Pro event re­turn­ing to New Haven

The News-Times - - SPORTS - By Paul Doyle [email protected]­medi­act.com

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

2020 cal­en­dar.

“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.

Catherine Aval­one / Hearst Connecticu­t Me­dia

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.

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