In March, Angelique Kerber of Germany took over as the top-ranked player on the WTA Tour. Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
In March, Angelique Kerber of Germany took over as the top-ranked player on the WTA Tour.
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Impressed by the crowd size at the February 2016 Fed Cup competition in Maui, Ben Goldsmith picked up the phone and called Hawaii’s United States Tennis Association representative. Goldsmith, who has promoted Women’s Tennis Association events in California and Texas, knew an opportunity when he saw it.

Considering the good crowd in Maui, he wondered what might happen if a tournament were held in more heavily populated Oahu: “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, if they can sell out a Fed Cup in Maui, what’s going on? How much is tennis loved?’” Goldsmith then convinced the USTA, the Women’s Tennis Association and the Hawaii Tourism Authority to support his idea for the first Hawaii Open. Held at the Patsy T. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park in Waipahu over Thanksgiving weekend last year, the tournament drew capacity crowds of 2,200 each day.

“It was a huge success, bigger than we anticipated,” said Goldsmith, who suffered sleepless nights waiting for permits that didn’t arrive until the day before the tournament. “We sold out Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and we did not anticipate sellouts on any days, given that it was a first-year event.” The first WTA tennis tournament ever on Oahu, it featured a 32-player singles field that included Sabine Lisicki, a 2013 Wimbledon finalist.

Even more impressive, he said, was how fans responded after rain delayed the doubles championship long past its scheduled 6 p.m. Friday start. “It started at about 11:30 on Friday night, and we still had a sell-out crowd there after midnight,” he said. “Tennis is really taking off.”

A New Home

A snapshot of tennis-related activities around the United States and the world appears to support Goldsmith’s assessment. “I would say the popularity has definitely grown in the last year and even more so in the last few months,” said Katrina Adams, chairman, CEO and president of the USTA.

In addition to the Hawaii Open, other tournaments are reporting sellouts, major upgrades have been made at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in California, and resorts such as The Greenbrier in West Virginia are showcasing celebrity tennis events. Small cities are promoting tennis events, too. For the second consecutive year, the CVB in Beaumont, Texas, hosted a USTA-sanctioned Adult 55 & Over Tournament at the Beaumont Tennis Center in September 2016. The CVB will host the event again in 2017.

But one of the biggest recent developments in tennis is the USTA’s new National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, which opened in January. Dubbed “the Home of American Tennis,” the 64-acre complex features 100 courts and combines USTA community participation and player development programs in one place for the first time. The center has scheduled more than 100 international, national and local events in 2017. It will also provide year-round programs open to the public.

The USTA partnered with Tavistock Group—an international private investment company—and a consortium of regional and state partners to build the campus. The USTA had outgrown its facilities in Boca Raton and initially was looking for a new location for player development. Tavistock proposed an even bigger concept—making the campus a community tennis facility with player development elements—and the USTA signed on with enthusiasm. The venue offers live-streaming of matches from 84 of its full-sized courts, allowing viewers to watch “some of the best players in the game next to your recreational player next to your 10-and-under player,” Adams said.

The player development area features 14 outdoor courts with high-mast lighting and six indoor courts with LED lights. The indoor court building, which has a viewing area, will allow tournaments to continue during bad weather. Eight of the 20 courts feature DecoTurf acrylic cushion surfaces. Six are European Terre Davis red-clay courts, surfaced using more than 450 tons of imported Italian clay. Other amenities include a courtside café with patio seating and a second-floor viewing deck.

The Team USA area has 32 Har-Tru Hydro-Courts with underground watering systems, several green-clay courts and 20 Plexicushion acrylic courts. The area, which will host tournaments and league championships, will be used by the USTA as well as by coaches and players from all over the country for player development.

Adams said the clay courts are important for player development, particularly for those training to play in Europe. As a former pro player, she said clay courts are slower, “so you have to be more patient. You can’t be as aggressive as you are on a Har-Tru court, which is a little faster.” Clay courts require players to use different tactics as well as to work on conditioning to cope with lengthy matches that can be grueling, both physically and mentally.

On the Clay

Bronwyn Greer is familiar with the skills required for clay courts. She’s the tournament director of the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship at River Oaks Country Club in Houston. “I think most players would definitely say they have a favorite surface,” Greer said, but most play well on a variety of courts. Clay surfaces “lend themselves well to all types of players,” she added.

Set for April 8–16, the River Oaks tournament is the only clay-court tennis event in North America, said Greer, who noted that Rio de Janeiro hosts the only other such tournament in the Americas. “I couldn’t tell you why there are so few,” she said, although maintenance could be a limiting factor.

A clay court is “never an easy thing to maintain,” she added, “but I would guess that those who run a grass court would say the same.” Many recreational players who use the court daily say it’s easier on the body than a hard court, she said.

From the start of the qualifying rounds on Saturday through the Sunday finals the following weekend, the event is expected to draw almost 40,000 people. The tournament’s attendance figures reflect the game’s popularity in the city. Greer said that on an average day, the 16 courts at the River Oaks Country Club are busy almost continuously from 5 a.m. through 8 p.m. “That just shows you how much interest is there,” Greer said.

The Houston Tennis Association also collaborates with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to bring the USTA’s National Junior Tennis and Learning program to the city’s youth, offering free programs at more than 45 parks and 30 schools annually. “The interest, I would say, is definitely at an all-time high,” Greer said.

Strong Local Interest

Meanwhile, Beaumont, Texas, a city of 118,000 located 85 miles east of Houston, gives older recreational players the opportunity for tournament play. In September, the Beaumont Tennis Center hosted the USTA Adult 55 & Over Sectionals for the second consecutive year. The Beaumont CVB partnered with the Beaumont Park and Recreation Department, the Southeast Texas Tennis Association and Lamar University to send a proposal to USTA Texas, said Freddie Willard, the CVB’s director of sales. The USTA Texas office promotes the tournament, which brought in more than 600 players to the city’s tennis center and Lamar University, Willard said.

There are 40 courts total, four of them covered, “so you can see very well why we’re able to put on that particular tournament and manage it very successfully,” Willard said. The tournament brought in an estimated $100,000 to the city. Most of the players were from Texas and neighboring states.

Willard cited community partnerships as the key to success. “When you know you have a great facility, take advantage of it,” she said. “Put together great relationships where you will be able to go after that particular piece of business, and where when they’re here they’re well taken care of.” Participants overall “just want those championship moments, and you just have to be there to create that for them,” she said.

Upgraded Experience

Indian Wells Tennis Garden, located near Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley of California, knows how to provide championship moments. It hosts the BNP Paribas Open, the fifth-largest tennis tournament in the world. Larry Ellison, the executive chairman and cofounder of Oracle, bought the complex for $100 million in 2009 and has spent $100 million on upgrades. Prize money is more than $14 million.

Held March 6–19, the 2017 tournament showcased major renovations at the Tennis Garden, including upgrades of Stadium 1 and an expansion of the Stadium Plaza. The plaza was made a permanent part of the stadium and the location’s Superwall viewing screen was widened by 33 percent, enabling the display of up to five matches simultaneously. A full upgrade of the Tennis Garden’s center court, site of the biggest matches, and a doubling of the seating in Stadium 2 have been completed. Renovations were also made to the suites and hospitality spaces.

“We’re always looking for improvement,” said Steve Birdwell, chief operating officer of the Tennis Garden. “We’re fortunate to have the owner that we have and, of course, he’s not unfamiliar with building large things and doing it right.”

One of the major new developments was the addition of a Wolfgang Puck’s Spago and 20 other restaurants and concessions. Spago is a 100-seat restaurant overlooking the court in Stadium 1, joining Nobu and Chop House, which overlook Stadium 2. Levy Restaurants, a venue partner, brought 20 permanent concessions and restaurants to the new Desert Dining Oasis. The offerings include BS Taqueria (from Ray Garcia, Esquire magazine’s 2015 Chef of the Year), Dave’s Doghouse and Cassell’s, an L.A.-based hamburger stand.

“We knew that we needed certain things to serve the fans better,” Birdwell said. The upgrades “weren’t just a matter of ‘hey, we need a hot dog place or a popcorn place or a pretzel place,’” he added. “Those are all great sellers, but people nowadays want a good-quality experience. Tennis fans and players are very sophisticated.”

International Theme

A premier resort on the other side of the country has hosted exhibitions featuring tennis legends since 2012. The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, has a tennis history that dates back to the 1890s, said Terry Deremer, the resort’s director of tennis. “We wanted to make tennis a centerpiece once again at The Greenbrier and showcase our amazing facilities,” he said.

In June 2015, the resort opened Center Court at Creekside, a 2,500-seat stadium. A year later, Pete Sampras, the resort’s tennis pro emeritus, played Andy Roddick in an exhibition match that was part of a week of tennis events that included a USTA tournament and a Sampras clinic. In 2015, the stadium featured a sold-out Sampras-Andre Agassi match. Prices for the matches vary but usually fall somewhere between $40 and $150 depending on the seating level and the matches scheduled.

The Greenbrier has scheduled another exhibition in June this year and the sixth Greenbrier Champions Tennis Classic in September. “We’ll try to have those two every year with a good mix of current players and legends from both the men’s and women’s ranks,” Deremer said. The resort has had conversations with officials from the Davis Cup and Fed Cup in the hope of bringing more events to the resort. “We host college matches regularly and believe we have the facilities to explore just about any option,” he said.

The Fed Cup, where the best female players in the world represent their countries, may be a more likely option for The Greenbrier and similar venues if proposed rule changes are adopted. Traditionally, one of the countries that reaches the finals has hosted the event, but that typically provides short notice to the host city. The situation has led to a proposal to award the finals to a certain destination in advance, regardless of which countries are playing. “We do know there needs to be a change in the format,” said Adams, chair of the ITF Fed Cup Committee, adding that a lot of options are under review.

And international team events appear to be gaining momentum elsewhere, including the Laver Cup, a new men’s event that will debut this year. Named after Australian tennis legend Rod Laver, the competition will be held annually two weeks after the U.S. Open (except during Olympic years) and will pit a team of six top European players against six from the rest of the world.

The first edition of the Laver Cup is scheduled for September 22–24 at O2 Arena in Prague. It sold out in a few hours. The cup’s organizers are Roger Federer’s management company, Brazilian businessman and former Davis Cup player Jorge Paulo Lemann, and Team Australia. Bjorn Borg will coach Team Europe and John McEnroe will coach the opposing side in the inaugural event. In September 2016, the Laver Cup announced that the USTA will be a partner and that the United States will host the 2018 tournament.

“It’s an interesting concept,” Adams said. “Anytime you can get the top players on the court competing against one another and people have their eyeballs on television watching, it’s going to spark interest in the sport and grow the game.”

Doing the Research

Goldsmith, the Hawaii Open’s tournament director, has seen up close that love of the game he sensed while watching the 2016 Fed Cup in Maui—an event that returned in February 2017, marking the first time one state has hosted the cup in consecutive years. So has the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which has sponsored the Fed Cup events and was the presenting sponsor of the Hawaii Open as well. “They’ve done their research and know that tennis fans travel, and we proved that well through our first tournament,” he said. “We sold over 7,000 tickets to people who live in Asia.”

With infrastructure growing in cities like Orlando and destinations large and small capitalizing on the interest in the sport, venues seeking events have ample opportunities to capitalize on the rising interest in tennis. With so much passion for the sport, eager fans are left with only one question: What’s next?