In this, the second consecutive rendition of “forward into the past”, join me as I return to the Claremont Club, in the shade of the majestic San Gabriel mountain range. Back in June I had traveled to see the CIF Southern Section Boys Tennis Championships, and now for the second time in three days, I was on a mission to see if the Girls Championships could one-up the boys in terms of athletic drama.
One thing immediately apparent on my arrival was that the girls could one-up the boys in terms of athletic spectators.
In my last visit, I was met with a robust selection of available parking spots, all within a short stroll of the tennis courts. I chose something from the “shady” collection and wandered in.
This time around, despite arriving at an earlier hour, and with only two of the five Division Championships set to begin, I was shown simply…the satellite lot. It was sufficiently far enough away from the tennis courts to make me wonder whether it was even on the Claremont Club property. I had to park between two buses, for crying out loud! Is this any way to treat an old friend?
But you take the bad with the good, because another difference I noticed immediately was tremendously enhanced signage. Truth be told, there were actually just two signs, but that was two more than were there in June. And one directed me to the restrooms – a strong value-add since it had been a two-Starbucks drive.
And so I arrived at the U.S. Open expecting to see a huge build-out. An ocean of tents and similar hospitality structures. Maybe I was in the wrong part of the sizable Billie Jean King National Tennis Center complex. Because what I saw was a permanent structure, complete with fountains and a food court that would make the Mall of America sit up and take notice. Very little of it was of the temporary construction variety that would be taken down and spirited away in the aftermath of the tournament. Which made me wonder…what else is this place used for? Other sporting events? Concerts? Amway sales conventions?
So I did a little asking around. It turns out…not much.
Unless of course you take into account that the entire magnificent complex, with its 22 courts inside the gates and 11 in the surrounding park is open to the public year-round, weather permitting. That is of course when it’s not busy hosting one of the two most visible tennis tournaments in the world.
That’s right – for less than $20 an hour, you can play where some of the greatest players in the world have competed. Sort of like teeing it up at Augusta National Golf Club – except for the year-round part. Or the inexpensive part. And oh yeah, there’s that “don’t you peasants even think about sullying our lawn” thing. OK, bad analogy.
But you get my point – this is a public jewel actually built for and used by the public. The USTA just pays rent. A lot of rent. But they get a lot of stadium for their money.
When I entered Arthur Ashe Stadium with old friend Feesh and his magazine cover family, I literally blinked at its size. While at the court level it’s much cozier than it appears on television, from a vertical standpoint it far exceeded my expectations. The capacity of the stadium is listed at 23,200, but the attendance that night was announced at 23,815. Keep in mind that’s almost 24,000 people gathered around a playing surface that’s a mere 78’ by 36’. The only way that a decent viewing experience can possibly be accommodated for all is through sheer height.
The main bowl around the court is pretty much all you see on TV, but stretching up beyond that are two club levels, a loge section and an upper deck (which is the largest of the seating areas). And perched across the top of one end of this is a press box that rivals that of an NFL stadium. The Grand Canyon is only slightly more steeply banked than this stadium.
We arrived at the tail end of a match in which Maria Sharipova broke nary a bead of sweat in dispatching Iveta Benesova 6-1, 6-2. It took just 32 minutes. Sharipova struck me as being much taller than she appears on television – and a little more world-weary.
As she was being interviewed on court after her win, I couldn’t help thinking that she looked and sounded like she’d rather be pretty much anywhere else. I remembered a television segment that I’d seen on her a few years back, in which she categorically stated that being a tennis star was not what she lived for, and that she would probably retire early. And the kicker? That interview had been filmed when she was 14 or 15 years old. Now at the age of 23 years, she is an old soul, for sure.
In the featured men’s singles match, German Philipp Petzschner came in as a decided underdog to third-seeded Serb Novak Djokovic. He had a golden opportunity to steal the first set though, which he frittered away – eventually losing 7-5 when he allowed his final service to be easily broken.
Late in that first set, a fight broke out in the upper deck. Yes, a fight. At a tennis match. I wondered what in the world could possibly arouse enough passion about a second-round tennis match to spark a fight, but Feesh just waved it off and said “It’s New York. Somebody probably looked the wrong way at somebody else.” Which, we came to find out the next day is pretty much exactly what happened.
Although the ruckus high above didn’t seem to faze either player, a general lapse in concentration marked the entire evening’s play for Petzschner. He looked like he had all of the shots, but just…didn’t get around to making them most of the time. He appeared far more interested in winning on style, attempting a lot of elegant finesse shots when some good old-fashioned baseline slamming was in order.
Ragged play marked the first two sets, which Djokovic won 7-5 and 6-3. And fisticuffs aside, up to that point there was precious little to get the crowd excited. In the third set though, things got spirited. Emotion on the part of both Petzschner and Djokovic was suddenly on display, and the fans began to feed off of that.
Rallies got longer and winning shots more impressive – but unfortunately the number of unforced errors didn’t diminish. Far more points were lost rather than won. After one particularly painful shot that he left in the net, Petzschner swatted the ball into the fourth deck in frustration.
Perhaps he should have done that earlier because that outburst, when the set was tied 3-3, gave way to his best play of the night. Although nobody in the place entertained the notion that he could come all the way back and win the match, people seemed to be rooting hard for Petzschner to force a fourth set, despite the late hour. But it was not to be. Having forced a tiebreak during which Petzschner took a 4-3 lead, he got a little too cute with his shots and wound up losing the tiebreak 8-6. And the match, in straight sets.
For his part, Djokovic remained unflappable throughout, and proved to be a great post-match interview as well. He was asked if he had been distracted by the fight in the stands and he said “I was just hoping it wasn’t a Serb”.
Then, when asked if he was working on a Roger Federer style between-the-legs shot, he said without missing a beat, “No, I already have something else between my legs.” That brought what remained of the house down, which he exacerbated by slyly wrapping a towel around his waist.
As Feesh might say “It’s New York”.
He calls it the worst-run event in New York sports. Yet for each of the past 15 years, he’s been drawn inexorably back. Partly to get his fix of tennis, a sport that he competed in back when he still had cooperative shoulders. Mostly though, “I come to the early rounds for the same reason everybody else does – to see an upset. To be there when an unknown beats a star.”
Like a Janko Tipsarevic beating an Andy Roddick for example – which had occurred on this same stage one night earlier. Watching it on television I had been rooting hard for the “Serbian Bono”, since I had taken a liking to him earlier this summer at the Farmers Insurance Classic. I can imagine how thrilled I would have been to have seen his upset win unfold right in front of me.
In general though, I was chomping at the bit to see everything. But I had been slow on the trigger in purchasing a ticket for the day session, and when I arrived in the late afternoon expecting to waltz in and bounce from court to court consuming tennis in mass quantities I was sorely disappointed. That line queuing up at the box office? That was for the next day’s tickets. Today was sold out.
And so I cooled my heels awaiting the arrival of Feesh and the family, who were hosting me for the evening session and the better part of the weekend. The emphasis here is on the word “host” – because when you visit Feesh, you immediately become a member of one of the most inclusive and active families in America.
As I waited, I walked around the Flushing Meadows – Corona Park complex. This was the site of the World’s Fair in both 1939 and 1964 – back when the world was still a very big place. And the plaza with its now 46-year-old Unisphere sculpture and attendant fountain still draws people in droves.
It was still blisteringly hot in New York – the previous day, 10th seeded Belarusian Victoria Azarenka had actually collapsed on the court and had to be taken to the hospital. And although Hurricane Earl was closing in to suck all of the humidity out of the air, he was still in transit. So the mist from the fountain was a welcome respite. The rainbow was a nice touch as well.
The Unisphere globe and fountain sit at one end of a concourse that is anchored at the other by the South Plaza entrance to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and its three featured stadia: Grandstand Stadium, Louis Armstrong Stadium, and the crown jewel, Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Louis Armstrong Stadium was the original structure, built as part of the 1964 World’s Fair construction project. And when the U.S. Open relocated here from Forest Hills in 1978, it became the focal point of the tennis world each year during the waning days of summer.
In the early 90’s, a rumored move of the U.S. Open to San Diego served as at least partial motivation for then-Mayor David Dinkins to spearhead and approve a $285 million renovation of the USTA National Tennis Center. The original Armstrong Stadium was essentially divided in two to create a new Armstrong Stadium and the adjacent Grandstand Stadium. And next door to that was built the magnificent Arthur Ashe Stadium. The latter opened in 1997, and the whole impressive facility was rededicated to bear Billie Jean King’s name in 2006. It’s safe to say that the U.S. Open is here for the duration.
I wandered back down the plaza and watched as people began to arrive for the evening session. Which is pretty much indistinguishable from the afternoon session. Play begins on each of a dozen or more courts in the morning, and since it’s impossible to plan around how long any individual match can take to complete, they pretty much just line ‘em up and play until all of the scheduled matches have been concluded. During the early rounds of the tournament, that can go deep into the night – and it’s not uncommon for play to extend past midnight and into the next day.
So I wondered how they went about clearing the decks of afternoon session attendees to make way for the evening session patrons. It turns out they don’t. If you’re of a mind to do so, you can arrive early in the day and stay until the lights are shut out. But unless you have tickets for both sessions, you’re limited to watching play only on the non-stadium courts after 6:00.
Still, for tennis junkies, that can’t be all bad. And for the USTA it probably works out OK to have plaza squatters as well. They eventually have to eat and drink, and the longer they’re on property, the more likely they’ll be motivated to wander into one of the many merchandise outlets.
And to seal the deal, they have a huge video screen facing the plaza outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which displays the action inside to all those that are hanging around the beautifully landscaped courtyard. A true win/win. I would be interested to know how many people in fact take advantage of this two-fer (OK, maybe it’s more like a 1 ½ – fer). I know I would, but…well, when it comes to attending sporting events I think I’m probably a couple of standard deviations north of the mean.
To be continued…
With July just about ready to give way to August, and this Sports Fan sitting in the stands at a pro tennis tournament, it came to mind that I am approaching the one-year anniversary of the birth of this crazy project. It was at the WTA’s Los Angeles Open (now relocated to San Diego) last August that this concept of speed-dating with the entire sporting world emerged. See, my good friend and partner in sports marketing crime The C.O. and I were doing some market research and…well, that’s a story for another time.
Today let’s talk tennis. As in the ATP Farmers Classic, which if you lived far removed from the southwestern stronghold of the Farmers Insurance Company, you might think was sponsored by an agricultural concern. Because if Northwestern Mutual is “the quiet company”, Farmers has been downright mute. Until recently.
For Farmers has suddenly come out of nowhere on the national sports sponsorship landscape. In addition to signing on as title sponsor of the venerable Los Angeles pro tennis event that brings me to the UCLA Tennis Center, they are also the new title sponsor of the PGA Tour’s tournament at La Jolla – known for years as the Buick Invitational. They are also a major sponsor of the WNBA’s L.A. Sparks, and on a more grassroots level provide significant financial support for California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) playoff competitions in a wide range of sports.
This is at first a little puzzling, given that Farmers has been owned since 1988 by Zurich Financial, an international financial services conglomerate that invests quite a bit in sports sponsorship under its own flag. Come to find out however, that Farmers Insurance is headquartered in Los Angeles, and has been since its founding in 1928. Taking center stage in the sports marketing world in Southern California is simply part of a well-executed plan to increase its visibility nationally, and strengthen its presence in its backyard.
Why they’ve waited until now to do so…that’s tough to say. But Zurich Financial recently launched a massive global marketing campaign, the goal of which was to address in a head-on manner consumers’ general mistrust of insurance companies. Clearly, they felt that getting involved in sports was a great avenue for building trust – in stark contrast to U.S.-based financial services companies who fled en masse in 2009 from the sports marketing stage, lest they be publicly chastised by grandstanding politicians. But I digress.
When we last spoke, I was settling into someone else’s expensive seat to watch a match between Robby Ginepri and Rainer Schuettler. Ginepri was struggling to overcome a string of unforced errors, and finally in a fit of pique, he slammed his racquet to the ground with such force that it bounced off the surface and somersaulted into the stands. Rather than hustle over himself to apologize to the woman hit by the racquet though, he waited for the ball boy to retrieve it. As this was being done, Ginepri headed in that direction as well. I assumed that he did so to apologize, but rather than address the woman, he turned his full attention to inspecting the racquet.
To my mind, the crowd reacted quite unusually to all this. At first there was a groundswell of heightened murmuring that, had it been almost any other sport, would have grown into a boo. It quickly died down however, for to boo would be uncivilized and such rude behavior in this setting would probably be cause for ejection. Unless you are a professional tennis player. And an American. This is John McEnroe’s legacy to the game. I immediately became a huge Rainer Schuettler fan and settled in for the remainder of the match.
Schuettler did indeed win the match, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. To his credit, despite his petulant performance on the court, Ginepri was gracious in extending what looked like heartfelt congratulations to his opponent. But the lasting image I will have of him is of boorish behavior. Not quite as despicable as Serena William’s conduct in actuallythreatening a volunteer during a tournament last year, but in the same general category. Maybe that’s why I’m not a big pro tennis fan.
What I am a big fan of are the quirks and traditions that set each sport uniquely apart. And one of those quirks in tennis is the way in which players receive the tennis balls to be used for their serves.
At each end of the court are stationed two ball kids, who are tasked with the job of supplying the player about to serve with a choice of tennis balls. For some unknown reason, the way in which this is done is for the ball kid to stand at attention with arms raised to the heavens, holding a ball in each hand. When the player motions for a ball, the ball kid, with arms still stretched skyward, “dispenses” a tennis ball from the chosen hand. The word “Pez” comes to mind. This looks for all the world like an innocent kid is being robbed at racquet-point by the player – providing a source of endless entertainment for me. But then again, I’m easily amused.
Beyond amusing, and lapsing into the realm of spellbinding, was a match later in the day between Somdev Dewarman and Janko Tipsarevic.
Dewarman is a collegiate legend – the only player to have made it to three consecutive NCAA singles championships, the latter two of which he won. When he graduated in 2008, the University of Virginia retired his jersey. His short pro career however, has seen its ups and downs, and he had to advance through the qualifying rounds in order to even make the draw here in L.A.
In contrast, Tipsarevic has been a fixture on the ATP since 2002. He appears much older than his 26 years, and perhaps that stems from his hobby of reading the books of Nietzsche, Dostojevski and Goethe. As the #6 seed in the draw, he was the highest-ranked player that I had seen to that point, and he carried himself with a little bit of a rock star swagger. The first thing that came to mind when I saw him was a Serbian version of Bono.
This match shaped up nicely as a classic battle between the Young Gun and the Cagey Veteran, and it did not disappoint.
Dewarman came out blazing, winning four of the first five games with serves regularly in excess of 120 mph. It looked like he was going to quickly dispatch Tipsarevic in an upset, as the latter appeared to be sleep-walking through the first set.
I can’t say for sure whether this was deliberate or not, but down 1-4, Tipsarevic began to slow down play by challenging several points in a short period of time, thus exhausting himself of that option early on. He lost all of his challenges, but the disruption in flow seemed to work in his favor. And when he won a long rally to move within 4-5, he suddenly became very animated.
From there it was a clash of pure power versus strategy. On more than one occasion, Tipsarevic sent his energetic opponent running from side to side to return shots from the baseline – and then elegantly executed a soft drop shot to win the point. He did just this to win the point that sent the set to a highly entertaining tiebreaker that Tipsarevic eventually won 11-9.
That seemed to break the spirit of Dewarman, who dropped the first three games of the second set before recovering. It was too little, too late though and Tipsarevic, now firmly in control of the pace of the game, ground out a 6-2 win in the second set.
Speaking on behalf of Cagey Veterans everywhere, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I think I pulled a muscle clapping though.
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…
Theoretically, the somewhat oxymoronically named University High School is called that because of its location adjacent to the University of California, Irvine. But it could just be a clever ruse. See, when the bus pulls into the school parking lot to pick up the UHS boy’s tennis team and transport it to their matches, who would be the wiser if by some “snafu” in communications the UCI tennis team happened to board. An honest mistake. I mean, they’re right next door. And if caught, they could always laugh it off as an innocent joke. After all, Will Ferrell is a University High graduate. I mean, how else can you explain a team winning the CIF Southern Section Division 1 Championship by a margin of 17-1?
What Augusta, Georgia is to golf in America, Ojai, California is to tennis in this great land. A bold statement yes, but not simply the semi-coherent raving of a Sports Fan who attended The Ojai Tennis Tournament over the weekend and became infatuated. Let’s bring in the U. S. Tennis Association here.
In 2009 when the USTA set out to identify the Best Tennis Town in America, it considered 56 different towns to be contenders, of which Ojai (population roughly 8,000) was the smallest. But when the winners were announced at last year’s U.S. Open, lo and behold, only Midland, Michigan was deemed superior. Had I known what I know now, I would’ve demanded a recount and stormed USTA headquarters – or at least the Florida Section’s HQ, which was conveniently located across the street from my old office and thus within easy storming distance. (more…)
Sometimes you just get lucky.
When crafting the schedule for the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, I was pleased to note that the Pac-10 Tennis Championships would be in Ojai, CA. Good fortune was smiling on me I thought, since of all places in the roughly 6.4 gajillion square mile region that the Pac-10 Conference covers, they chose to stage this championship in a place less than 100 miles away from the international headquarters of the IGTS Tour. While hosting the event in a small town located a fair distance from any major metro area seemed a bit unusual, I certainly wasn’t complaining. And had I been inclined to do so, yesterday I would’ve had to slap myself when I arrived at the pearly gates of tennis heaven – The Ojai. (more…)