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Mercury Open deals with growing pains

The WTA Tour stop has dealt with the loss of such strong players as Kim Clijsters and Petra Kvitova, but its sponsors appear sympathetic.

August 04, 2011|By Matt Stevens
  • Sabine Lisicki lunges to return a shot against Coco Vandeweghe during the Mercury Insurance Open on Thursday at the La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad.
Sabine Lisicki lunges to return a shot against Coco Vandeweghe during the… (Jeff Gross / Getty Images )

Reporting from Carlsbad — When a "premier" level tennis tournament director is pitching world No. 25 Sabine Lisicki and installing a fashion show to keep fans entertained, it's a pretty good sign that the event has seen brighter days.

Such is the case at the Mercury Insurance Open in Carlsbad, where six top players have already withdrawn from a tournament that is trying to regain its reputation as one of the best.

Thankfully for tournament organizers, the title and presenting sponsors seem sympathetic to the situation.

"It's disappointing that it happens, but it does happen," Mercury Insurance advertising manager Erik Thompson said. "Does it make me want to stamp my feet and say we're not ever doing it again? No, but it would be great to have those players here."

Kim Clijsters and Petra Kvitova — ranked No. 2 and No. 7, respectively — withdrew from the tournament before it began. The same went for last year's champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and top-ranked American Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Then during the tournament, No. 26 Maria Kirilenko and No. 16 Dominika Cibulkova pulled out with injuries, dealing further blows to an already sparse field.

But it wasn't always like this.

The WTA's tour stop in San Diego reached its peak as the Acura Classic at the turn of the century and featured such champions as Steffi Graf, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova. As the event got bigger, it moved from a Tier 2 to Tier 1 event in 2004, but it fell off the map in 2008 and 2009 when the WTA announced a restructured "road map" schedule.

Tournament director Raquel Giscafre said that Tier 1 events required a larger structure that the event could not afford. WTA spokesman Andrew Walker added that the "streamlining" process instigated by the development of the road map led the WTA to take the San Diego event off the calendar.

But by 2010 the tournament was back at La Costa on a lower level of the WTA's restructured tier system. A Carson event had sold its sanction to the WTA, opening up a spot for Octagon Marketing to bring tennis back to San Diego. Octagon asked Giscafre to return as tournament director, and one of her first tasks was to bring in sponsors such as Mercury Insurance and presenting sponsor Tri-City Medical Group.

Tri-City Vice President Jeff Segall said Carlsbad is one of the three cities that own the group, and he sees its sponsorship as a way to get in on the ground floor of a tournament that's being reborn.

"When we got involved in this, it wasn't because we knew that some of the top names in tennis would be here and we were going to reap those benefits," he said. "We also recognized that something has to have time to grow."

So you could call all the withdrawals growing pains. Both Mercury Insurance and Tri-City Medical are contracted through next year's event, and representatives said it is too early to speculate about renewing their sponsorships.

However, Thompson said Mercury would "probably make a decision before next year's tournament" and Segall added that he "didn't see any reason" why Tri-City would not renew.

According to Thompson, the approximately 2,500 fans who have attended each session are the passionate type who were upset about losing the event in 2008. It's a good target audience, and ultimately, sponsorship is a business, not a philanthropic venture.

"Would I like to see sellouts every match, every day? Absolutely," Thompson said. "Hopefully we can continue to build that."

Thursday's results

American Sloane Stephens continued her career-best run thanks to a left abdominal injury that caused her opponent, Tamira Paszek, to retire in the first set. … All five top-seeded players advanced to the quarterfinals. … San Diego's CoCo Vandeweghe fell to Sabine Lisicki in the featured evening match, 6-4, 6-3.

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