UNIONDALE, N.Y.—“We like to say that the U.S. tennis season starts in New York and ends in New York,” Peter Lebedevs says.
Technically, Lebedevs, a former pro and veteran ATP tournament director from Australia, is correct. The first event of 2020 that’s played in the States takes place this week at the New York Open on Long Island; the last one will finish in early September a few miles to the west, at the US Open.
Geographically, the two tournaments are in the same state, but from every other perspective they exist in different pro-tennis universes. The US Open, which began in 1881, is one of the world’s best-attended and most lucrative annual sporting events. The New York Open, which began in 2018, is still in the process of trying to put itself on the tennis map.
Finding it, on that map or any map, can be a challenge. This men’s 250-level tournament, which landed on Long Island after 43 years in Memphis, is held at the Nassau Coliseum, an hour’s drive from Manhattan. The address is officially in Uniondale, N.Y.; in reality, what you see when you walk out of the stadium is a highway and a Marriott.
Photos by Anita Aguilar
For decades, Nassau Coliseum was the home of the New York Islanders and their rabid fan base, who thought nothing of spending a freezing-cold day tailgating in the vast parking lot that surrounds the arena. The Isles play only sporadically there now, and will exit for a new stadium in Belmont Park soon. But the memory of the team’s early-80s glory years remains strong. Directly above the New York Open’s all-black court hang giant replicas of the jerseys of five Islander legends. If Long Island has a Mt. Rushmore, this is it.
But the Coliseum was also home to at least one tennis legend: Billie Jean King spent much of 1976 competing for a World Team Tennis franchise, the New York Sets, that played its home matches there. World Team Tennis was a product of its tennis-boom times; four decades later, the New York Open is a product of its own financial times. The tournament was bought by GF Capital, a private equity firm, in 2015. According to its website, the company “makes control-oriented growth capital investments in middle market, branded consumer product and media companies.” I’m not sure what that means in tennis terms, but GF’s sports division also owns the BB&T Atlanta Open, and a professional lacrosse team, the New York Riptide.
What is private-equity tennis all about? Visually, the tournament has an appropriately stark, Gothemesque aesthetic. It has one of the best and boldest tournament logos, and its black court is distinctive and popular with photographers. Sonically, the event is about as loud as they come, which is also appropriate to New York. On Thursday, AC/DC songs blared through the loudspeakers between sets.
“We’re the only 250 that has a video wall,” says Lebedev, who took over the tournament director’s job this year after two years as an assistant TD.
But some things remain the same, and out of the tournament’s control. Top-tier international talent can be hard to come by, in a week that also features a 500-level event in Rotterdam for Europeans, and a clay-court tournament in Argentina for South Americans. This year the NY Open’s biggest draw, Nick Kyrgios, pulled out after a shoulder injury flared up.
“Nick’s someone who draws people to tennis,” Lebedevs says of the Aussie, who won the BB&T Atlanta Open in 2016. “We would have loved to have him, but we liked our field this year.”
If the New York Open is becoming known for anything, it’s for surprise runs to the later rounds. In 2019, Brayden Schnur reached the final. This year, Jason Jung and Soonwoo Kwon have upset Kevin Anderson and Milos Raonic, respectively, to make the quarterfinals.
One thing the New York Open hasn’t been known for so far is overwhelming crowds, especially during day sessions. But Lebedevs says “ticket sales are up,” and there were certainly more people in the stands for Thursday’s matches than there had been on any weekday in 2019.
“We feel like things are tracking well,” Lebedev says. “I don’t think anyone expects a tournament to knock it out of the park the first year or two.”
How does a new tournament make its mark in the crowded U.S. sports market, when it isn’t a destination event like Indian Wells or the Miami Open? Last year, John Isner talked about how he liked coming to Long Island in February because it was a break from the hot weather the pros contend with most of the year; 30-degree temperatures may be appealing to a player, but probably not to a fan looking to travel to a tournament.
For Lebedevs, the answer is an old-fashioned one: In a place without an easily identifiable surrounding community, you try to build one. This week the New York Open has held an awards ceremony for Eastern Long Island tennis, organized a local pickleball tournament, and staged Q & As with the players for local fans.
“We want to build the community aspects of our event, and become part of the tennis scene here,” Lebedevs says. “There’s a huge population of players and fans on Long Island; we have to let them know we’re here. We want to give them a place to get up close and personal with the players.”
This week fans have had a chance to get up close and see brilliant tennis from relative unknowns like Jung, Soonwoo Kwon, Ugo Humbert, Jordan Thompson and others. And that ultimately is the appeal of the New York Open: You can get close enough to the action to understand that it doesn’t take marquee names to produce entertaining, even amazing tennis. It’s not the US Open, but it’s not a bad way to start the American tennis season.