Sunday, August 10, 2003

Tournament on verge of greatness

Adding women will take event to the pinnacle

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Paul Flory (see zoom view) poses in the stands at center court with his son Bruce Flory who succeeded his father as the tournament director at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters Series tennis tournament.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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Last year, the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters men's tennis tournament was played under a cloud of uncertainty. Tourney officials said they would have to move the 104-year-old event out of town if they couldn't negotiate the purchase or long-term lease of the ATP Tennis Center - now called the Lindner Family Tennis Center - in Mason.

The 2003 tournament begins Monday, and even with the loss of Andre Agassi, look how the skies have cleared.

Tennis for Charity Inc., the nonprofit group that operates the event, bought the site on New Year's Eve. Then last month, it landed a women's professional event - to begin play next August - for the first time since 1988.

The group can now postulate scenarios in which the women's and men's tournaments run back-to-back, or one day grow into a combined event that would be eclipsed in stature only by the four Grand Slams - Wimbledon and the U.S., French and Australian Opens.

Organizers can resume talk of improvements, including a retractable roof over Center Court and a reconstruction of the stadium.

"It's a great feeling not having the stress of last year (and) worrying about our future," Western & Southern tournament director Bruce Flory said. "Now all our efforts are concentrated on how we can continue to improve the event."

The men's event was modest when Flory's father, Paul, took over as tournament director in fall 1974. Yet he gradually raised the tourney's profile each year, moving it from Coney Island to its current site in 1979 and developing it into the Masters Series event it is today - one of the top 13 in the world, a mandatory stop for top players.

The tournament has in recent years been the largest of all men's-only events, with paid attendance regularly exceeding 160,000. (Compare that to the total of 17,079 fans in 1978.) A University of Cincinnati study showed the tournament has a $23.3 million annual impact on the local economy.

The purchase of the 90-acre complex and the addition of a women's event rank as two of the biggest steps in the Flory era.

The uncertainty about the site had been one of the holdups in recent years as the Florys sought a women's tourney. With that cemented, new Women's Tennis Association CEO Larry Scott made the proposal of moving a tourney to Cincinnati the first issue he took to the WTA board.

"It was a real easy pitch, especially because of my background with the Florys," said Scott, who played in the men's event here in 1989 and had worked for the men's tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals, for 13 years.

"The Cincinnati tournament has always set the standard for what the elite events on the men's tour would strive to be. It just took a while to break into the right spot (with a women's tourney)."

The Cincinnati women's event is classified as Tier III, which typically has a 30-person draw and features about three top-20 players. It has a minimum of $170,000 in prize money, though that total has not yet been determined for this event.

It will pale in comparison to the 64-player, $2.45 million field for the men's event.

"You'd like to step in with the best (women's) tournament possible," said Paul Flory, who's now chairman of the men's tourney. "But we finally said to ourselves, 'We need to get on board.' If that means acquiring a smaller event, fine. We'll grow, in the same way we've grown with the men."

Of the Grand Slams and nine men's Tennis Masters Series events, Cincinnati and Monte Carlo had been the only stops not to also run a women's tourney.

"It's important for the health of the men's event, too," Bruce Flory said. "If you don't have a position in the women's game, it's easier to forget about you (and say), 'They're kind of a one-song wonder.' That was the urgency."

A women's tournament should also help Tennis for Charity afford the 25-year mortgage for the complex, which it bought for $16.5 million.

The purchase price will necessitate some belt-tightening. Fans familiar with annual improvements to the facilities may see fewer and smaller ones for a few years.

Yet the planning can now resume for future growth. Paul Flory said he has always dreamed of having a retractable roof over Center Court, which might cost about $7 million. And there are plans being discussed to expand the stadium's 10,500-seat capacity, move luxury suites closer to the court, add a women's locker room, and generally make over sections of the stadium.

"It's going to take time to catch our breath" after buying the site, Paul Flory said. "At the same time, we don't want anyone to think we're standing still. I don't think we'd ever want to be satisfied with the status quo."

The new women's tourney is scheduled for Aug. 16-22, 2004, at the same time as the Olympics. The tentative 2004 Western & Southern dates are Aug. 2-8.

A key reason to expect success from the women's tournament is its location. Nearly all WTA events in the United States are on the coasts; this will be the only one in the Midwest.

"We needed to be there," said Peachy Kellmeyer, the WTA's senior vice president of tour operations. "They're going to have a top tournament, no matter what tier level it is."

Tennis is beginning to return to the days of combined men's and women's events. They are difficult to schedule, as two full fields of 64 or 96 players generally require 10 to 14 days. But the payoff is in prestige.

"Anytime you bring the men and women together - that's why the Slams stand out to the casual fan - everyone thinks of it as more important," said J. Wayne Richmond, the ATP's executive vice president of the Americas. "No other sport can present itself that way, with the men and women competing on the same stage."



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