Sunday, April 20, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
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Bay Area prepares for men’s tennis goodbye

SAN JOSE — For more than a century, some of the best men’s tennis players in the world have come to the Bay Area almost every year.

From its birth in 1889 as the Pacific Coast Championships in Monterey to stints in Berkeley and San Francisco and its current home in San Jose, the tournament now known as the SAP Open has a list of winners that reads like a who’s who of tennis greats.

Bill Johnston. Don Budge. Jack Kramer. Rod Laver. Arthur Ashe. Jimmy Connors. John McEnroe. Ivan Lendl. Stefan Edberg. Andre Agassi. Pete Sampras.

The winner of this year’s tournament, which begins Monday, will be the last. The SAP Open is being moved after this year, leaving the Bay Area without a men’s tournament.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” said ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who won here in 1989. “As somebody who grew up here and has been part of the tournament since I was like 8-years-old, it’s sad.”

Gilbert served as a ball boy as a kid at this tournament, made it to the singles finals four times as a player, and coached Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray to titles here.

But he has watched as the tournament lost star power in recent years after the group that runs the San Jose Sharks bought it from former star Barry MacKay in the 1990s.

The tournament moved from San Francisco to San Jose and fell lower in the pecking order on the ATP Tour, leading to weaker fields that lacked tennis’ biggest names.

While American stars like Sampras and Agassi were regular participants, current top players from Europe like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have never come. Murray hasn’t played here since he was teenager.

“The Bay Area is a star town,” Gilbert said. “We were getting two of the top four in the world when Barry MacKay was running the event. We got the Americans, but he also had contracts with other top guys. When Barry ran the tournament it was like his baby. He loved it. After he stopped running it, it became a different event.”

As a 250-level event, the SAP Open has struggled to attract top names. This year’s field has five of the top 30 players, with the highest-ranked being two-time defending champion Milos Raonic at 13th.

Sharks Sports & Entertainment also own a 500-level tournament in Memphis that also has a women’s event with it. When a group from Brazil made a lucrative offer to buy that tournament, the Sharks decided to move the San Jose event to Memphis because of better logistics.

That tournament is held at the Racquet Club of Memphis, which the Sharks have partial ownership in. That venue has multiple courts that allow practice and qualifying all to be held in one location and more space for off-court entertainment than HP Pavilion, a large hockey arena that has only one court and too many empty seats.

“It really came down to that single court disadvantage that we had here,” said Mike Lehr, who runs the two tournaments for Sharks Sports. “By putting it into a facility that can do more around the tournament, that just made more sense.”

Lehr said he looked into other locations to hold the tournament but there were no suitable options.

The Bay Area isn’t the only place in California losing an ATP event. Organizers in Los Angeles sold their summer tournament to a group from Bogota, Colombia, late last year. That leaves the combined men’s and women’s tournament in Indian Wells as the only men’s tour event in the nation’s biggest state.

“I don’t think tennis in California is dead,” Lehr said. “It just has to change and evolve. It’s not to say that somewhere down the line we won’t come back into it in the right circumstances.”

It is part of a bigger trend that has seen the number of tournaments in the United States fall precipitously in recent years with the growth of the game internationally. In 1980, there were 36 ATP tournaments held in the United States. By next year, there will only be 11.

“It does bother me a little bit,” top-ranked American John Isner said. “For someone like me, it’s going to be a week that I probably won’t play because I don’t foresee myself going overseas in February unless it’s for a Davis Cup tie. For me and for other Americans, we’re very sad to see it go.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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