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.’”