Cliff Taylor

Steve Flink: Greg Sharko is an ATP Treasure

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Thirty years ago, an affable, temperate and earnest young man went to work for the ATP. He was a sports nut who almost serendipitously landed in the world of tennis, but surely, swiftly and quietly he made his presence known and established a reputation for himself as someone of unimpeachable integrity and extraordinary decency. He was a fellow who would develop a strong rapport with not only the people in his own organization with whom he worked so closely, but also those in other parts of the sport who admired his professionalism and skill sets.

Greg Sharko is 54 now, yet exceedingly young at heart and remarkably able of mind. His title at the ATP is “Director of Media Information”, but somehow that description falls decidedly short. Sharko is considerably more multi-faceted than that. Above all else, he is a statistical wizard who oversees the many facts and figures that emerge from his headquarters and land in the hands of grateful reporters and commentators all over the globe. Yet while that role is central to his core, Sharko also has the people skills and the instincts to make sure journalists get what they need yet be loyal to his constituency of players and not overplay his hand with them. In fact, his work for the ATP World Tour is far reaching, and both players and reporters universally view him reverentially.

His journey with the ATP started in 1986. Sharko was born in Chicago, and moved with his family at the age of 14 in 1976 to Arizona.He attended Scottsdale Community College for a year (1980-81). In high school, Sharko was sports editor for the school newspaper. His goal was to explore the sports information field. After putting out some feelers, Sharko was contacted by the sports information director at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, who offered him a scholarship to work for the athletic department in sports information.

He started that job in the fall of 1981. As Sharko recalls, “I worked in the sports information department for four years and got my degree in English- Journalism while I was going to school. It was a very good experience.”

After graduating, Sharko took an internship with the Chicago Cubs baseball franchise in their public relations department, accepting that position for the 1985 season. While he was working in that capacity, Sharko met someone who had worked at the inaugural Lipton International Tennis Players Championships in Florida. This person put Sharko in touch with another individual involved in that tournament, and he was hired to work as an assistant locker room attendant in 1986, but he divided his time between that and helping out in the media center. While he was in Boca Raton, Florida doing that work, he was approached by Jim McManus, the former Vice-President of Player Services, to consider a full time position at the ATP in Texas.

Sharko recollects, “On my way back from Florida to Arizona, I made a stop in Arlington, Texas to the ATP offices and met with Jim and former ATP Deputy Director Ron Bookman. Within a couple of days, they pretty much offered me a full time position to oversee the weekly rankings. Probably within a month or so, in late March of 1986, I made the haul across Texas and it basically took me a full day to go through there. I got settled in Arlington and it was a great experience. I kind of got hands on training about the different levels of professional tennis. It was an office job cranking out the rankings on a weekly basis and making sure everything was accurate.”

His arrival in Texas was well timed. “When I got to the ATP,” Sharko remembers, “there really weren’t in depth records kept so it was nice to come up with different statistical categories. I did a week by week history of the rankings for singles, which had started in 1973, and doubles, which began in 1976. Everything evolved over the years into many statistical categories and I enjoyed being a part of that.”

In 1990, the ATP Tour—later renamed ATP World Tour— was started after the disbandment of the old Men’s Tennis Council at the end of 1989, taking over from the Grand Prix Tour that had commenced in 1970. Sharko had already started doing some traveling but his work on the road expanded. He muses, “Once that happened it was a great partnership between the players and the tournaments and it brought us to where we are today. I moved into the P.R. & Marketing department in 1990 and have been in that department ever since.”

Sharko is an uncommonly modest man. Across the nineties and beyond, he garnered an excellent and unimpeachable reputation among the players and in the television business for the clarity of his mind, for providing facts that were not superficial and for being masterfully organized. The ATP wisely began allowing Sharko to provide his services for the likes of NBC, CBS, ESPN, TNT and now Tennis Channel at major events. Most of his time is spent at either the ATP International headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida and out on the tour for his organization, but his influence is widened by the work he does for the networks, as well it should be.

He is constantly in demand, and understandably so. John Wertheim—renowned writer for Sports Illustrated and a studio analyst for Tennis Channel—knows Sharko and his contributions to the trade as well as anyone. He says of Sharko, “He is the most valuable man in tennis. He forms the architecture of so much tennis media, both T.V. broadcast and digital. Some of it is just stats and interesting tidbits, and some of it is a sense for what makes for a good item or nugget on television, or a good sound bite. He does it without trafficking in gossip, and keeps it honorable. He is just absolutely this essential member of the cast and it is to tennis’ credit that he is so widely known and respected.There is a lot of personal fondness for him but a ton of professional respect. Nobody does what he is doing. It is invaluable.”

Wertheim pauses briefly, then continues, “Greg has a greyhound’s nose for the kinds of nuggets that the tennis fan loves. He works for the ATP but he is seen as a friend of everyone that covers the sport. This is just a guy that loves tennis, loves the product, loves the minutia, and loves these stories that may be overlooked. Tennis doesn’t need someone to say, ‘Novak Djokovic is a great player who comes from Serbia and you should cover him.’ Tennis needs someone like Greg who says ‘Brian Baker is getting a protected ranking and even though he has these horrible injuries we should keep an eye on him as he makes a comeback.’ That is what Shark is so good at.”

Joel Drucker, another leading American journalist and highly regarded historian, is in accord with Wertheim about Sharko, but adds a few of his own original thoughts. As Drucker points out, “Greg Sharko is an incredible resource of information, ideas and reliability. He has tons of information at his fingertips that he summons in ways you might not have thought of regarding a player’s career, about matches won, results generated by a player, and on court performances. He is always positive and thoughtful in how he brings that out. A lot of people in the sport say they will get us information but they have got a bigger backswing than follow through. With Sharko you always know he will hunt down that extra bit more that is going to make the idea more powerful ands resonant. He always follows through.”

Drucker rightfully points to Sharko’s impact with the players, who fully appreciate how well he understands them, and how judicious he is in selecting precisely the right kinds of data to present to reporters, who then pass the useful information along to the public. As Drucker puts it, “The players all respect him because they all know he is digging out information that is going to make the game relevant to people. He is writing the daily match notes for the ATP and working on the media guides so he is really doing things to help get their stories across. He tweets a lot these days because he understands the different ways that people process information in different ages. He understands how people absorb information that way. I suspect when he asks the players for things he doesn’t do it intrusively. He does it appropriately. That is who he is.”

A case in point is Brad Gilbert. Ranked as high as No. 4 in the world and a U.S. Davis Cupper, the Californian got to know Sharko during his career. These days, Gilbert is one of the leading commentators for ESPN and he is constantly conferring about statistical matters with Sharko over the phone, on site or on twitter. He is one of Sharko’s biggest boosters and often mentions his name on the air.

Gilbert says, “Greg is such a likable person. I think we share the passion together about the stats. He is so genuine and I truly believe he is the best person at what he does. What I love more than anything is talking to Shark about creating new stats and continuing the growth of it. He has such a genuine heart and he always is wanting it to be even better. I talked to him a long time ago about figuring out the stat leaders for players hold from 0-40 down, and other things like that. We have talked about him creating even more analytics in stats. Whenever we do tournaments on television, he gives us all the media profiles and backgrounds and all the different ATP notes. He is just incredibly helpful to always have around.”

That is essentially the way the entire tennis world feels about this unique individual, who has balanced a strong work ethic with a deep devotion to his congenial wife Karen and daughters Kristin, 20, and Caroline, 18. Through it all, his contributions to his craft have been immeasurable, but Sharko refuses to ever heap praise upon himself. He would rather talk about the great things occurring on the ATP World Tour, the rising young players, the enduring stars, and the ever changing nature of the sport.

He mentions how the ATP World Tour has expanded its statistical role in the game, but does so unselfishly. Sharko points out, “We are able to extract so many situational statistics that we never had before. Infosys is one of our partners and we are always looking to create more statistical information. With the partnership we have created the Infosys ATP Scores & Stats, and there are so many possibilities. We have a ‘pressure’ statistical category now and we are able to see who plays well on break points, who is best in service games in different game situations, and things like that. You look at the players who are leading now in the return of serve category and four of the top six on the list are top ten ranked players. Return of serve is such an important aspect in today’s game.”

Self effacing to his core, Sharko adds, “We have some upper management people who work with Infosys and their team, They do that regularly and we’re always looking at different ways to provide more statistics to fans and media. They will ask for my input, like when we did the pressure stats. They wanted my thoughts on some of those categories. I like looking at a player like Lucas Pouille, who is not a top ten ranked player but is No. 5 in the Infosys Under Pressure rating. The rating includes break points converted, break points saved, tie-breaks won and deciding sets won. Pouille has made a nice rise in the Emirates ATP rankings, up to No. 26. It shows that he is performing well in pressure situations. That is a big reason why he has climbed in the Emirates ATP rankings. We also have historical date going back to 1991. The FedEx/ATP Performance Zone also showcases and compares the game’s top performers across eras, surfaces, head-to-head match-ups, etcetera.”

Sharko is not simply helpful; he is indispensable on many fronts. One of his responsibilities when out at tournaments is working closely with the tournaments in carrying out the ATP Stars activities with sponsors, which entails clinics, autograph sessions, and sponsor meet and greet sessions.He is a singularly appreciated fountain of knowledge and interpreter of tennis facts on figures who matter from all segments of the sport, players young and old, competitors from the U.S. and everywhere else, familiar and unfamiliar faces. He looks across the entire spectrum of the sport.

As he reflects, “We are an individual sport so every day you don’t know what is going to evolve on the court. It makes it so interesting when new players make breakthroughs. I was working in Memphis this year and Taylor Fritz was playing in just his third ATP World Tour tournament. He broke through and reached the final. It is exciting to see someone like that burst on the scene at an early age. I was around when Andy Roddick won his first ATP World Tour title back in 2001. I have been fortunate to work with many of the game’s all-time greats, both past and present. It’s really great to work with players throughout their careers and then after they retire they stay in the game as a coach or a commentator in the television booth. And one of the highlights for me was coordinating the media tour with Marat Safin after he won the 2000 U.S. Open. Then to see him inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport this summer was special. I have enjoyed working for the ATP very much. They have been great to me.”

How could that not be the case? He has served that organization so steadfastly and inimitably that he has thoroughly earned any good treatment that has come his way. The fact of the matter is that Greg Sharko is a man who has given me and many other longtime residents of tennis not only the benefit of his knowledge but even more so the full force of his efforts. It is not hyperbolic to say that he has been one of the sport’s unsung heroes, making so many others look good, not asking for anything in return, staying in the background and allowing others to reap the rewards of his work.

As Wertheim concludes, “I can think of no one in tennis who deflects more attention from themselves in an individual sport that suffers from a collective ‘Look at me’ problem. I can’t think of anyone who is less inclined to draw attention to themselves. That sort of lends itself to being overlooked, but I have seen the way players interact with him, especially as they get older. They have a real appreciation for what he has done for tennis and, honestly, what he has done for them. We all appreciate Greg greatly.”

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Steve Flink: Greg Sharko is an ATP Treasure
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