Grass Growing Greener

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

We’ve now entered that portion of the year in which the typical headline boiling up out of the pro tour is something like: Vesely Upsets Matosevic; Russell, Smyczek Advance

Unless you’re one of those hard cases who follows the ATP World Tour with the focus of a labrador retriever puppy chasing a ball, the headline may not mean much to you. But keep in mind that the ATP calendar is comprised of over 60 tournaments, not all of which can be named “Wimbledon.”

And if your interest in tennis goes deep enough, you might enjoy tracing the genealogy of many of the ATP World Tour events, whether they’re minor 250-level tournaments or glamorous Masters 1000 meetings.

It may not seem like a big deal, but the U.S. Indoor Championships (where that headline could be gleaned from) once was one of the most prestigious tournaments on the tour, and not just because of the fields it habitually attracted through overlapping decades of American excellence and sometimes outright domination.

Today, it is hosted in the Racquet Club of Memphis, a private club, which tells you something about the degree of linkage between the venue and the surrounding community. The deep local support is fueled partly by the affiliation of the tournament with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The tournament recently completed a $2 million endowment fund at St. Jude in honor of Tim Gullickson, who coached Pete Sampras into greatness before dying of a brain tumor in 1996. In 1998, the tournament endowed the $1.25 million Arthur Ashe Chair of Pediatric AIDS Research at St. Jude. If this stuff doesn’t matter you, consider yourself lucky, count your blessings, and hope to God you never have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

The U.S. National Indoors dates all the way back to 1898, and it was first played in West Newton, Mass. After a year, the tournament moved to New York City’s Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Ave. and 66th St.—a place that has a fairly rich history in tennis (among other events, it also hosted one of the first Open-era tournaments, the “Clean Air Classic.” I know, because it was one of the very first tennis tournaments I ever covered).

But by 1963, the wooden floor that served as the playing surface was degenerating because the joint actually was used as an armory, housing (among other things) heavy machinery and vehicles. The floor was beginning to splinter, and those wooden shards would stick in the balls and then embed themselves in the players’ hands. Did I mention that the lighting in the armory also was (and remains) terrible?

The tournament moved to Salisbury, Md. in 1964, thanks largely to the influence of impresario Bill Riordan, who would go on to become the manager of an up-and-coming young player, Jimmy Connors. The tournament lasted in Salisbury, a town better known for its chicken industry, for 13 years. Memphis then bought to rights to the “National Indoor Championships” from the USTA. At the time, with the U.S. the dominant tennis nation, this was a big deal. Now the tournament hangs in there as a locally popular ATP 250.

These histories are fun to keep in mind as the ATP tour changes and evolves, and sifting through them reminds us that tennis is more of a living organism than we sometimes imagine. That’s neatly borne out by the fact that the new ATP calendar for 2015 contains some significant changes that, within a few years, may make us forget our recent complaints about the schedule, or at least force us to embrace new grousings. Here are the highlights:

—The long-awaited expansion of the grass-court “season” is upon us. Wimbledon will begin a week later (June 29), creating room for a three-week turf swing. The tournaments on grass will be Stuttgart, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, London (Queen’s Club), Halle, and a new 48-player event in Nottingham (previously held as a 28-player draw in Eastbourne).

To add more heft to this revival on grass, Queen’s Club and Halle will be upgraded to ATP 500 events. This is not the best of news for clay-court experts, for the plan translates to a 75 percent increase in in the number of ranking points that will be doled over the grass-court segment.

Somewhere, Roger Federer is kicking himself, wondering. “Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?”

—Rio de Janiero will highlight a four-week South American swing. It’s the first ATP 500 event on that continent, and it represents the fulfillment of a dream long held by the founder of the Miami Masters, Butch Buchholz. The month of tennis in the southern hemisphere (in February) will also contain ATP 250s at Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, plus the recently completed event in Vina del Mar.

—China will remain the only nation other than the United States to host an ATP “Grand Slam”—staging at least one event in each ATP World Tour category: 250 (Shenzhen), 500 (Beijing), and Masters 1000 (Shanghai). The U.S. has multiple 250s and 1000s, plus a 500 in Washington, D.C.

—The 2015 calendar will feature 62 tournaments in 31 countries. Regrettably, one of the countries that fell out of that distinguished company is Serbia. The tournament founded by Novak Djokovic expired in 2012.

Actually, if you’ve got a few hundred thou lying around and would like to put your name on a trophy and/or the event that offers it, the ATP is willing to sell you the rights to a nice little 250 to take place during Week 17. The only catch is, your event will have to take place on outdoor clay in Europe.

Okay, you ready to pony up?

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