In the quiet Vermont mountains, just over a five-hour drive from New York City and the U.S. Open’s home in Flushing Meadows, the town of Stowe—population 4,300—is readying for an event that it hopes will become a new pre-Open tradition for years to come.
It’s the Stowe Mountain Lodge Classic, and it’d like to be the Kooyong or The Boodles of the year’s final Grand Slam.
“I think a lot of the players on tour want a relaxed setting to craft their games the week before the Open,” said Sam Gaines, the President of Spruce Peak at Stowe, the resort that is hosting the exhibition. “There is certainly a niche there. This is a great venue for sponsors and fans that want the tennis to be accessible. It’s a casual environment.”
Aside from the ATP World Tour stop in Winston-Salem, the week before the U.S. Open has been surprisingly void of any exhibition events as players instead fill their calendars with sponsor appearances in and around New York City.
But the tour event in North Carolina has just 48 main-draw spots, meaning more than 50 players are left without a competitive outlet the week prior to the Open, which actually turns into two weeks—if not more—if players had lost in qualifying or early in the week at the Masters 1000 stop in Cincinnati.
“It’s always great to have the opportunity to play a few matches before a Grand Slam event,” said Tommy Haas, who is playing in Stowe but did not get a requested wild card into the U.S. Open.
The veteran, at 39, has been the tournament director in Indian Wells for the last year while winding down his singles career, which has spanned over 20 years.
“At an ATP event—if you play well—you get points and prize money and confidence, but [an exhibition] is where you get to play a guaranteed couple of matches, get some practice and face some very good players,” Haas said in a phone interview. “You don’t have to worry about too much if you win or lose. Instead, you can just worry about getting ready for the Open.”
Enter the Stowe Mountain Lodge Classic. The Vermont ski town and summer resort is an unlikely place to have tennis roots, but for five years in the late 1970s and early 1980s it hosted a popular ATP tournament won twice by the legendary Jimmy Connors.
Pro tennis didn’t return to the area again until 2007, when the USTA elected it as a site to host the Fed Cup semifinal between the U.S. and Russia, a weekend which featured Venus Williams and bustling crowds. (Russia would win the tie, 3-2, to move into the final.)
Ten years later, a slew of men’s players—including Haas—will take to a makeshift stadium court that seats around 2,500 at the base of Spruce Peak. Built near a parking lot, they will serve as tennis courts—there were two laid down—for the community members that live and vacation there.
Haas is joined by rising American stars Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe and Reilly Opelka, as well as tour mainstays Jeremy Chardy, Albert Ramos-Vinolas and Vasek Pospisil, who organizers feel can draw some Canadian fans. Stowe, after all, is just a short drive from the border and the greater Montreal area.
“We’re trying to focus on providing the players an incredible experience with this intimate venue,” Gaines said. “We get to introduce them to a new population.”
“There is two different memories of tennis in this place,” explained Kyle Ross, the event’s tournament director. “If you’re 50 and over, you remember the ‘back in the day’ tournament in the 70s and 80s, with [Ivan] Lendl and those guys. If you’re 25 to 50, you remember the Fed Cup. It’s still in the collective memory here. And now we are trying to create new memories for new fans.”
Ross is also part of Topnotch Management, an agency that has helped bring in the talent. The event itself was formulated and is being run by Grand Slam Tennis Tours, the company that helps organize trips for tennis fans all around the world.
The U.S. Open hasn’t traditionally had exhibition events in the week leading up to it, aside from one-night-only sponsor-driven activations, usually on a makeshift court in Manhattan. With the limited Winston-Salem draw and the unwillingness of a lot of players to travel far or risk being overly successful—the thinking being that if you make it deep in the draw, you might be too tired for the Open—the market is ripe for more niche exhibitions to pop up pre-Open.
Both the Australian Open and Wimbledon have a collection of exhibition events, while the French Open, like the U.S. Open, lacks them. There are two tour stops the week before Roland Garros for both the men and women, though. (The women’s tour has just one stop in the week leading up to the U.S. Open, in New Haven, with a smaller-level event having been halted in Dallas in 2012.)
“We’re not looking to do a one-time thing, that’s for sure,” Gaines added. “We want to build this. This is the right place to build it.”
“It’s always great to have these kinds of options,” said the tour veteran. “With resorts and other settings that might not have a tennis event otherwise, you’re going to have fans that are going to come out and appreciate you being there. I’ve played Kooyong (near Melbourne) and Hurlingham at Wimbledon … I’ve been around and have done it all. I’ve always liked a little bit more of a relaxed atmosphere where you can still work on your game. You don’t have to worry about being too serious.”
Grand Slam Tennis Tours President Andrew Churma plays tennis with Gaines, and the two started discussing hosting an event after they played a recreational match a few months ago. The pieces started to fall into place, and then Topnotch was brought in to help add the players.
While there will be no big star like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal this year, the plan is to excite local fans with a slew of rising American talent and other recognizable names. The tennis, set for Tuesday to Thursday (Aug. 22-24), allows the guys to fly to New York on Friday for the U.S. Open.
“We really hope that this is something that we can make a yearly event,” Gaines said. “We’ve put a lot of time, effort and money behind it. We want to grow it. I think the reception is going to be very positive. You can build on that. There’s no limit to what this could become.”
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