Pro event returning to New Haven
As it became abundantly clear that the Connecticut Open would be leaving New Haven, the powers who operated the tournament shifted attention to writing the city’s next chapter of professional tennis.
The Tennis Foundation of Connecticut, the organization overseeing the tournament, began seeking a more financialy plausible option for the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale. The realistic goal was a professional tournament for the
“The Tennis Foundation board always said, we will do everything we can to bring back pro tennis, but at a more affordable and sustainable level,” said Anne Worcester, former Connecticut Open tournament director and a member of the Foundation board. “And I didn’t know what that meant . ... We had all kinds of financial models to consider.”
What does it mean for New Haven? An Oracle Challenger Series ATP and WTA event, offering a lower-tier and more affordable tournament.
Affordable, as in free tickets.
The new tournament will debut in New Haven Sept.
2-8, which means New Haven will host professional tennis for the 30th consecutive year. And the tournament will be paired with a men’s legends event headlined by Fairfield’s James Blake. The one-day men’s event will have a ticket fee, but the overall tournament will be far different and far more cost efficient for consumers.
“It is going to be very different,” Worcester said. “It’s going to be a different scale. But ... it’s going to be great competition.”
The announcement Thursday came just four months after the state sold Premier WTA Sanction for the Connecticut Open to a company that moved the tournament to China. The sale culminated a monthslong search for a title sponsor, which would have offset the financial burden of operation a top-tier tournament.
While the Connecticut Open evolved into a weeklong festival with live music, food trucks, a beer garden, theme nights, and sponsor booths, the new tournament will very much focus on the tennis. And matches will not be played on Stadium Court, as a
1,000-seat grandstand will be constructed on a back court at Yale. Players will practice on the main court and use the locker room facilities, but the main event won’t be on the big stage — at least not this year.
“We’re taking baby steps,” said Worcester, who was recently named president of Universal Tennis.
The Oracle Challengers Series is a circuit for rising players, considered a notch below the premier level New Haven has hosted for the past three decades. Prize money is $150,000 per men’s and women’s tournament at each event. Prize money for WTA events is approaching $1 million.
Established in 2017, the challengers four-event tour offers a path for American players to gain entry into the premier Indian Wells, Calif. tournament in March. Players accumulate points over the course of the tour, and the top two American men and women receive wild cards into the Indians Wells draw.
New Haven will be the first event on the tour calendar, replacing a tournament based in Chicago last year.
While the Challenger event consists mostly of lesser known or unknown players — ATP veteran Donald Young has been part of the tour and American prospect Lauren Davis won an Indian Wells wild card on the tour last year — New Haven’s new tournament will offer fans some familiar names.
The Invesco Series QQQ men’s legends event, a popular component of the Connecticut Open the past few years, will return to New Haven Sept. 7. Blake was mainstay at the New Haven legends event, while John McEnroe’s appearances raised excitement in New Haven.
Blake will headline the New Haven event in September, scheduled to be joined by Andy Roddick, Tommy Haas and Mark Philippoussis. Tickets go on sale June 27.
The presence of legends provides a link to New Haven’s tennis past. Professional tennis came to the city in 1990, when a men’s tournament moved from Stratton Mountain, Vermont. The Volvo International debuted at Yale in August 1990 and moved into the new 15,000-seat Connecticut Tennis Center a year later.
The tournament was run as a men’s-only event through 1997, with marquee names such as McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang, Ivan Lendl, and Boris Becker passing through New Haven.
As Pilot Pen became title sponsor in 1998, the WTA was added and Steffi Graf won the first tournament before Venus Williams won four in a row. The men left in 1999, but the women’s event provided star power — Graf, Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Maria Sharapova, and Martina Navratilova were among the players at the Pilot Pen as attendance peaked.
Blake led a men’s tournament stop back to New Haven in 2005, as the pride of Fairfield won twice and became the face of the tournament. Caroline Wozniacki, the eventual No. 1 player in the world, won the tournament four years in a row and former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova won three times in four years.
But the tournament was unable to secure Serena Williams, the most dominant and recognizable player in the world, because it sat on the calendar a week before the U.S. Open. The men’s event was moved to North Carolina in 2010 and attendance began to suffer as the top players in the women’s game were far more anonymous to the American fan base.
Pilot Pen ended its title sponsorship in 2011 and the tournament survived as the New Haven Open at Yale from 2011 to 2013.
Without a title sponsor and with revenues flat, the event was nearly sold to a Winston-Salem, N.C. group in 2013. The state purchased the sanction for $618,000 and the tournament was rebranded as the Connecticut Open, operating as a nonprofit.
But that model was not sustainable. A title sponsor would be worth about $1.5 million, so the tournament was left to supplement revenue with tiers of corporate sponsors — including Hearst Connecticut Media Group in 2018.
Worcester spend about 18 months searching for a corporate title sponsor and engaged 88 candidates over a four-month period at the end of last year before the sale was announced on Feb. 1.
James Blake, seen here in 2018, will return to New Haven as part of a men’s legend event when professional tennis returns to the city from Sept. 2-8.