Tennis has certainly become a global sport, but it is disappointing to see its leading country, and one of that country’s largest markets, having lost some high-profile events from both the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tours. New York has lost a couple of professional tournaments that were very popular in the tennis community, both on Long Island and in the Metropolitan area.
The season-ending tournament is often referred to as the fifth most prestigious WTA event after the four Grand Slams. From 1972-2001, the season-ending women’s tournament was played at Madison Square Garden (MSG) in New York City, and it featured the top 16 ranked singles players. The tournament has changed names/sponsors from the Virginia Slims Championship (1971-1978 and 1983-1994), to the Avon Championship (1979-1982) and then the Chase Championship (1996-2000). The tournament had become a feature event for the WTA Tour, giving a week-long spotlight to the ladies in New York City. In 2001, due to an increase in the popularity of women’s tennis, the tournament was moved to Munich, Germany. Moving the tournament to Munich broadened the reach of prime-time television coverage, and allowed European fans a chance to attend and watch the matches live. But while Munich is a fantastic city and broadening the game is important, what the WTA Tour lost was the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple.
From 2002-2003, fruit juice manufacturer Apple & Eve, along with Newsday, attempted to bring professional women’s tennis to Long Island as co-sponsors of the Long Island Tennis Classic, presented by Pathmark. The tournament was a United States Tennis Association (USTA)-sanctioned women’s challenger event, with a $50,000 purse. The tournament was played on hard courts at Syosset-Woodbury Community Park in Woodbury, N.Y. The event was held in mid-July, about three weeks prior to the U.S. Open. Marian Bartoli, current world number 14, was a finalist at this tournament. After 2003, this challenger was canceled and, unfortunately, Long Island lost yet another professional event.On the men’s side, the staple Long Island professional event was the ATP Tour event, probably best known as the Waldbaum’s Hamlet Cup (1992-2001), although also known at times as the TD Waterhouse Cup (2002-2004) or the Norstar Bank Hamlet Challenge Cup (1990-1991). The Hamlet Cup was a popular Long Island tennis event that existed for 24 years. The Hamlet Cup’s former home was Commack, N.Y., and was a popular stop for players prior to the U.S. Open because of its close proximity to the season’s final Grand Slam event in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens. The Hamlet was played just weeks prior to the U.S. Open and served as a great tune up for those preparing to play at the year’s final major tournament.
The Hamlet Cup was started as an exhibition event called the Hamlet Challenge Cup, which was held in Jericho, N.Y. The tournament was created in part to promote housing built near a country club. Initially, the tournament was played at the Hamlet East Condominium Association in Jericho, and throughout the ‘80s, it featured some of tennis’ top stars, including John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase and Stefan Edberg.
The tournament, as well as the community promotion, was a success, and the event moved to The Hamlet in Commack, N.Y. in 1990. It was in 1990 that the Long Island tournament officially entered the ATP Tour. In the ‘90s, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, James Blake, Patrick Rafter, Michael Chang and Lleyton Hewitt were among the leading players to compete on Long Island.
The Hamlet Cup had become an end-of-summer ritual for the many tennis fans in the Metropolitan area. There was always a lot to do at the tournament, with all the exhibits, interactive sports and various foods to eat, as well as the very intimate atmosphere that allowed attendees to view the games’ best players up close. The players loved coming to Long Island, as well. They enjoyed the tennis, golf, fans and great food at The Hamlet.
After the 2004 tournament, the ATP sought to expand the 32-man draw to a 56-man draw as a way of opening more opportunities for U.S. Open entrants. Tournament organizers attempted to move the tournament from Commack to a proposed new, larger facility at Eisenhower Park. Unfortunately, the negotiations between Hamlet Sports Inc. and Nassau County stalled, and without the money for a new tennis facility, Long Island lost their only ATP Tour event. The tournament was moved to New Haven, Conn. in 2005 and has been operating there since.
Last year, professional men’s tennis returned to MSG in front of a packed house of 19,000-plus with the highly successful exhibition match between Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
This March, professional women’s tennis is returning to MSG for an exhibition featuring a foursome of current and former number one women’s tennis players. The event marks the first time professional women’s tennis will be held at MSG since they hosted the season-ending championships. Wimbledon winner Venus Williams, 2008 French Open champion Anna Ivanovic, 2008’s year-end number one player Jelena Jankovic, and 2009 Australian Open winner and current world number one Serena Williams will compete in a one-night-only event on Monday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. at MSG, the BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup, presented by StarGames and Madison Square Garden. The event will also celebrate tennis legend Billie Jean King. In this unique format, each participant will compete in a one set, no-ad scoring semifinal, with the winners advancing to a best of three set (regular scoring) final.
On the heels of last year’s Sampras/Federer extravaganza, promoters almost immediately went to work trying to assemble the women’s event. “The idea here is to have something annually [at MSG]. To bring a big event in New York City is something that makes a lot of sense,” said promoter Jerry Solomon. USTA CEO of Professional Tennis Arlen Kantarian stated: “This, to us, is a start of an annual Tennis Night in America at the world’s greatest arena.” This event will mark the return of pro tennis to HBO, which for 25 consecutive years beginning in 1973 was the exclusive home of Wimbledon championships.
There has been great buzz about these match-ups amongst the fans, and everyone seems to be looking forward to this event, even the players themselves. Ana Ivanovic, who was born in Serbia, said that she really only gets to come to New York during the U.S. Open tournament and is too focused on the task at hand to venture out into the city to experience the nightlife in Manhattan and get a taste of the cultural diversity that is New York City.
The USTA will be making Tennis Night in America a major component in its inaugural National Youth Registration Night. Teens from across the country can sign-up for spring and summer play. “Our core mission is to grow the sport of tennis throughout the United States,” said USTA Executive Director and COO Gordon Smith.
Long Island Tennis Magazine would like to welcome women’s professional tennis back to the New York area, and we are sure that those of us who frequented past tournaments that are no longer here all hope that this will mark the return of more professional tennis events for both Long Island and Metropolitan tennis enthusiasts.