SPORTS: Tennis tourney healthy but needs a new home

July 16, 2007

A significant Indianapolis sporting event with international appeal is preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2011.

The Indianapolis 500? Well, yes, that too.

Far less-wellknown and recognized is that the origins of elite-level competitive tennis in Indianapolis also date back to just after the turn of the century ... the last century, that is.

Records show that the Western Tennis Championships, which led to the U.S. Clay Court Championships, which led to the U.S. Hardcourt Tennis Championships, which led to the RCA and now Indianapolis Tennis Championships, were first contested in Indy in 1911.

It's important to note the long history of tennis in Indianapolis as the sport contemplates its future in the city.

Beginning July 20 and continuing through July 29, the Indianapolis Tennis Championships will take place at the Indianapolis Tennis Center. While without RCA as a title sponsor for the first time in years, tournament organizers believe both the present and the future of the event are in good shape.

A strategy has been outlined that would align the championships with healthy lifestyle initiatives, broaden its presence within Indiana, bring a new title sponsor on board, continue national television coverage and, perhaps, find the tournament a new downtown home in a multipurpose facility that would accommodate tennis and other events.

All that is on the desk of tournament Director Kevin Martin. Of course, it's the desk at his home. Martin is a volunteer, believed to be the only volunteer director of a major professional tennis tournament in America. This is his second year on the job, having taken over for Rob MacGill. But he's served as a volunteer-one of 1,100 needed for the tournament-for the last 20 years. Martin's day job is chief financial officer with Johnson Ventures.

Martin allays any concerns about the future of professional tennis in Indianapolis even though RCA surrendered its title sponsorship. For this year, Eli Lilly, among others, has increased its contribution and Martin is certain a new title sponsor will be on board for 2008.

That's when the five-year strategy kicks in. Martin wants to tie the tournament to a promotion of healthy, active lifestyles in line with similar initiatives being promoted by the U.S. Tennis Association, the Association of Tennis Professionals, the American Heart Association and the governor's INShape program.

He's confident he can land a title sponsor with a similar mission.

That would be a good thing, indeed, especially for us old-timers who have followed tennis in Indy from the days of the Western at Woodstock to the Clay Courts at the Indianapolis Racquet Club, then the move downtown to the Indianapolis Sports/Tennis Center, followed by the eventual switch to hard courts.

Stan Malless, Indy's Mr. Tennis, engineered the construction of the tennis facility. It opened in 1978 and its importance cannot be understated. Just look at what's happened to that area since.

But, nearly 30 years later, the tennis center is showing its age and maintenance costs are becoming prohibitive, especially since the tennis championships operate as a notfor-profit. Word on the street has it that others-IUPUI owns the land-are eyeing that valuable piece of real estate for other uses.

"The university has a master plan for their land, which means the tennis facility may not be in that particular place," Martin said.

He said discussions have been going on for 10 years regarding a new multipurpose facility in which the tennis championships would be one of several tenants. He could not discuss potential sites for that facility, other than to say somewhere downtown.

"There are different ideas and different locations being discussed, but I do believe we can get it done," Martin said. "But the importance of a facility for tennis is only one piece of it."

In the meantime, there's a tournament this coming week that will require Martin's immediate attention. Pre-event ticket sales are up and a solid field-led by Americans and past champions Andy Roddick, James Blake and Robby Ginepri-is assured.

In any case, it sure wouldn't be summertime in Indy without the tournament.

"We think it's a terrific community asset," Martin said. "There are a large number of city and corporate leaders who value and support the event. We have a tremendous tennis community and one of the largest USTA regions in the country."

The tournament also draws fans from 30 states. The national television exposure always is a plus. And the American tennis audience seems to have grown comfortable with the "U.S. Open Series"-that succession of events that leads to the U.S. Open in September.

So here's hoping that when that 100th anniversary of tennis in Indy arrives in 2011, there's really something to celebrate.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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