John Korff, Free Spirit, Wants to Fix Open

Back in 1991, tennis promoter John Korff signed up 15-year-old tennis phenomenon Jennifer Capriati to play his tournament in Mahwah,

Back in 1991, tennis promoter John Korff signed up 15-year-old tennis phenomenon Jennifer Capriati to play his tournament in Mahwah, N.J. He then enlisted his 20-year-old nephew to show the young star a good time.

“Get her a fake ID, take her to some trance clubs, whatever—I don’t want to know. But get her back in one piece,” Mr. Korff recalled instructing his nephew. When Ms. Capriati’s father called soon after to ensure that Mr. Korff, as tournament director, would keep an eye on his daughter, he remembered thinking, “Oh my God, do you have the wrong guy!”

But Mr. Korff might just be the right guy to bring some much-needed vim to the U.S. Open. Sure, he wears dopey sports-memorabilia shirts, runs marathons backwards and stays in shape by sneaking into tall buildings, dodging security guards and scaling flights upon flights of stairs. But after 25 years of running an unorthodox women’s tournament and promoting sporting events on the fringes of the tennis establishment, the 54-year-old now sits squarely on the stodgy governing body that oversees the Open and every official match played in the country.

“Tennis is such a sport of traditionalists, and we abhor change,” said former Mayor David Dinkins, who also sits on the board of the United States Tennis Association. “Not to denigrate the others, but John’s certainly a breath of fresh air.”

Since coming on as one of the board’s two business advisors in January 2005 (the other was a septuagenarian mergers-and-acquisition specialist), Mr. Korff—a Grateful Dead groupie and inveterate showman who promoted New York’s Olympic bid by hiring the world’s top archer to stand on a moving taxi and shoot an arrow through the hole of a bagel—has lobbied noisily for the game to loosen up. Besides supporting the introduction of instant replay to the Open this year, Mr. Korff wants the players to linger on the court to sign autographs, and the fans to stick around for concerts after the matches. He eventually envisions a week-long U.S. Open festival.

“All of a sudden, people have realized that the traditional rules and the environment of tennis needed more sis-boom-bah to make it part of mainstream entertainment,” said Mr. Korff, who holds an M.B.A. from Harvard and a predilection for the word awesome. “We’re trying to make tennis hip, cool and fun.”

That is no easy task when your sport’s most dominant player is a humorless Swiss who makes Mats Wilander seem downright outrageous. But Mr. Korff says he has surmounted much tougher, and taller, challenges.

On Friday afternoon, before running up the 27 flights of the Fisk Building, where he occupies a cluttered office, the wiry eccentric sat behind his desk telling stories about the old days. He wore a loud shirt from the 1990 All-Star Game in his hometown of Chicago, and looked around the room with his perennially sleepy eyes. Hanging on the yellow walls were photos of Michael Jordan and Richard Nixon, as well as his diploma from the Harvard Business School and a list of 2006 USTA board meetings. Stacked beside his desk were nine cases of Poland Spring water and a pile of shirts reading “USA Stair Racing Team,” of which he is the only member.

Mr. Korff explained how, before his hair had grayed to salt and pepper and a wedding band had arrived on his ring finger, he first started climbing the stairs to sweat out daily hangovers from his late-night benders. And it was exactly one of those drunken nights that landed him his greatest coup as a tennis promoter.

In June 1991, he went out drinking in a Tampa bar with Monica Seles’ brother, Zoltan.

“Zoltan was not exactly the most balanced person,” said Mr. Korff, who described Mr. Seles as having bleached blond hair and riding a motorcycle in an orange jumpsuit. Nevertheless, after about a dozen drinks, they were doing business.

Mr. Seles hinted that his sister, who had just won the first two legs of the Grand Slam, the Australian Open and the French Open, might pull out of Wimbledon early. Mr. Korff—who had already shelled out $300,000 for Ms. Seles to play his own tournament, which followed the All England Club’s by only a few weeks—offered Mr. Seles an extra $50,000 if his sister would hide from the press following her Wimbledon withdrawal.

“I thought, ‘This is awesome,’” said Mr. Korff. Everything went according to plan. Ms. Seles mysteriously dropped out of Wimbledon and arrived to play his tournament. There was a media frenzy and a sold-out crowd. Donald Trump and Marla Maples, “in a dress the size of a napkin,” applauded in the stands. The tournament was a giant success, with Ms. Capriati, fresh from the trance clubs, beating Ms. Seles 6-3, 7-5 in the final.

What made such a final even more improbable was that Mr. Korff’s tournament had lost its official status in 1989, and the winner earned none of the coveted A.T.P. points that move a player up in the world rankings.

“I paid them a bunch of money,” Mr. Korff said, explaining how he got the top women to play.

He also assured top players like Steffi Graf easy early-round matches, free of risks like competent but boring 11th-ranked players in the world.

“We made sure we didn’t have any No. 11’s,” said Mr. Korff. “We had some girl named Sue from Teaneck, N.J., and Steffi was in the final every year.”

Mr. Korff’s guiding philosophy is that besides a few tennis aficionados who still long for the old country clubs and lament the wearing of anything but pressed white shorts, people come to a match to be entertained. To that end, Mr. Korff let fans keep the balls shanked into the crowd long before the Open did, and he also made music a staple on the court.

Like Apollo Creed, players entered the court to the accompaniment of songs over the P.A. system. He promoted concerts on the days between matches, featuring the Beach Boys, Chicago, and Huey Lewis and the News. (It was the 80’s.) For the 2007 U.S. Open, he hopes to sign “big names” like Billy Joel or Bon Jovi to play Open-sponsored concerts. (Mr. Korff is apparently unaware that is no longer the 80’s.)

At around noon, it became time for Mr. Korff’s workout and training for the Empire State Building Run-Up. (In 2003, he shot up to the top in 14:13, a record in his age group.) He slipped into red Hawaiian shorts and his gray “USA Stair Racing Team” T-shirt. He stretched his legs against a bookshelf and took an elevator down to the basement. At the foot of the first stair, he measured the step’s height between his thumb and forefinger.

“Eight and a half inches,” he said. “The tough ones are nine and a half.”

Moments later, Mr. Korff began bounding up the stairs two at a time. He didn’t use the handrails. As he stepped onto the 10th floor, he explained the futility of security guards in private buildings who try to chase him down.

“It’s stupid—they can’t catch me,” he said. That said, he admitted that machine-gun fire, which a guard in Zimbabwe used to scare him off, worked very well.

On the 17th floor, without a drop of sweat on his brow, he pointed out that, like tennis, stair-climbing is not a solitary pursuit. In the Viacom building, he climbed past a couple engaged in a sex act; on the corporate buildings of Wall Street, his ascent interrupted traders getting high on coke. (Mr. Korff is partial to sedating stimulants, and is known to pick discarded joints off the steps for post-workout unwinding.)

Four minutes and 47 seconds after taking the first step, Mr. Korff touched the door to the roof on the 26th floor. He casually headed down to take the elevator back to the basement, where he would repeat the climb five more times. Opening the door to leave the stairway, he took another look up at the steps.

“This is my Wimbledon!”

John Korff, Free Spirit,  Wants to Fix Open