The lost way in San Jose

SAP Open hallway

Agassi’s retirement left SJ without major calling card.

 

Tennis continues go ‘go global’ as it were, which means that there was enough interest in the ATP 500 sanction from Memphis to allow its owners to sell it to IMG and its partner and move it Rio, while at the same time deciding to kill a 124-year-old tournament in the San Francisco Bay Area, the SAP Open in San Jose.

Clearly, there is enough interest worldwide to be able to take what has a somewhat valuable sanction (meaning an ATP 500 where a decent amount of good players compete) and sell it off, which could be seen as a good thing for the sport.

But as it stands today, it is not because there is no hard evidence that Rio de Janiero, Brazil, will actually have enough willing fans to go out and pay a decent sum to see, say Thomaz Bellucci, a good but not great player who does not pack them in like Guga Kuerten did and probably never will.

No, the reason why IMG and its Brazilian partner EBX, will operate a combined ATP and WTA event in Rio beginning in 2014, is because they are hopeful with the upcoming buzz about the World Cup that sponsors will flock to sporting events like theirs. And maybe that is a good play for them, and maybe the tournament will survive for more than a 100 years, but given the historical up and down nature of the Brazilian economy (mostly down), I doubt it.

So after this week, on February 16, 2013, when San Jose shuts its doors, what it will mean is that the Silicon Valley, which is often called the engine of the US economy (and therefore the world), and the Bay Area, which has a thriving tennis scene, will no longer have a men’s event to call there own. And that is sad and ridiculous because the fact of the matter is that when good player fields were bought in, people attended the tournament, which is why it survived so long in various locals such as Monterey, San Rafael, Berkeley, Albany, San Francisco and then very appropriately named Shark Tank, whose hockey obsessed owners ended up opening their jaws and tearing it limb from limb without much a care for the effect on tennis.

I’ve covered the tournament for 21 years and while clearly I am somewhat biased toward Northern California (I have also lived in the Bay Area for a little more than 21 years), but I don’t think I pulled many punches when it came to covering the event, meaning that when it had excellent player fields like during Sampras-Agassi-Courier- Chang era, I said so, and when it was depending on players outside of the Big 4 and mostly out of the top 20 for the past five years, I felt it was flailing at windmills in regards to attendance.

Consider this: why would a hardcore tennis fan want to shell out say $150 (with parking and food) to see two players whom he knows have no chance to win a major face off, or why would a fly-by-night sports fan decide to do the same with two players he has never heard of? He would not.

So if San Jose Sports & Entertainment Enterprises are claiming economic reasons (they have yet to state declining attendance, but at best it’s been flat during the past five years) for the sale, then maybe they should blame themselves for not pursuing enough big names with appearance fees, or for spending too much on secondary players who might be talented but are not that well known.  Or maybe they should just come out and say they were tired of having to send their hockey team on a two week roadie, which people in the know realize is the truth. Here’s an example of that: in Bay Area sports lexicon, the Sharks leaving town for two weeks became known as the dreaded ‘tennis trip.’ Fans of the team, some players on the team, and some owners of the team annually complained about the Sharks coming back tired and at times with a losing record. What got lost in all of this so-called common wisdom was that the tennis tournament only ran for one week  and Disney on Ice annually ran during the other. The “Mickey Mouse” trip might have been more appropriate.

When the Sharks group bought the tournament from longtime promoter and former top-10 player Barry MacKay  in 1995, the Sampras-vs. Agassi rivalry was in full bloom and the event did pack ‘em in. MacKay could no longer manage the tournament’s finances himself, which is why he made the sale, not because he wanted out of the business. The Sharks group had deep pockets and were leasing and running an arena, while Mackay did not and was not.

So with Agassi and Sampras coming back year after year and a number of other Slam threats or Slam winners taking titles such as Mark Philippoussis, Greg Rusedski, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, the tournament manage to corral big sponsors and had good attendance.

But…then the wildly popular Agassi retired, Roddick began to be eclipsed by the Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Murray became too pricey and no US male stepped in in huge way at a major, so tournament director Bill Rapp – a true tennis aficionado and former teaching pro who worked his butt off and was super creative–  had few places to turn.  If the Sharks were not going to give him a cool million to go and grab Federer, he had to settle for paying much smaller amounts to less well known Fernando Verdasco and Gael Monfils, among others.

Fortunately, young Canadian sensation Milos Raonic won the event the last two years so it did attract some media attention, but fans were not that familiar with him, so the weekdays were a struggle and walk up sales on weekends were minimal.

Here’s another major factor that has rarely been mentioned: Sharks CEO Greg Jamison, who actually liked tennis and helped bring the event to the city, left the organization in 2010 to pursue other interests. There were no more serious tennis fans left in the ownership group and the tournament was all but dead in the water. Then they let go of Rapp, who at a good understanding of the market and done as well as he could with so-so fields. This week, the new and very temporary tournament director had the audacity to tell the Bay Area News Group (the SJ Mercury News and other papers)  — which by the way outside of Darren Sabreda doesn’t have a single person on staff who has a clue about tennis — that this 2013 field is one of the best in years.  Given that there are no top 10 players in the field, that’s a stretch. The 2003 field is highlighted by Raonic, John Isner, Sam Querrey and Tommy Haas. No disrespect to any of those good players, but from a fan perspective I’d take 2007 with Roddick, Murray, Marat Safin and James Blake as having more marquee value.

Here is the worst thing about any tournament leaving any locale, whether its in San Jose or Marbella, which folded after last year: all those kids who might have come to the tournament and got a fresh look at how great the sport is and began lifelong fans will no longer have chance to do so. Yes, the excellent Bank of the West Classic, a WTA event remain at Stanford,  still exists, but  with the similar exit of the ATP stop in Los Angeles, the only men’s event in California, which is the cradle of elite player development, is Indian Wells, a fantastic tournament but one that is a nine-hour drive from the Bay Area.

Many fans around the globe do not have a tournament they can drive to and those who do are very lucky. I can’t tell you how many people have told me over the years at Stanford or San Jose how much they looked forward to the tournament and wished that they could go to a Grand Slam annually, but couldn’t afford it or make it happen. San Jose was their US Open.

But this should also be said: no group in the United States stepped up to try and buy San Jose and only one group expressed a bit of interest in LA, which is headed to Bogota.  ATP 250 level events are not as attractive stateside as they used to be.

San Jose was also a gathering place for almost everyone who mattered, or wanted to matter in Nor Cal tennis and I will certainly miss the camaraderie in the pressroom. I got a lot of good work done there and because smaller tournaments tend to allow for close access to the players, I met and established solid working relationships with a number of excellent players because I was one of the few so called tennis journalists around.

Two more things need to be said: at one level, the existence of the Big 4  is driving global interest in the sport to new heights, but at another, the dominance of the big tournaments is also hurting the smaller ones (ATP 250s) because most of those events cannot afford them, or Djokovic/Federer/Nadal/Murray simply have schedules that are too packed to play them. Private investors are also being driven out of the sport as there aren’t that many billionaires like Larry Ellison (who owns Indian Wells)  who want to back tournaments so  many events are now being scooped up by governments looking to boost their tourist business, or in the case of Rio to showcase their city before the Olympics. Just try and convince a city like San Jose to shell out $2 million or so for a tennis tournament when most Californians are against public financing of sporting events.

Because the Grand Slams have become so important, there is also a current of thought that they are the only tournaments that really matter. But that simply is not true. They may matter more, but each tournament has a history of its own, feeling of its own, memories of its own.

When John McEnroe beat Jimmy Connors for the 1982 title at the Cow Palace, it meant a hell of a lot to him and I’m sure he recalls it.  When Ivan Lendl got over McEnroe the next year, you can bet it mattered. When Michael Chang won his first title there in ‘88, or Brad Gilbert won in front of his home fans in ‘89, those are the moments that stick with player. Any time that the “Fab 4” of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang played for blood in the Bay Area, those matches etched into wall space of their rivalries. In 2001, Greg Rusedski upset Sampras and Agassi back to back, perhaps his finest hour ever. The next year, Hewitt took out Agassi in a classic three-setter, just five months before he won his first Wimbledon title. In 2004, Roddick took down his old housemate Mardy Fish in match that had the intensity of one of their backyard pickup basketball games. Murray won his first career title there in 2006. Raonic his in 2010. Think they don’t remember those? You are kidding yourself.

How many fans that sat on the edge of their seats  can still remember the sound of the ball being struck, or a particular facial expression on a star player, or a rally for the ages?

Lots.

Sometime around 6 PM on Sunday after the final, the clean up crew is going to come into the Shark Tank and start the tear-down. A tournament that began in 1889 in splendid Monterrey and was won by William Taylor will roll its nets up for good. The rows of  pictures of ex-champions that adorn the hallways will likely to be thrown into storage somewhere, maybe never to be seen again.

There will be no ongoing story thread then, just a short epilogue and then the close of the covers of the second longest tournament and tennis saga in US tennis history.

I’m sure as hell going to miss it, and I bet a lot of others will too.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. I stopped going a few years ago due to frequent hassles from ushers trying to enforce silly camera policies, even up in the nosebleed seats. (Anything looking like a zoom lens = attempted confiscation of the camera.) The traffic situation around the arena usually required parking 3 neighborhoods over. No in-and-out privileges without grovelling to the ticket takers. Just an all-around lack of a welcoming vibe. Too bad I wasn’t around when it was up in Berkeley!

  2. Everything you said about SJ is true about LA. Used to be a huge event – last yr the crowds were way down.

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/tennisdata/id519054852?mt=8

  3. Joan Cronin says:

    Great story Matt. Sorry about the tornament but things change all the time not matter how much we don’t want them to. Mom

  4. Great read, Matt and a lot of interesting points.

    I’m probably not alone when I say that even as someone who follows tennis all-year round I had no idea of the long history and tradition of the San Jose event until now, when it’s vanishing.

    It seems to have been mismanaged on a number of levels and some of the attendances this week were an embarrassment to the sport.

    From what I read here, those with the power to hold on to the event and make it a success just didn’t have any real interest in doing so. That’s just sad.

    With the right marketing and passionate owners it could have been successful even with its weaker current fields.

    Sure it’s tougher to sell events without a member of the big four, but several 250 events show that it’s far from impossible, especially with the presence of a strong local contingent.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: