The professional tennis calendars are arranged so that tournaments follow the sun. Beginning in January during the Australian summer, the players gradually migrate west, and by late August they arrive in New York City just before autumn breezes snake their way around the concrete jungle.
StarGames president Jerry Solomon is attempting to do this on a smaller but perhaps equally impressive scale. Unlike the tour schedules, which take roughly 12 months to play out, World Tennis Day, an idea Solomon has been building toward for the past five years, begins and ends within 24 hours.
“It’s sort of overwhelming sometimes to even take a look at it all and understand the number of people that have really gotten behind this project,” said Solomon.
In 2008, Madison Square Garden was the site of a dream exhibition rematch between Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. Ever since then, Solomon has helped promote tennis events at MSG, showcasing prominent active and retired players at the BNP Paribas Showdown before many of them head to Indian Wells in early March.
That won’t change this year, but there will also be a second round of exhibitions in Hong Kong, allowing World Tennis Day to live up to its name. On March 4 at 7:45 pm local time (6:45 am in New York), Ivan Lendl will face old nemesis John McEnroe, followed by a three-set match between Caroline Wozniacki (who played at MSG last year; see above photo with boyfriend Rory McIlroy) and Li Na. World Tennis Day will conclude in Manhattan at 7 pm EST, with Rafael Nadal taking on Juan Martin del Potro after WTA No. 1 Serena Williams meets WTA No. 2 Victoria Azarenka.
But while those marquee matches are what most outsiders will take away from the day’s events, it’s only part of the total tennis package.
“We didn’t just expand to Hong Kong—this is really an effort to create World Tennis Day on a much broader platform, says Solomon. “We’re going to have grassroots programs going on all around the world. We started out with 200 tennis clubs participating, and last year we had over 2,000.”
Solomon expects that 3,000 clubs in the U.S. will take part in World Tennis Day this year by promoting 10 and Under Tennis, a variation of the game geared towards children. Tennis clubs in 15 other countries have also pledged to participate.
Kurt Kamperman, USTA Chief Executive of Community Tennis and advocate of Tennis Night in America—which began in 2009 in conjunction with the BNP Paribas Showdown—aimed to take the principles behind the event global. With the inclusion of Hong Kong into next Monday’s events, World Tennis Day takes its first step toward becoming “an annual celebration of the sport,” in the words of Solomon. It certainly didn’t hurt to have Li, the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam singles title, on board as part of the promotion.
“She’s definitely important about taking that first step into Asia,” says Solomon. “Not that it would have been a deal breaker, but the fact that she agreed to participate certainly made it a lot easier decision.”
The card in the Western Hemisphere reads like an All-Star game, an embarrassment of tennis riches. There’s del Potro, who left a capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium in awe as he overpowered Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final. There’s also Williams and Azarenka, who appear to be in the midst of a year-long tug of war for the No. 1 ranking. But the real draw is Nadal, who returned to the tour for the first time since Wimbledon 2012 earlier this month. On Monday, he’ll play in the United States for the first time since last March—on a hard court, no less.
Tennis Channel will broadcast the Hong Kong portion of World Tennis Day, while ESPN2 picks up the New York City coverage in the evening. Tickets are still available by clicking here.
The next logical step for World Tennis Day would be to expand its reach into other countries, and sources say there has been substantial interest around the globe. “The hope and the vision is to add at least one more event in 2014, and by 2015 and a minimum of two more events,” says Solomon. “We would see the day starting in Hong Kong and moving hopefully to Central Europe, maybe to the U.K., and then ending in New York. Ideally, each event will end before the next one starts.”
Ambitious goals, for sure, but that's how World Tennis Day came to be in the first place.