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VOL. 132 | NO. 5 | Friday, January 6, 2017

Americans Have Good Shot to Ace Memphis Open

By Don Wade

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This year’s Memphis Open field includes three Americans ranked in the top 35, two former past champions, and the certainty that Japan’s Kei Nishikori will not win a fifth straight title.

Taylor Fritz, 19, who was a Memphis Open finalist last year, is one of six Americans ranked in the Top 100 in this year’s field. That group is led by No. 19 John Isner. The Memphis Open Presented by ServiceMaster runs from Feb. 11-19 at the Racquet Club.  

(Submitted)

“We’ve got five guys in the Top 35 so I feel good about that,” said tournament director Erin Mazurek. “Kei Nishikori isn’t back, but it’s time to put a Gibson Guitar in somebody else’s hands.”

John Isner heads the field as the No. 19 player in the Emirates ATP rankings as of Jan. 2. Isner has been the top-ranked American on tour for five straight years and was a 2010 Memphis Open finalist.

Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic is No. 20 and reached the 2015 finals here; Bernard Tomic of Australia carries a No. 26 ranking; American Sam Querrey is No. 31, won the event in 2010, and is appearing at his 11th consecutive Memphis Open; and American Steve Johnson is No. 33. Those five should all be among the top eight seeds.

Also returning is last year’s runner-up, American Taylor Fritz (No. 76). Donald Young (No. 88) and Ryan Harrison (No. 90) round out a field of six Americans from the Top 100 in the field. The tournament runs from Feb. 11-19 at the Racquet Club and is a 250-Level ATP event. Total prize money is more than $640,000, and the singles winner receives $114,595.

“I saw on center court all the names of the past champions,” Fritz said. “There is just a lot of amazing players. I really hope I can be up on that wall too.”

Fritz, at 19, is one of three American teenagers in the field. Frances Tiafoe, who turns 19 on Jan. 20, and Reilley Opelka, 19, received wild cards for this year’s tournament.

“The Memphis Open has been an important launching pad for many American stars,” said Martin Blackman, the United States Tennis Association’s general manager of player development. “The tournament continues to play an important role in the development of the next generation of American players. … Tournaments like Memphis, and there aren’t many left in the U.S., are critical to the growth of American tennis.”

Mazurek, of course, is concerned about the growth of this tournament, officially called the Memphis Open Presented by ServiceMaster and owned by GF Sports LLC. This year’s theme: “Open for Everyone.”

She first ran the tourney in 2015. The previous year, she said, box seat sales were down 50 to 60 percent. She says the tourney drew somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 fans a year ago and they are aiming for 25,000 to 27,000 this year. One good sign: Box seats sold out in late November.

It was a payoff for the hard work of the last two years as much focus landed on recapturing fans that had been lost.

“You’ve got to win people back one at a time,” she said. “It’s a personal ask.”

Now, some of the focus can go beyond Memphis. To that end, when Isner came in for a day, they took him around Memphis and even to Little Rock, Arkansas, to promote this year’s tournament.

Memphis Open representatives also have attended adult amateur tournaments in Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, Murfreesboro, Jackson, Miss., and South Alabama to try and encourage people to make a weekend of it in the Bluff City.

Mazurek notes tennis has high participatory rates, so the amateur-player-turned-pro-spectator pool is deep.

“Memphis is drivable to see pro tennis,” she said. “There were several groups (from out of town) that came into Memphis for the tournament in its history. But they just hadn’t come in the last eight years. In some cases, they didn’t know the tournament was still here.”

The last two years also has included making the tournament more of social happening. And last year the tournament schedule itself was adjusted to eliminate morning and early afternoon matches.

“We back-loaded each day and it was really well-received,” Mazurek said. “The pros liked it and the fans liked it.”

In this, the 41st year of the tourney, a new company has been hired to build the stadium court, and that will mean some changes that should make the experience even better.

“The configuration’s the same, the boxes are the same,” said Mazurek, “but it will improve the view lines and the comfort of the guests. There will be better angles to the court and it will be built in a more professional, contiguous manner.”

And it will remain that rare venue that allows fans to be close enough to players to almost reach out and touch them.

“It’s one of the most intimate stadiums on the tour and that’s something we talk about all the time,” she said. “The difference between sitting 10 feet away from an athlete and sitting in the upper bowl (of an arena) is amazing. There’s no seat in the house that is bad.”

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