Do You Know the Way to San Jose?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It all started with about the closest thing tennis has ever produced to a classic gentlemen’s duel, only the weapon of choice was not flintlock pistols, but wooden racquets.

The background: On the Fourth of July in 1888, the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey hosted a tennis tournament and ultimately crowned William H. Taylor champion, even declaring him state champion of California. Others throughout the state took umbrage at this heady proclamation, pointing out that any club could hold a tournament and claim that the winner was the “state champ.” They had a point: Only 26 players had taken part in the Del Monte event, and tennis players downstate in Southern California didn’t even know about it.

Robert Payton Carter of Los Angeles then issued a challenge that Taylor promptly accepted, and the men faced off at the California Tennis Club in San Francisco. Taylor didn’t get a game in the first set, but he exonerated his good name—and status as state champ—by sweeping the next three to win 0-6, 6-3, 8-6, 6-3.

One upshot of this duel was that bitter rivals in Northern and Southern California realized that they ought to create an “official” state championships. Thus, the California Tennis Club joined the USTA, and the following year—1889—it hosted the first Pacific Coast Singles Championships to determine the champion of California. It would later become known as the Pacific Coast International Championships.

That, ladies and gentlemen, was the start of the second oldest tennis tournament in the United States (after the U.S. Open, which traces its roots back to 1881). The Pacific Coast International has created its share of history, but it has also been buffeted by fate as it evolved into what is today’s SAP Open, or the San Jose tournament. It’s underway as you read this—for the very last time.

One of the striking aspects of tennis is how almost every tournament on the calendar has evolved over the years into something very different from what it was once was, and not always in a good way. That is owed in large part to the massive convulsions attending the birth of the Open era. Tournaments have grown, while some have shriveled. Most of them have changed.

Unfortunately, San Jose is a good example of how a once mighty and prestigious event can lose its way. In this case, it was due to a combination of factors, including a difficult position on the calendar, the inability of its promoters to keep up with the financial demands of a growing pro game, a change of leadership, and the decline of Made-in-the-USA talent.

The Pacific Coast International. . . it even sounds grand, perhaps even a mite romantic? California is a storied hotbed of American tennis, having produced countless champions from Ellsworth Vines to Venus and Serena Williams. Yet the grand dame of its once proliferating tennis events has been reduced to a lame-duck ATP 250 that offers the typical fan not even a hint of its role in history, or its credibility. You have to wonder, could it have been otherwise? Does it have to be about the money, always?

The Pacific Coast International was a steady, prestigious fixture in the Bay Area for nearly 80 years before the Open era began to impact it. At the outset, the influence of the emerging pro establishment was all positive. In 1972, former Davis Cupper and U.S. No. 1 Barry MacKay took over the tournament and quickly brought it up to speed in the brave, new, professional world. In the midst of a U.S. tennis boom, the now high-profile event began a 20-year run at San Francisco’s famed Cow Palace in 1974, producing a distinguished roll of champions including Arthur Ashe, five-time winner John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang, and Andre Agassi.

But the economics were becoming increasingly problematic by the early 1990s, and in 1994 MacKay took the tournament to the booming San Jose/Silicon Valley area. The market was becoming a rougher and tougher place, but MacKay remained in the hunt—not least because, as a former player and part-time television commentator, he had great credibility and solid relationships with the top players. He was famous for accommodating nearly every whim of the men who played his event, and that paid off in loyalty. Money talks, but friendship whispers—and sometimes that was enough to make a Pete Sampras or Agassi think, “Sure, I’ll play San Jose. Barry’s a good guy and I’ve always had a good time there.”

But illness was closing in on MacKay by the mid 1990s, and he eventually sold the tournament to Silicon Valley Sports and Entertainment. (MacKay died last year, after a long illness.) San Jose became an ATP 250, the lowest level of a men's pro tournament, and without the relationships MacKay cultivated and the familiar, familial feeling he created, interest among top players gradually declined. In truth, other factors—specifically the scheduling problem the tournament’s February time slot presented—certainly played a larger and larger role over time as well.

The interesting thing to me is how completely all that history and even general public interest seems to have dried up and blown away. I mean, this was no one-off tournament that someone tried to ram down our throats. It was an organic event, with over a century of history and tradition. Can the explanation for the demise of this event be as simple as, the game "moving on"? Is the present shortfall of top U.S. players enough to doom events like San Jose?

I have problems with that theory. Granted, the U.S. still has four premium events, including one on the west coast (Indian Wells). But it’s still hard to imagine that a state as tennis-friendly as California can’t also support at least one summer tournament; it suggests some critical failure of vision somewhere along the line. But that appears to be the case, and it’s made even more poignant by the almost eerily parallel demise of the Los Angeles event, which was played for the final time last July (under the Farmer’s Classic banner).

The Pacific Coast International had a 40-year jump on the Los Angeles event, but the latter would become a formidable downstate rival, once ranked up there with the likes of the Italian or German Open. The tournament that evolved into Los Angeles was first held in 1927, and it was known for most of its duration as the Pacific Southwest Championships. It was played in L.A. for 86 consecutive years, and its champions include Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Agassi, and Sampras.

But the event was sold last July, and it will be re-born in Bogota, Colombia—no doubt leaving tennis genealogists of the future with a lot of digging to do. The SAP Open will be folded into the Memphis tournament next year, so you could say it’s still an ongoing event. But both the Pacific Coast International and the Pacific Southwest were first and foremost California events, which means that for all practical purposes, those tournaments have dissolved into the mists of tennis history.

It’s astonishing that these two storied events, contested in what may be the ideal tennis environment—and one of which was played for over a century—expired within 12 months of each other. It’s also a sad comment on the state of tennis in the United States.

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