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Support in place to keep Open committed to Winston-Salem

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Joe Mauter threads a flag on a pylon at the Winston-Salem Open Friday, August 15, 2014, in preparation for the tournament starting this weekend. (David Rolfe/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Big-time tennis and big-name tennis players are nothing new to Winston-Salem, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

It was Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas at the Tanglewood Invitational in the ’70s; Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier at the Flow Motors Invitational in the ’80s and ’90s; and Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers helping the United States to Davis Cup victories in 2001, 2007 and 2008.

As exciting as the Davis Cup wins against India, Spain and France, respectively, were, it was only a weekend of tennis. It started on Friday and by late Sunday afternoon, everyone was headed home and the overflow crowds at Joel Coliseum were left wanting just a little bit more.

By 2011 the tennis fans in the Triad got their wish.

Welcome to the Winston-Salem Open.

Big-time tennis, Southern style.

The Winston-Salem Open is one of 11 professional tournaments at the ATP level in the United States. The others vary from the small resort cities of Indian Wells, Calif.; Delray Beach, Fla.; and Newport, R.I., to such major metropolitan areas as Memphis, Tenn.; Miami; Atlanta; Washington; Cincinnati; and Houston.

The biggest of all the tournaments is the U.S. Open in New York.

Pro tennis tournaments are divided into different categories: 250, 500, 1000 and Grand Slam. The numbers represent the number of computer points the champion receives for a tournament title. For example, when John Isner won the Winston-Salem Open in 2011 and 2012, he received 250 points each time because it is a 250 tournament. When Isner pulled out of last year’s Winston-Salem Open with a hip injury, those points dropped off his computer ranking. Winners of the four Grand Slam Tournaments — the U.S. Open, French Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon — receive 2,000 points.

The Winston-Salem Open was born in December 2010 when the ATP, which owned a tournament in New Haven, Conn., decided a change was needed. There were sponsorship problems in New Haven and crowds at the tournament had dwindled.

“The USTA met with a group that had run the Davis Cup here about their interest,” said Bill Oakes, the tournament director of the Winston-Salem Open. “That group, led by Don Flow, really put together the framework for a professional tournament.”

Many of the questions that Oakes gets are about the future of the tennis tournament. Is it here to stay? Could it move to another city?

Support is in place

The answer to each is yes and no.

“When people ask me if the tournament is going to be here next year, I say yes,” Oakes said. “Owning an ATP tournament is like owning an NFL franchise. Now, could the NFL take away the Cleveland Browns from the city of Cleveland? Yes they could, but they wouldn’t unless they did something very bad. This tournament is here to stay. We are committed to Winston-Salem. Many of our sponsors are committed through the year 2020, and we have a TV deal in place for a number of years. We are in a good long-term position to be successful for many years to come.”

Mark Young, the CEO of ATP Americas and chief legal and media officer, echoed Oakes’ sentiments.

“The event organizers, led by Don Flow and Bill Oakes, have done a great job in the event’s last three years,” he said by email. “It is very important for us to maintain a strong foothold in this region (of the country).”

Young said the tournament has received rave reviews from players and fans alike.

“The organizers have done a great job of attracting many of the world’s best players to compete in Winston-Salem, as well as ensuring that all the players’ needs are taken care of,” Young said. “The Winston-Salem event is unique on the Tour in that it is set on a college campus. The facilities are state of the art, and with more than 35,000 fans coming through each of the past three years, it has been by terrific to see the event so well received by local fans.”

Tennis commentator Patrick McEnroe, who was captain of the three Davis Cup teams to play in Winston-Salem, said he is not surprised that the Winston-Salem Open has been such a success.

“Some of my best memories ever in tennis were those Davis Cup matches in Winston-Salem,” said McEnroe in a telephone interview. “I know that after we played Spain (in 2007) and the players found out we were going back to Winston-Salem again to play France the next year, the guys were so excited.”

The Davis Cup match against India in 2001 was the first athletic event held in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“It was very, very emotional at that time,” McEnroe said. “The support we had there was frankly phenomenal. The support of tennis in Winston-Salem has been off the charts. I haven’t been to the (Winston-Salem Open), but I have seen quite a bit of it on TV and I have been very impressed.”

McEnroe said all the comments he has heard from players who have competed here have been nothing but positive.

“I’ve heard that the players just love the tournament because they are so well taken care of, and that’s what the players want,” he said. “That hospitality was really felt when I was there for the Davis Cup. People like Don Flow and Bill Oakes have tennis in their blood, and I know they do a great job.”

Still work to do

Winston-Salem is one of only three North Carolina cities to have been the site of an ATP event at this level.

The U.S. Clay Court championships were held in Charlotte from 1991 through 1993 before moving to Birmingham, Ala., for a year. It then moved to Southern Pines for a two-year run. The tournament has been held in Houston since 2001.

Kelly Gaines, the executive director of USTA North Carolina in Greensboro, attended the BB&T Tournament in Atlanta last month. It’s an entirely different world from the Winston-Salem Open, she said, even though both are 250 events.

One side of the Atlanta tournament is backed up to the interchange of Interstate 75 and Interstate 85. The area surrounding the tournament site is a mixed bag, with apartments, hotels, shops, restaurants and department stores. There are 7,000 parking spaces in close proximity, but unlike the Winston-Salem Open, there is a charge for parking.

“Winston-Salem has such an advantage with its stadium and infrastructure,” Gaines said. “You drive up to the Winston-Salem Open and you have a whole football stadium parking lot. In Atlanta, the parking (for the tennis tournament) is used for a lot of other things.”

Oakes obviously appreciates all the A-pluses that the Winston-Salem Open has received. But as the tournament director, he looks at things with a more critical eye.

“I would give the tournament a B,” he said. “It’s hard to say that we have earned an A. There are a lot of things that we do really well, but I think there are things we can continue to improve on. I still think we need to do more on the site to make it a better experience for our fans. But we are limited in the amount of space that we have.”

Oakes would also like to see a better field each year.

“I wish we could have better players,” he said. “Now I am not saying that we don’t have great players, but I am always looking to improve.”

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