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VOL. 129 | NO. 26 | Friday, February 07, 2014
Don Wade

Don Wade

Taking on Tennis Recruiting Woes

By Don Wade

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Rafael Nadal isn’t walking through that door. But Kei Nishikori is.

Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer aren’t walking through that door, but Vasek Pospisil, Feliciano Lopez and Lleyton Hewitt are.

If you know the names Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer – the ATP’s Nos. 1, 2, 6th and 8th-ranked players – then you qualify as at least a casual tennis fan.

If you remember Lleyton Hewitt, now ranked 40th, as a former No. 1 (way back there in 2001), and also know that Pospisil, 23, a Canadian ranked 25th, is considered a potential rising star, you are well past casual.

All of this, of course, is getting around to who you will and won’t see next week at the U.S. National Indoor Championships at The Racquet Club of Memphis. The ghosts of Connors and McEnroe, Agassi and Sampras, still float about but let’s not lie to each other.

The Memphis tennis event isn’t what it once was. You may have noticed American men’s tennis isn’t either. This year, there are 11 significant American tournaments. In 1980, when John McEnroe won the Memphis event, there were three dozen.

I could kill a lot of your brain cells and mine with detailed, tedious, back story about how the local tennis tournament is now in its second straight year without a title sponsor.

I won’t do that. What I will say is that we’ve been this way before with the PGA Tour stop at TPC Southwind in 2009-2010. Then FedEx, well, delivered.

However, for tennis tournament director Peter Lebedevs, the sponsorship issue is not his problem. His job is trying to lure the best players here. And that is, to a large extent, a separate recruiting issue.

This year, Nishikori, No. 17, is the projected highest-ranked player who will be in the draw. Nothing against Nishikori, a 24-year-old from Japan, who happens to be this event’s defending champion, but he brings no buzz.

“We had Andy Roddick for 11 years,” Lebedevs said of the last American man to win a Grand Slam (2003 U.S. Open). “As soon as Andy signed up, it gave the event a certain flair. Last year was our first year without Andy and it was a different vibe.

“The field, by the numbers, was the best field ever,” Lebedevs added. “But it didn’t reflect in ticket sales.”

The mission is complicated, too, by being dropped from a 500-level ATP Tour event to the 250 level. In real-world terms, it means the event’s purse got sliced in half (it’s a little under $600,000 this year) and rankings points were halved – hence the 500 and 250 designations.

The tournament has employed exhibitions to try and deliver a little more zing to the event – McEnroe came a couple of years ago – and last year there was a mixed doubles exhibition that featured former Memphis singles champs Mark Philippoussis and Lindsay Davenport.

“It was good,” Lebedevs said. “But the feedback from our fans was they wanted to see something a little different.”

Different they will get on Monday, Feb. 10, when No. 1-ranked doubles partners and brothers Bob and Mike Bryan split up for an exhibition match that will feature actor Boris Kodjoe (he played tennis in college) and local “celebrity”/car dealer Mark Goodfellow, who carries a 4.5 ranking and won a national title as part of USTA team doubles.

Hey, it’s all good. Especially on the new party deck at the stadium court.

“The umpire may even say, `You people on the stinking party deck please quiet down,’” Lebedevs said. “It’d be OK – means they’re having a great time.”

Meanwhile, Lebedevs is working on the 2015 field – networking, talking to players and their coaches and their agents – and presumably hoping to find a large bag of money under a rock to cover “appearance fees.” He says he and a representative from the Acapulco, Mexico, tournament have had good discussions with a Top 10 player.

He declined to name the player but when asked what the chances were of landing him for the 2015 tournament, Lebedevs smiled.

“Better than 50-50,” he said.

In 2014, any director of an American tennis tournament not named the U.S. Open will take those odds.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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