1000 event. During the legal proceedings, many veteran administrators and tennis politicians described the case as a critical test of the ATP's right to structure and organize its calendar as it sees fit. The player organization breathed a huge sigh of relief when the courts essentially determined that the ATP had the right to strip Hamburg of its status and change its slot on the calendar.

Well, SportsBusiness Journal reported the other day that the Germans, having lost an appeal this summer, have gone to the court of last resort -- the U.S. Supreme Court. The highest court of this land has the option to hear the case. If it declines the option, the ballgame for the Germans is over. They will have to soldier on as a post-Wimbledon clay-court event, or they can sell the franchise.

This case is not as open-and-shut as it may seem, and it may yet provide the ATP with a nasty surprise. A few weeks ago, I was talking with Ray Moore, a founder of the Masters event at Indian Wells. At the time the Hamburg case was being argued, Moore and his partner, Charlie Pasarell, were under enormous pressure to sell their event, and there was much talk about the tournament, which ranks second in this country only to the U.S. Open in attendance (339,000 attended in 2010), being sold and moved to Shanghai or the Middle East. But there was a white knight on the horizon -- one of the world's half-dozen richest men and the founder of Oracle Corporation, Larry Ellison.

When the Hamburg case was decided in favor of the ATP, Ellison called Moore, who nearly had a panic attack when Ellison said, in effect, "Ray, you don't appear to have anything to sell me because, judging from Hamburg, you don't really own anything."

Can you say, "awkward silence"?

As it turned out, Moore & Co. had the foresight to negotiate a 50-year contract with the ATP in 2004. That was proof enough for Ellison that the ATP couldn't pull the rug out from under him, and he now owns Indian Wells.

But this case isn't just about the amount of authority the ATP has to reorganize its calendar. What's left of it, and the only part that would even remotely interest the U.S. Supreme Court, is the charge that the ATP is violating antitrust regulations by monopolizing the use of the players in tournaments it has selected and administered.

I don't really see Hamburg winning the case; it's been soundly repudiated in the lower courts. But the ATP won't be able to breathe easy until it clears this final legal hurdle.