Sunday, August 17, 2003

Class act puts together world-class tennis event

Laura Pulfer

The parking attendant waved me to a spot on the grass with enough room to open my door without dinging the car next to me. She told me to have a nice day and looked as if she meant it.

It was early morning at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters tennis tournament in beautiful, bucolic Mason. Some kids were watching world-class athletes practice. Some others were getting a free lesson from a pro.

Carolyn Flory stopped by a tent. "How's the food?" asked the wife of the man who built the tournament, Paul Flory, and the mother of the man who continues it, Bruce Flory. "Looks good. New caterer," she says. Just checking. And she's off to poke around somewhere else. Looking at the details. Flowers. Food. Somebody named Flory has inspected every inch of the 90-acre Lindner Family Tennis Center. Many times.

In 1990, some tennis patrons said they couldn't see over a new section of tables in the main stadium. Paul Flory had them ripped out overnight. The next morning these fans had a clear view of the action. And a clearer view of the famous Flory attention to detail that has made this one of the top four tournaments in this country and top 13 in the world.

Flory took over the tournament in 1974, long before Jimmy Connors was doing commercials for arthritis medicine. Since then, a parade of male tennis stars has come here to play, obligingly signing autographs, as friendly and cheerful as the parking attendant. Maybe the free cars and golf and passes to Kings Island put them in a good mood.

Perennial favorite Michael Chang, defeated Monday, once told a reporter, "When Paul needs something, the players are more than happy to do it because they know if there's anything the players need, Paul's willing to go out of his way to take care of it."

The first year Flory directed what was then the Western Tennis Championships at Coney Island, nearly 35,000 attended and $30,000 went to Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Since then, tournament proceeds have sent $5.3 million to Children's and $326,633 to an inner-city tennis program run by the Cincinnati Recreation Commission.

Tennis has brought more than 160,000 to Mason this week, not counting 35 million TV viewers. "It has the effect of drawing a crowd the size of two Super Bowls," Mason City Manager Scot Lahrmer told the Enquirer in January, when officials agreed to pay $125,000 a year for 25 years in exchange for public access and use of a suite.

An investment, they were calling it. No wonder. A University of Cincinnati study says the event pumps $23.3 million annually into the local economy, and the facility's improvements have been made without public funding, whining or threats. Paul Flory has worked for 29 years as a volunteer. This sports franchise has never had a losing season or a scandal. Instead, it has consistently burnished our reputation for quality, charity and friendliness.

Back at the parking lot, the attendant asked if everything had been all right. I told her that everything was better than all right.

World-class, actually.

And I meant it.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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