A Quiet Tradition: Pro Tennis In Los Angeles

First things first. In preparation for attending a tennis tournament, this will come in handy for you. Correct pronunciation of the word “deuce” involves giving the letter “u” its proper due. It is pronounced “d-u-sss”. Think about the plural of “you” as used in every bad gangster movie ever made – “youse”, as in “youse guys”. Tack a “d” on the front, practice a little at home, and you’re ready. You’re welcome.

It is summertime in SoCal, and that means that the names of area freeways transition over to becoming verbs – as in “I got 405-ed trying to get to the Farmers Insurance Classic yesterday”. This naturally requires an adjustment to event travel planning. First you look up the mileage to any upcoming event that involves freeway travel. Then calculate how fast you think you can crawl on all fours. Backwards. A little long division yields a proper estimate of travel time. To which you add an hour. That usually does it.

Abnormally cool weather has me not quite yet in full summertime mode, and so I arrived fashionably late for the first round of matches on this day of second-round play at the ATP’s annual Los Angeles tour stop. This was just a speed bump in the day however, because the beauty of a tennis tournament in its early stages is that play continues for many hours, and is spread over multiple courts. So you can come and go as you please, sampling play until you find something to sink your teeth into. I call it Spectator Grazing.

When I got to the ticket sales booth, I was greeted by a friendly soul who told me that “all he had” was a seat in the back row on the end line of Center Court. No problem – I’m a cheap seats guy, and the venue wasn’t all that big. Except that when I got to my seat, it was occupied by someone who was clearly part of a large youth group on an outing.

Again, no problem. For as far as the eye could see were empty seats. In fact, the row in which I was assigned to sit was literally the only row in the stadium that was fully occupied. I improvised and upgraded myself to the best possible seat that wouldn’t draw the attention of an usher. Hey, I’m trying to be accommodating here – the poor kid could’ve been scarred for life if I had tossed him out of my seat. I looked at it as providing a public service.

In all seriousness, I’m sure that each seat that I chose to warm throughout the course of the day had indeed been sold as part of a “season ticket”, which provided its purchaser access to any and all of the multiple sessions of the week-long tournament. There’s not a tennis fan on the planet who could sit through that many hours of tennis, but in order to guarantee a seat for the choice sessions, they buy the season pass and pick and choose their viewing schedule.

This provides yet another benefit to attending the early rounds of a multi-day sports event – someone else foots the bill for maximizing the Sports Fan experience.

Originally I had wondered why, with all of the venues in the Los Angeles area that routinely host professional sporting events, did the tournament’s organizers choose to hold the Classic at UCLA. Even though school is not fully in session, there’s still a lot going on at the Westwood campus. Summer classes. Incoming freshman orientation. Bruins Kids Camp. Once I arrived though, I found my answer.

The UCLA tennis teams play in paradise. The shady glen in which the UCLA tennis facility, anchored by Straus Stadium, resides is a full-service venue that puts the vast majority of private tennis clubs to shame. Oh, and UCLA also happens to be one of the four Founding Partners of the tournament.

In the sports sponsorship world, being a “founding partner” often sounds more impressive than it actually is, given that sports events (and even entire sports properties) come and go with some regularity. So the term “founding partner”, along with its cousin “presenting sponsor”, usually means “sponsor that’s been convinced to pony up a little more than the regular sponsors”.

Unless of course you are a founding sponsor of a tournament that is the longest-running professional event in a city that is a mecca for pro sports. The Farmers Classic, under the banner of a series of different sponsors, has been played in L.A. every year since 1927. This may not seem like such a big deal until one considers that the city of Los Angeles itself was only incorporated in 1850. So there have been far more years in the history of L.A. in which there was an L.A. Open tennis tournament than not.

And it is hard to imagine a tournament other than a Grand Slam event that bears a past champions list of such prominence. For the first 75 years of its existence, this event has been won at one time or another by virtually every tennis legend I could think of (Bjorn Borg being the one notable exception). Then…something happened. The big names for some reason stopped coming to Los Angeles. No Roger Federer. No Rafael Nadal. Not even an Andy Roddick – an American. What happened?

I took a look later at the ATP web site, which revealed that there were not just one, but two competing men’s pro tennis tournaments this week – one in Croatia and one in Switzerland. Same week. Three separate tournaments. All under the ATP banner. Maybe it’s just me, but don’t the ATP folks seem to be diluting the product just a wee bit?

I chose to start my Spectator Grazing with a singles match between Rainer Schuettler and Robby Ginepri, neither of whose names I recognized. A quick review of the program revealed however, that on June 23, 2003, Ginepri became “the first player to compete at Wimbledon with a sleeveless shirt”. I ask you – could you pass up seeing such a seminal sports figure?

To be continued…

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