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Los Angeles gives up its once-prominent stop on men's tennis tour

L.A. has staged a men's pro event since 1927, but tennis calendar and a lack of U.S. stars have pushed tournament to lower-tier status and a new home in Colombia.

November 16, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Roger Federer returns a shot during his men's singles final match against Novak Djokovic during the ATP World Tour Finals on November 12.
Roger Federer returns a shot during his men's singles final match… (Julian Finney / Getty Images )

Bob Kramer spoke of the loss he is about to suffer, admitting he has a hole in his heart.

He wasn't grieving a child or a parent, just a best friend. Kramer is director of a tennis tournament that will be no more. The Los Angeles men's tennis event that has been held each summer at UCLA since 1984 will be held next summer in Bogota, Colombia.

That's a pretty long commute for loyal fans and ticket buyers around Westwood.

For Kramer, and his sanctioning Southern California Tennis Assn., this is much more than just a business sale. These days, sports events come and go. No big deal. Our attention span drifts at the speed of Twitter. We put old stuff behind us with ease and minimal emotion.

Kramer is the son of the late Jack Kramer, a tennis legend as influential as any in the development of the game. Jack used to jokingly call his children "the five perfect sons." All five have respected their father's legacy to the utmost, none more than Bob.

Recently, after four years of scrambling to keep the event alive, he and the SCTA had to face reality. They had lost money for four years. Their July dates were positioned close enough to the end of Wimbledon and far enough from the beginning of the U.S. Open to make them prime time for players to stay home. Theirs was a U.S. tournament in what is now a European sport. Their series 250 status (250 rating points to the winner) was the lowest category in a sport that lives off Grand Slam tournaments and series 1,000 men's events (1,000 points to the winner) such as Indian Wells.

The players would never miss a Grand Slam if they could help it and are contractually obligated to play in the series 1,000 events. To compete, tournaments such as Los Angeles pay appearance money, and even that wasn't working recently. Kramer said his biggest appearance fee was $400,000 to Andy Murray in 2010. He lost to Sam Querrey in the final.

"It would probably take $2 million to get Roger Federer," Kramer said.

Neither Federer nor Rafael Nadal has played in L.A. Novak Djokovic signed to do so one year and then backed out. The ATP Tour fined Djokovic $40,000, but the L.A. event just went without.

Kramer said that the tournament lived for years on the support of great U.S. players. When Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier or Michael Chang showed up, the seats filled.

"They were all loyal," Kramer said. "Andre used to just jump in his Cadillac and drive over from Las Vegas. But it has been 10 years since we've had an American star, and that has hurt us."

The last U.S. male player to win a Grand Slam tournament was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open.

"Since Pete and Andre retired," Kramer said, "ticket sales have gone down about 50%."

For many years, the L.A. Open wasn't just any tour stop. It is the loss of that tradition that Kramer, and tournament chairman Franklin Johnson, said hurts the most.

The first event was in 1927 and was won by Bill Tilden. In ensuing years, champions included Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Frank Parker, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Boris Becker. All that was prior to the Sampras-Agassi-Chang-Courier years.

Jack Kramer won it three times and the event was named the Jack Kramer Open from 1979 to 1981.

It had various sponsors, including some such as Mercedes and Farmers Insurance that got cut-rate deals in recent years. It was played at several venues, including the L.A. Tennis Club, Pauley Pavilion, Los Caballeros Country Club and even the Sports Arena, where, in the 1968 final, Rosewall beat Laver in the first set and lost the next 12 games.

The SCTA helped raise money for construction of the current tournament venue at UCLA that was first used in 1984, when tennis became an Olympic demonstration sport. The main donor was Leonard Straus and the center court is named for him. For about the last four years the SCTA covered shortfalls in hopes that a main sponsor could be found.

"As recently as four weeks ago," Johnson said, "we still thought we had a chance, that we would get some local sponsorship."

The best hope was AEG, Kramer and Johnson said. But when Philip Anschutz decided to sell his entertainment division, that hope dried up.

"About any kind of local offer would have kept us here," Johnson said.

Now, Kramer and Johnson ponder possible Fed Cup and Davis Cup matches at UCLA, while awaiting signatures and signoffs from lawyers and a check for $3 million from Colombia. That should be in about two weeks. Then the deal will be done and Los Angeles' representation in the world of big-time men's tennis will be located 125 miles to the east, at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells in March.

"This would have been our 86th tournament," Kramer said. "We tried everything we could. We kept looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. One day, we realized we couldn't even find the tunnel."

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