In an unexpected move, Michael Dowse, the leader of the United States Tennis Association, announced on Wednesday that he would leave the organization in March.
The decision caught players, officials and U.S.T.A. board members by surprise. Dowse, 55, has been officially in his post as the association’s chief executive officer and executive director for less than two years.
His predecessor, Gordon Smith, spent 12 years in the position, but Dowse, the former president of Wilson Sporting Goods Co., said he was ready to move on from having day-to-day management duties at a single organization.
“After 15 years of being president or CEO, I am ready for more balance in my life and moving more into the role of adviser, consultant or board member in the broader arena of sports,” Dowse said in a statement to The New York Times.
During his relatively brief tenure at the U.S.T.A., Dowse has had to navigate heavy weather: some of it in the forecast; some of it completely unexpected.
He was hired, after an extensive search, in late 2019 to focus on reinvigorating community tennis and participation in the sport. He was also brought in to reduce the U.S.T.A.’s operating costs and made significant cuts in several areas, including player development.
But the coronavirus pandemic created major financial pressure in 2020 by threatening the association’s ability to stage the U.S. Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments and the U.S.T.A.’s primary source of revenue each year. Unlike Wimbledon, the U.S.T.A. had no pandemic insurance in case of cancellation. It was unclear for months whether the 2020 U.S. Open would be held, but the tournament went ahead without spectators, allowing the U.S.T.A. to preserve a significant chunk of its operating revenue through existing broadcast and sponsorship deals.
In 2021, the Open allowed for full attendance during the main draw, and the tournament struck a powerful chord with New Yorkers and fans eager to return to watching tennis in person.
Dowse planned to leave his base in Orlando, Fla., and return to Phoenix.
“We want to thank Mike for his deep commitment to tennis and the steady hand he showed at a time of extraordinary challenge and uncertainty,” said Michael J. McNulty III, the U.S.T.A.’s chairman of the board and president, in a statement.
As an outdoor sport conducive to social distancing, tennis got a big boost in participation during the pandemic. The number of people who played at least once in 2020 rose 22.4 percent from 2019 to 21.6 million players, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. But keeping those new or returning players in the game will be a major challenge: one that will be left to Dowse’s successor.
The other leading candidate when Dowse was hired was Lewis Sherr, the U.S.T.A.’s chief revenue officer. Other candidates included Todd Martin, a former top player who now leads the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and Stacey Allaster, a former head of the WTA who is the U.S. Open tournament director. But with the U.S. Open expansion and construction essentially complete, the U.S.T.A.’s focus will remain on grass-roots development, which could lead the organization to hire from its board of directors.