| By Long Island Tennis Magazine Staff

Tennis has certainly become a global sport, but one of the sport’s largest markets, the New York area, has lost some high-profile events through the years from both the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tours.

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 and sponsors over the years, 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 featured 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. While Munich is a fantastic city and broadening the game is important, what the WTA Tour lost was the glitz and glamour of the backdrop 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 USTA-sanctioned women’s challenger event, with a $50,000 purse. The Long Island Tennis Classic was played on hard courts at Syosset-Woodbury Community Park in Woodbury, N.Y. and held in mid-July, about a month prior to the start of the U.S. Open. Marian Bartoli, current, was a finalist at this tournament. After 2003, the Long Island Tennis Classic was canceled and the Long Island and New York area lost yet another professional tennis event.

On the men’s side, the staple ATP Tour event on Long Island was best known as the Waldbaum’s Hamlet Cup (1992-2001), also known as the TD Waterhouse Cup (2002-2004) and the Norstar Bank Hamlet Challenge Cup (1990-1991). The Hamlet Cup was a popular Long Island tennis event that was in existence for 24 years. The Hamlet Cup’s former home was Commack, N.Y., a popular stop for players prior to the U.S. Open due to its close proximity to the season’s final Grand Slam event, held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Park.

The Hamlet Cup began 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 1980s, it featured some of the sport’s top stars, including John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Ilie Nastase and Stefan Edberg. The tournament, as well as its 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 1990s, 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, 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, enjoying the golf, fans and great food that The Hamlet had to offer.

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.
Three years later in 2008, professional men’s tennis returned to the Big Apple and the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden (MSG) in front of a packed house of 19,000-plus with the highly successful NetJets Showdown exhibition match between American Pete Sampras and Switzerland’s Roger Federer.

In 2009, professional women’s tennis returned to MSG for the BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup, an exhibition featuring a foursome of former number one women’s tennis players. The event marked the first time professional women’s tennis was held at MSG since they hosted the season-ending championships as Americans Serena and Venus Williams, and Serbians Anna Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic competed in the one-night-only event for the distinction of being crowned winner of the inaugural Billie Jean King Cup. In the final, Serena defeated her sister Venus, 6-4, 6-3 to win the event.

Also in 2009, the launch of “Tennis Night in America” coincided with the BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup as a marketing initiative brought forth by the USTA designed to increase grassroots tennis participation in the sport of tennis nationwide. The promotion underscored a "National Junior Tennis Registration Night" at more than 700 locations. “Tennis Night in America” has annually marked the start of the tennis season in the United States and begins a month of professional events that includes the BNP Paribas Open and Sony Ericsson Open.

In 2010, the Billie Jean King Cup returned for its second year at MSG, as Serena and Venus, along with Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova and Belguim’s Kim Clijsters took the Garden court in the third exhibition in as many years. In the end, Venus Williams was a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victor over Clijsters.

In March of 2011, the theme was “Rivalries Renewed at the World’s Most Famous Arena,” as the men returned to action in New York City. The 2011 BNP Paribas Showdown brought together stars from the 1980s and 1990s together, as John McEnroe faced longtime rival Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras faced Andre Agassi. Sampras was a 6-3, 7-5 winner over Agassi, while McEnroe, up 6-3 in the one-set, first-to-eight exhibition, was hobbled by an ankle injury and forced to retire, thus giving Lendl the win.

This year, the newly-renovated MSG will welcome back the top stars of both the WTA and ATP Tours on Monday, March 5 as former world number one-ranked Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark will face the number two-ranked Russian and three time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova at the 2012 BNP Paribas Showdown. Representing the ATP Tour, the number three-ranked Federer will face world’s 17th-ranked and former U.S. Open champion Andy Roddick of the United States.

Sharapova currently holds 24 career singles titles, including the Australian Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon championship, and has been in five Grand Slam finals. She started playing tennis at the age of four and is currently ranked number two in the world, reaching the world’s number one spot for the first time in August of 2005 and last regained the ranking for the fourth time on May 19, 2008. The WTA has ranked Sharapova world number one in singles on four separate occasions.

Sharapova made her professional breakthrough in 2004 when, at the age of 17, she upset two-time defending champion and top seed Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final for her first Grand Slam singles title. Known for her interests beyond the court as well, Sharapova signed with IMG Models in 2003 and has been featured in a number of modeling assignments, including a feature in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

"Playing in Madison Square Garden has always been a dream of mine,” said Sharapova. “Everyone wants to play there at least once in their career. I look forward to coming back to New York for the Showdown."

Wozniacki made her professional debut in 2005, eight days after her 15th birthday, a loss to Patty Schnyder in the first round at Cincinnati. Wozniacki currently holds the world’s number four ranking, becoming the 20th player in WTA history to hold the top ranking. She held the top spot for 46 weeks. The 21 year-old Denmark native was awarded the 2008 WTA Newcomer of the Year award and holds 18 career singles titles.

"I really enjoy it," said Wozniacki of her upcoming MSG experience. "I think that kind of atmosphere is great and it really pumps you up and it is not like playing a tennis match. It is more similar to being at a futbol match. Although they are very loud and cheerful, they are still very respectful. I really enjoy coming back to New York. I will probably come three days early and spend some time in the city and enjoy it."

Sharapova currently holds a 3-2 advantage in head-to-head matchups with Wozniacki. They have each beaten the other in 2011.

Considered one of the greatest players of all time, Federer is currently the number three player in the world and a former world number one player who held the top spot for a record 237 consecutive weeks (Feb. 2, 2004-Aug. 18, 2008) and 285 weeks overall. Federer makes his return to The Garden after facing Sampras in 2008 in front of a sold out crowd. He has won a men's record 16 Grand Slam singles titles. Federer is one of seven male players to capture the career Grand Slam and the only male player in tennis history to have reached the title match of each Grand Slam tournament at least five times.

Federer has appeared in an unprecedented 23 career Grand Slam finals, of which 10 were consecutive appearances, and appeared in 18 of 19 finals over the four-and-a-half years from the 2005 Wimbledon Championships through the 2010 Australian Open, the lone exception being the 2008 Australian Open.

Andy Roddick is a former world’s number one-ranked player and led the United States to a Davis Cup title in 2007. He is currently the second highest-ranked American player in the world at 17th, nine spots behind fellow American Mardy Fish.

Known for his extremely powerful serve, Roddick held the world record for the fastest serve at 155 mph between 2004 and 2011. The Nebraska native has 30 career singles titles and captured his only Grand Slam at the 2003 U.S. Open, defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero in the finals, marking the last North American male player to win a Grand Slam singles event.

"I have never had a chance to play at the Garden before and to play Roger there will make it a special night,” said Roddick. “I am really looking forward to a great event.

Federer and Roddick played each other in an epic Wimbledon final in 2009 where the victory over the number six- seeded Roddick gave Federer his 15th Grand Slam singles championship, breaking a tie with Pete Sampras for the most in history. The five-set marathon lasted four hours and 16 min.

“Having four of the most popular tennis players of the past decade at the BNP Paribas Showdown should make for an exciting night of tennis for the New York fans,” said Jerry Solomon, executive producer and president of event producer StarGames. “This lineup carries on the great tradition of tennis at Madison Square Garden and should form the basis for a great celebration of the sport on Tennis Night in America.”

New York tennis fans are spoiled every year by having the U.S. Open in their own backyard. But with all the tournaments the area has lost over the years, any time the Big Apple has the opportunity to host the sport’s shining stars, it’s a memorable event the New York area should savor.