Continental Divide

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

This year Bill Rapp has spent the early days of February holding meetings, writing reports, and making the rounds of Idaho’s Northwest Nazarene University, where he was hired as Athletic Director in 2012. But a little part of him was still back in the Bay Area. That’s where, over the course of three decades, he had watched Stefan Edberg and Andre Agassi grow up, brought John McEnroe out of retirement, helped launch the careers of Andy Murray and Milos Raonic, and failed to entice Rafael Nadal to try the world’s "best seafood pasta.” 

That seafood pasta, believe it or not, happens to be in San Jose, Calif., which is where Rapp spent 12 years as the tournament director of the SAP Open. The ATP event, in various incarnations and under various names, was the second-longest ongoing tennis tournament in the United States after the U.S. Open. It was first staged in 1889 and, as the Pacific Coast Championships, became a fixture of the amateur and pro circuits at the Berkeley Tennis Club and San Francisco’s Cow Palace, before moving to San Jose in 1994. Legendary champions ranged from Little Bill Johnston and Don Budge to John McEnroe and Andre Agassi, each of whom won it five times. Johnny Mac also won the doubles nine times, the final one in 2006, at age 47, a moment that Rapp considers one of the highlights of his tenure.

“John got up to accept the trophy,” says Rapp, who convinced McEnroe to play his first tour event in more than a decade, with Jonas Bjorkman. “He said, ‘I want to thank Bill for letting me kick some a--. But if I’d lost, I would have kicked his a--.”

Last year was the end of the line for the SAP Open, which has been replaced on the 2014 tour calendar by a new 500-level, IMG-owned tournament in Rio de Janeiro. The shift south was part of a changing of the geographical guard in tennis, as the ATP has focused on its emerging Latin market. Two years ago, California also lost a long-running men’s tournament in Los Angeles. (Like the SAP Open, the L.A. event was the remnant of a once-prestigious West Coast tournament, Jack Kramer’s Pacific Southwest Championships.) That makes Indian Wells, and the ocean-deep pockets of its owner, Larry Ellison, the last place to watch ATP tennis in California, a state that has produced more Grand Slam champions than any other.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” says Rapp, who started working for the previous SAP tournament director, the late Barry MacKay, in 1983. “I had a lot of great relationships with the players and player agents. We had a profitable event for 14 years.”

That run of profitability, Rapp says, ended in the wake of the fiscal crisis of 2008. But there were factors working against the event that had more to do with trends in tennis than trends in the economy.

“It was tougher for us without a top American male player.” Rapp says. “In the Bay Area, people have money, and they want the best of the best. They have the 49ers, Lake Tahoe, the Pebble Beach [golf] event happened at the same time as ours. We used to be able to give them McEnroe, Sampras, Edberg, Agassi, Roddick when he was No. 1.”

That changed with the ATP’s continental drift to Europe, and the rise of the Big 4. In some ways, the SAP story illustrates the downside of today's top-player dominance. If you don't have Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Nadal, or Murray on your marquee, your gate will suffer. This week, Rotterdam tournament director Richard Krajicek had a solid draw in hand, with the Top 20 well-represented, but he still offered a last-second wild card to Murray. It once wasn’t so easy for Krajicek to nab a top name at the 11th hour.

“In the early 2000s,” Rapp says, “I introduced myself to Richard, and he said, ‘I know who you are, and you’re killing me.’ He had a new sponsor, ABN AMRO, who came in and said they wanted all the other signs in the building gone; they wanted to be the only sponsor. So Richard was under a lot of pressure to deliver for them, and he’s a competitive guy. But he still couldn’t get Sampras or Agassi, because we had them.”

With the best male players coming out of Europe, San Jose no longer made sense travel-wise. But that didn’t keep Rapp, who says “I don’t take no for an answer,” from trying to land them.

“I spent six months talking to Federer’s parents, Robby [Robert Federer] and Lynette,” Rapp says, “and then I finally sat down with Roger. He’s a great guy, but it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen.”

“I did the same thing with Rafa and Novak,” Rapp continues. “Rafa’s agent let me sit down with him one on one. I tried everything. I said we’d get him out on Pebble Beach, that we had the best seafood pasta he would ever have. But same thing, it became clear it wasn’t going to happen. And I understand, San Jose meant another trip to the States for those guys.”

Rapp’s one victory in the war for the Big 4 came with Murray back in 2006, before the Scot had established himself among the elite. 

“I went out to the Aptos Challenger [in Northern California] and I saw this kid,” Rapp says. “I came back and said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to be a role model, with the way he talks, but he could be the future of tennis.’”

Rapp offered the 18-year-old Murray $3,000 to play San Jose in ’06. He won the tournament, his first ATP title, gave his then-new girlfriend, Kim Sears, a kiss. Murray defended his title in 2007, which was the last year he played the event.

“Now I look at the event in Rio,” Rapp says, “and there’s Rafa in the draw.”

Murray is also scheduled to make his way to South America later this month, for the tournament in Acapulco. And both men, along with Federer and Djokovic, will be in California a few weeks later to play Indian Wells. As Rapp knows, it’s tough to go head to head with Ellison’s full-service extravaganza in the desert.

“If someone in California has $2,000 to spend on tennis,” Rapp says, “they can get it all at Indian Wells. Men and women. You can’t fault anything Ellison has done there, with Hawk-Eye on every court. He wants to create the fifth Grand Slam, or California’s Grand Slam. It’s tough for anyone else in the state to compete. But that’s business.”

By the time he left the SAP Open in 2012, Rapp says, he “could see the writing on the wall.” By signing on at Northwest Nazarene, he has also left the professional ranks for the amateur arena.

“It’s refreshing,” he says, “to see kids playing for the love of it. Being in pro sports for any amount of time, you realize how much of it is dictated by money.”

As for the pro tennis game, Rapp says he thinks the sport is healthy, but he fears for the little guys.

“The concept of the 250 [event] is tough,” he says. “There’s not much a player can use ranking-wise there, so you have to pay an exorbitant amount to get a big name.”

But there’s one thing that the pro and college games share: The need to win.

“That’s what I’ve heard from the other ADs I’ve talked to," Rapp says, “if you want a program to thrive, you have to win. And it’s true for American tennis. We need the men to step up. Nothing replaces winning.”

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