One would think that in a city blessed with nearly year-round sunny skies, temperatures that hover around 70 degrees almost every day and plentiful amounts of tennis courts (many of them free) filled with players, hosting a professional tennis tournament would be a cinch.
Well, that’s not the case in Los Angeles, America’s second largest city and second biggest sports market. The recent news that the long-running Los Angeles Open, a fixture of men’s tennis (and not just the current ATP Tour) since 1927 has been sold to a group in Bogota, Colombia is, though disappointing, not entirely unexpected.
Despite having a Hall of Fame roll call of champions including Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and 2009 U.S. Open Champion Juan Martin Del Potro to name a few, a variety of issues in recent years finally prompted tournament organizers to call time on the event.
After having attracted the biggest and best of men’s tennis, L.A. in the last few years suffered from not being able to secure the participation of the elite of the ATP tour to play there as a warm-up for the U.S. Open. When the tournament decided not to pay appearance fees that many of the sport’s top stars now require just to show up at a tourney that isn’t a Major or a Masters 1000, the event had to carry on with sometimes just one top twenty player in its singles draw. Even with hometown heroes like native Californian Sam Querrey, who won the singles trophy three times, the Bryan Brothers who won the doubles title there six times and new L.A. resident Mardy Fish showing up in recent years, only diehard tennis watchers seemed interested in venturing out to the UCLA tennis center where the event was held.
When this year’s tournament was scheduled during the two weeks of the Summer Games, the draw had as its top seed mercurial French talent Benoit Paire after Mardy Fish had to withdraw due to ongoing health issues. Querrey, who was on the comeback trail himself from injury, managed to win the event, but the nearly empty stands throughout the week proved to be the final proverbial nail as major sponsors decided not to renew their contracts for next year per a report on Tennis.com.
Having lived in L.A. for several years and being fortunate enough to cover the event in 2010, I can say that the L.A. Open was a great, low-key, and fan friendly event. But L.A. is a fickle town that like its stars, and the bigger the star the better. The L.A. Open wasn’t the only pro tennis event in town that had to deal with declining interest in the pro game. The WTA Championships held in 2005 at the Staples Center suffered from poor attendance and even the presence of Maria Sharapova at the WTA event in nearby Carson back in 2009 couldn’t stop that tournament from packing up and moving back to Carlsbad.
While the new ATP event in Atlanta has so far proven that a pro event can thrive when a whole town loves its tennis and loves watching it no matter who is on the court, tennis fans in L.A. have consistently voted with their pocketbooks that they are really only interested in seeing the biggest names on tour compete, and not just top ten players. And that’s why despite all of its past glory, the L.A. Open will now be just another part of Southern California’s tennis history.
Tennis is a sport and it is also a business. In 1980, the U.S. had 36 ATP tournaments. By 2014, there will only be 12 and five of those will be combined events with the WTA. These numbers might improve, especially if a new American star emerges who can challenge for the sport’s biggest titles, but the current trend of small tournaments only being able to survive in towns that are super passionate about tennis year round will likely continue. For L.A. fans, they will just have to remember the memories created by its city’s longest running sports event that is now no more.
Bittersweet? Perhaps. Just like the lyrics to Ryan Adams’ wistful tune about the city itself.