Sports fans know Oklahoma City as the home of the NCAA Women’s College World Series every year, but fewer people are aware that, 100 miles or so down the road, Tulsa has become an important site for another college sport: tennis.
For the past 14 years the city has hosted the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Men’s All-American Championships. This fall, as the men celebrate their 15th year in Tulsa, the Women’s All-American Championships will join them for the first time, moving to Oklahoma after 34 years at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
The twin championships, set for October 5–13, fulfill the long-held vision of Vince Westbrook, senior associate athletic director and men’s tennis coach at Tulsa University. “With the ability to combine both events, it’s really exciting for tennis,” Westbrook said. “We feel like in the next two or three years, this will be the largest amateur event in the country.”
The ITA is the governing body for collegiate tennis, overseeing men’s and women’s varsity tennis at all levels—NCAA Divisions I, II and III, NAIA and NJCAA. The association organizes more than 80 regional championships on all levels each fall.
The ITA’s Tulsa championships, featuring the top Division I men and women, follow a trend toward combined events in professional tennis over the past decade. In addition to the four Grand Slams, more than a dozen cities host both ATP and WTA Tour events simultaneously each year.
“A lot of people believe that our sport is more successful when it is aggregated as opposed to divided,” ITA CEO Timothy Russell said.
The combined event in Tulsa was applauded by the United States Tennis Association, which recently opened its national campus in Orlando, Florida, and hosted the 2019 NCAA Championships there in May. “It’s a really smart move for the ITA to find efficiencies and have the event in the same place, having all your top coaches in the same place,” said Martin Blackman, general manager of player development with the USTA. “I think it’s a great event that’s easy to promote.”
The economic impact from the event will be up to $7 million, according to the Tulsa Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Tulsa Sports Commission. “College tennis is getting stronger and stronger because of the amounts of money that are being put into it,” said Westbrook. “I think it’s becoming more and more of the breeding ground for the pros.”
“One of our several strategic initiatives is to raise the profile of college tennis,” Russell said. “The other is to improve the student-athlete experience.”
Tulsa has a wealth of experience in collegiate tennis. The city hosted the 2004 NCAA Men’s Championships, as well as the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Championships in 2008 and 2016. Each of those events was held at the Michael D. Case Tennis Center at Tulsa University, which has 12 outdoor and six indoor courts and stadium seating for 2,000 spectators. The ITA event also will take advantage of a new Tulsa facility, the Case Tennis Center at LaFortune Park, which has 21 outdoor and three indoor courts.
The addition of the women’s competition to this year’s championships will increase the overall field by 25 percent (and next year the number of athletes is expected to grow even larger). To prepare for the expansion, new lighting and upgrades were made to all of the on-campus courts.
“This is why these facilities were built,” Westbrook said, “to bring events like this into the city and help showcase our city.”