by Pete Bodo
The Atlanta Tennis Championships is well underway, and it's an appropriate way to ease into the summer hard-court season. This is the way it used to be back in the day—a significant club (the Atlanta Athletic Club, which has over 2,000 members) opening up its doors, its courts, its Olympic-sized pool and its nachos concession to the itinerant tennis pros and fans in a setting that is casual, intimate and conducive to a great spectating experience. That's what you get when the capacity of your stadium is 5,000 and you find a way to host an ATP Tour event.
Of course, back in the theoretical day, you might have been able to watch a Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi out there, limbering up for the long slog to the U.S. Open, but the world has moved on. To Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic, "Atlanta" might just as well be "Atlantis." But the likes of Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, James Blake, Robby Ginepri and John Isner are providing the southern U.S. city with something like equal value. Americans like watching Americans, and that's especially true in a market like Atlanta—the U.S. deep south.
Lest this seem like so much American provincialism, let's remember that the Spanish like watching their countrymen, and you couldn't schedule enough Frenchmen at Roland Garros to completely satisfy the Parisian crowd. This is the time of year to celebrate American tennis, and if we can no longer party like it's 1979, we can at least watch very good players try to navigate around the obstacle presented by a reinvigorated Lleyton Hewitt. He's an Aussie, but he shares many of the temperamental qualities found in our boys here in fist-pump of a nation. Just think of Atlanta as the American Barcelona.
This morning, I called Bill Oakes, the Atlanta tournament director, just to see how things were going down there. After all, it's not the best of times, in any number of ways, to hit the reset button on a long-gone event. And Oakes was the TD in the Atlanta event's previous incarnation, until it evaporated in 2001.
"We've had great crowds so far," Oakes said. "We even had great crowds for the qualifying event, which was a little surprising. People have always come up to me to say it's too bad that Atlanta tennis people are players, not watchers. But even back in 2001, only two events, other than the U.S. Open or Masters events, drew larger crowds than ours in Atlanta. I felt like I was spitting into the wind, going around trying to convince people that this thing could still work."
The problem, for those nine years, was the common one. "Look," Oakes said, calling up an interesting analogy. "The National Football League would love to have a team in Los Angeles, but if an owner who wants to put one there can't find a franchise to buy, there's no point."
This was a good move all around. Atlanta purchased its franchise, in reality it's calendar week, from the promoters of the event that gradually fell the wayside in Indianapolis. This is a net gain for tennis, though, given the overlap that always existed between Cincy and Indy. For a long time, those two established tennis cities had to be content with hosting tournaments just weeks apart. Thus, they competed for the many of the same fans and players, and saturated one geographical market while others—like Atlanta—went hungry. Now, Atlanta also has a piece of the pie.
The U.S. players aren't blind to these issues, and the ongoing struggle to keep the U.S. Open Series intact and relevant. When Andy Roddick stepped up to take a wild card into Atlanta, it triggered a surge of ticket sales, and Oakes was delighted when Roddick expressed a desire to play doubles as well. As a result, today's schedule features two U.S. doubles teams in action: Roddick and Mardy Fish, and James Blake and John Isner. And yes, they are on opposite sides of the draw. If they win through to the final, we'll have an entirely new theme to replace What's wrong with American tennis, anyway? It will be: Have we become a nation of doubles specialists? (Not that there's anything wrong with that. . .).
The best U.S. doubles team, Bob and Mike Bryan, aren't playing Atlanta. Neither is Sam Querrey. They're the only U.S. players with high name value to miss the tournament. Oakes said they simply couldn't fit it into their schedules.
If you want to get a quick tour of the Atlanta Athletic Club, click here. Robby Ginepri does a pretty good job hosting this video, and the ATP's Greg Sharko swore it was all done in one take. I'd say Ginepri has a future in broadcasting. I especially like it when the camera pans on the fun zone for kids, and Ginepri says, "If the kids get tired of watching the tennis, they can come here and go nuts on the blow-up entertainment." It made me smile.
Hey, why not? Those kids' parents can amuse themselves with the tennis, reveling in the fact that no matter what happens in tonight's match between Roddick and Rajeev Ram, the U.S. will have placed five men in the singles quarterfinals: Roddick (or Ram), Isner, Fish, Taylor Dent and Michael Russell.
Not bad for a nation of doubles specialists.