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BENNER: Ninety years of tennis history ends with a thud

December 5, 2009

It was the summer of 1970 when someone in the sports department of The Indianapolis Star decided veteran sportswriter Bob Williams needed additional help covering tennis.

What I actually knew about the game became evident when Williams and I trekked to Cincinnati to cover a tournament that preceded the U.S. Clay Court Championships at Woodstock Club. I was assigned to do an “advance” story on a Croatian player named Zeljko Franulovic, who was the defending Clay Court men’s singles champion.

So there I was, 21 years old, talking to a foreign player about a sport relatively foreign to me. I was wet both behind the ears and in my armpits, but Franulovic was nice enough to be nice until I cleared my throat and asked about the upcoming U.S. Open at its (then) New York venue:

“So, Zeljko, how do you think you’ll do at Forest Lawn?”

Franulovic busted out laughing. My face turned crimson.

“Forest Lawn is cemetery,” Franulovic said. “I think you mean Forest Hills.

At least he didn’t add, “Idiot!”

Thus, this tennis scribe got off to a rather shaky start. But I became more knowledgeable and, within a few years, Williams moved on to other pursuits and coverage of the “Clay Courts,” as they were known, became my responsibility.

It coincided with tennis’ golden era as the game acknowledged the folly of prohibiting professionals from competing in the biggest tournaments. Soon thereafter, tennis’s popularity exploded, buoyed by young stars like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Chris Evert mixing with established players such as Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King.

Indy rode the game’s tidal wave led by local businessman Stan Malless, who became a high-ranking official in the U.S. Tennis Association with ties and influence throughout the world. The Clay Courts quickly outgrew the cozy Woodstock Club and moved to grander digs at the Indianapolis Racquet Club.

Finally, through Malless’ fund raising and arm-twisting, Indy hit the big time with the opening of the Indianapolis Sports Center in 1979 on the downtown campus of IUPUI. Following Market Square Arena (1974), the Sports Center (later named the Indianapolis Tennis Center) was a major catalyst for downtown redevelopment, especially west of downtown, as IUPUI grew and White River State Park went from vision to reality.

The Clay Courts, drawing both men and women, were an artistic and financial success.

Ah, those were the days, my friends, and I thought they’d never end.

But now, barring a last-minute miracle—does Peyton Manning have a laser, rocket-arm backhand?—Indy’s 90-year history with tournament tennis is, well, history. And I’m guessing so is the Tennis Center.

To their credit, local tennis organizers tried to return every 130-mile-an-hour bullet the tennis world served them. They went to a men-only event. They paved the clay over to hard courts so Indy could remain a viable lead-up to the U.S. Open. They coddled the players to the extent that the RCA Championships was routinely voted—by the players—as their favorite event of the year.

Then the cruelest fate of all: the Association of Tennis Professional’s decision to move Indy’s dates to mid-July from mid-August.

The game’s big names mostly stopped coming. Mainstream interest dwindled and, except for the hard-core fans, the crowds, sensing an inferior product at an inferior time, became less and less. Network television bailed. Except for Eli Lilly and Co., corporate types—being tugged by the Colts, Pacers, Speedway and all our many sports and entertainment options—wrote smaller checks or none at all.

Kevin Martin, the current tournament director, and his staff fought the good fight before giving in to the reality. They’ve put the Indy dates up for sale.

Had the ATP not jacked with Indy, I think the tournament might have survived. Then again, tennis offers only so many box-office attractions. It’s a name-conscious sport. Always has been. And players go where the money (read, appearance fees) is.

Then there’s the venue, which is badly in need of costly upgrades as IUPUI eyes the value and potential of the land on which it sits.

I feel bad for all those who invested their time, effort and money into sustaining the presence of world-class tennis here, especially for my friend, Stan Malless, who had the grand vision back when one young scribe didn’t know the difference between Forest Hills and Forest Lawn.

Sadly, a cemetery is now where the Indianapolis Tennis Championships are headed.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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