For some business executives, tennis is a passing fancy, sponsorship subject to whim and fashion. But to Mark Hurd, CEO of Oracle from 2010 until his death last October, tennis was a passion, worthy of sustained devotion. Having lettered at Baylor in the late 1970s, Hurd was particularly attuned to the challenges faced by college players.
Since 2015, Oracle has sponsored many college events. The company also each year has given out the Oracle US Tennis Awards, a $100,000 grant to one man and one woman making the transition from college to pro. Then there is the Oracle Challenge Series, which in 2018 and ‘19 consisted of eight dual-gender events.
Now comes something even bigger: the Oracle Pro Series, 25 new dual-gender Oracle tournaments added to the calendar in late ’19 and ’20. Offering purses ranging from $25,000 to $108,000, these tournaments take place at small venues, including such college campuses as Southern Methodist University, the University of Michigan, USC and Ohio State University, as well as Las Vegas’ Darling Tennis Center and the USTA National Campus in Orlando. Cost to attend: Zero. Quality of tennis: Oracle Challenge Series events have been won by the likes of Taylor Fritz, Danielle Collins and Bianca Andreescu.
“The genus of this circuit was when the ATP stripped points away from smaller tournaments,” says Jim Courier, who’s company, InsideOut Sports & Entertainment, is running all Oracle Pro Series events. “A lot of red flags went up. Players didn’t have places to play. Mark started to look at the pathway between college tennis and top tennis. There were holes there.”
Who to watch in Las Vegas? ????????— OracleTennis (@OracleTennis) March 3, 2020
Pro tennis has descended on @TennisDarling, with both men and women competing at the #OracleProSeries Las Vegas through March 8.
From seasoned athletes to young talent, here's four to watch????????https://t.co/unVOoeJBfo pic.twitter.com/CkpT3nmh14
A pro ranked inside the Top 400 can easily accumulate more than $150,000 a year in expenses. As of November 18, 2019, 223 men and 187 women had grossed at least that amount. Those below that line are the ones who often share motel rooms, decide each week if it’s wise to bring a coach and become quite familiar with ramen and all-night laundromats.
“Tennis is a tough sport,” says 2019 Oracle Tennis Award winner Jamie Loeb, who played for the University of North Carolina women’s team from 2013-’15 and by November 2019 was ranked 199th in the world while earning $82,595 in prize money.
“It’s not for everyone. In other sports, you have a set contract and a lot of things are guaranteed. In tennis, you have to take the initiative for your travel, your schedule, your practices.” As Grant Chen, men’s coach at SMU says, “Pros develop much later. It’s going to take a few years for players to find their form. So these kind of events are incredibly helpful.”
Talk to any professional tennis player and you will hear horrible stories about events at this level, including everything from negligible food offerings to horrific housing, sub-par racquet stringers, inadequate court dimensions and erratic officials. The Oracle Pro Series vows to eliminate all of that.
“I wish these tournaments had been around more when I was 20 years old,” says ex-pro Tim Smyczek, who ran the Oracle Pro Series tournaments in Dallas last fall. “These are very player-friendly.”
Says Courier, “Without having to leave the United States, there’ll be more chances for players to get their ranking up, make their way into the Top 250 and earn a living playing tennis.”
Dennis Novikov, at the 2018 Newport Beach stop on the Oracle Challenger Series. (Getty Images)
To be clear, the Oracle Challenger Series is separate from the Oracle Pro Series; it is a sanctioned series of tournaments just below the ATP and WTA level of competition, but still sponsored by the tours.
This week, the Challenger Series is being held at Indian Wells. To give you a sense of the quality of the field, here are Monday's results on the men's and women's sides.
RESULTS - MARCH 02, 2020
Men's Singles - First Round
[PR] J. Sock (USA) d K. Uchida (JPN) 61 57 62
M. Redlicki (USA) d Z. Li (CHN) 62 62
M. Janvier (FRA) d B. Klahn (USA) 64 64
T. Kwiatkowski (USA) d H. Chung (KOR) 76(2) 62
M. Mmoh (USA) d A. Santillan (AUS) 60 63
M. Zverev (GER) d J. Aragone (USA) 57 60 76(6)
S. Korda (USA) d [WC] B. Holt (USA) 63 61
M. Krueger (USA) d D. Sela (ISR) 06 76(4) 75
M. McDonald (USA) d [PR] B. Mott (AUS) 60 64
[PR] R. Sarmiento (USA) d M. Copil (ROU) 63 63
N. Rubin (USA) d D. Petrovic (SRB) 36 76(4) 61
Men’s Qualifying Singles - First Round
Qualifying -  G. Brymer (USA) d [WC] H. Reese (USA) 64 62
Qualifying - [WC] S. Verbeek (NED) d  S. Robert (FRA) 64 64
Women's Singles - First Round
S. Vickery (USA) d C. Mcnally (USA) 62 63
V. Zvonareva (RUS) d Xiy. Wang (CHN) 64 61
K. Nara (JPN) d [WC] J. Loeb (USA) 76(2) 64
H. Dart (GBR) d A. Li (USA) 61 67(4) 61
Y. Wickmayer (BEL) d [WC] C. Liu (USA) 61 64
N. Vikhlyantseva (RUS) d A. Kalinina (UKR) 26 76(5) 64
O. Danilovic (SRB) d V. Cepede Royg (PAR) 16 64 64
K. Boulter (GBR) d [WC] H. Baptiste (USA) 75 63
Women's Doubles - First Round
M. Doi (JPN) / L. Siegemund (GER) d  Y. Duan (CHN) / N. Hibino (JPN) 75 60
A. Blinkova (RUS) / C. Mchale (USA) d M. Barthel (GER) / E. Webley-Smith (GBR) 61 63
Women's Qualifying Singles - First Round
Qualifying -  A. Muhammad (USA) d [WC] M. Mateas (USA) 75 26 63
Qualifying -  D. Lao (USA) d [WC] H. Chang (USA) 61 57 62