By Andy J. Gordon
“I went to the ATP tennis event and nobody showed up.” That could have been what people said upon leaving the disappointing LA Tennis Open Presented by Farmers Insurance Group at UCLA (www.LATennisOpen.com) in late July. No top 10 players. Sparse crowds. Player defaults. Not exactly the showcase hoped for by the Southern California Tennis Association (http://www.scta.usta.com) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (http://www.atpworldtour.com), the organizers of the event. However, there was good news amid the bad. The setting was beautiful, the weather was great, and it was a rare opportunity to see some local, and not so local, pros compete in southern California.
Some of the local talent fared well, and a few legends of the game participated in exhibition matches that created more excitement than the main event. The tournament opened on the evening of July 27 with a highly anticipated exhibition match featuring 14-time Grand Slam champion and L. A. resident, Pete Sampras (shown above). Although retired from competitive tennis, Pete still looked to be in great shape, and was clearly thrilled to play in front of an adoring audience.
His opponent for the evening was Marat Safin, who was in the main draw for both singles and doubles. Safin recently announced his retirement at the end of this season, which made the night’s exhibition even more significant. Sampras and Safin faced each other in the 2000 US Open final, so this was a rematch of sorts. Both players gave a fine effort, but Sampras was clearly not in top form, and Safin donated several “gimmes” to Pete to keep things close. Safin eventually won in a third set super-tiebreak 10-6, but the score did not matter to the appreciative crowd.
Other exhibition matches took place throughout the week. Former Grand Slam champions Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, and Michael Chang brought back memories of past glory by facing each other in a round-robin format. Courier and Chang grew up together in the sport, playing against each other as juniors and throughout their professional careers. They were also teammates in Davis Cup play. Edberg celebrated the 25th anniversary of his Gold Medal triumph at the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles.
Each retired competitor showed flashes of the brilliance they once displayed in their youth, although each has clearly lost a step. The fans ignored their errors, and wildly cheered the efforts of each legend throughout the week. For the weekend warriors in the crowd, including yours truly, it was humbling to see these old-time greats continue to display superior skills.
Sam Querrey, a Thousand Oaks native and recent new homeowner in Santa Monica, surprised many by winning the main draw title. Sam upset Tommy Haas, the top seed, in a hotly contested semifinal, 6-3, 7-5. The other half of the draw suffered from injuries to fan favorites. Mardy Fish, the second seed, defaulted before a quarterfinal match with an oblique strain. Earlier, John Isner, another promising young American, was hobbled by an ankle injury sustained against Marcos Baghdatis. He lost in his quarterfinal match to Carsten Ball, an Australian qualifier who had never won a tour-level ATP match prior to this event. With the advantage of a weakened field, Ball, who lives in Newport Beach, made it to the final. It was the first all Southern California final at the tournament since 1984 when Jimmy Connors defeated Eliot Teltscher. Querrey earned the Singles title over Ball in the final, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1.
In doubles, the Bryan brothers, natives of Camarillo, steamrolled their way through the field and won the final against the outmatched German duo of Benjamin Becker/Frank Moser by a deceptively close score of 6-4, 7-6(2). Bob and Mike Bryan have owned the L. A. event, winning for the fifth time here (wins in 2001, 2004, 2006, 2007; they skipped 2008 for the Beijing Olympics). The Bryans’ had a home-court advantage with friends and family in the stands, and their dad, Wayne Bryan, working the event as one of the public-address announcers.
The brothers received good mojo earlier in the week by hosting Kids Day. Admission was free for all kids under 16. Adult chaperones paid $10, which included a ticket to the afternoon matches. All children who participated met the Bryans and got a photo or autograph. The fun continued with free ice cream, a gift from the ATP, and a ticket to the afternoon matches. Kids also had access to the Kids Zone with a variety of activities.
In spite of the weak field and untimely injuries, the LA Tennis Open was a wonderful way to spend some leisure time in our great city. The summer weather, intimate setting, interesting variety of food options, and product vendors on display at the event made for a fun family outing. Next year, the tournament takes place from July 26 to August 1, 2010. Hopefully more top players will choose to play, but the organizers will definitely have their returning champions in attendance. Sam Querrey and the Bryan brothers all said they would be back next year to defend their titles.
Photos by David Burrows