Retired tennis player Justin Gimelstob has an idea that will bring professional… (Carl de Souza / Getty Images )
Justin Gimelstob certainly is no Martin Luther King. But he has a dream.
He is unhappy that professional tennis left Los Angeles and he wants it back.
To that end, the first L.A. Tennis Challenge will be played Monday night at Pauley Pavilion. It is an exhibition, not a real tournament. Former tour player Gimelstob and his co-host, current player Mardy Fish, want the public to think of it as a bridge to the future. This is the city of Jack Kramer and Pete Sampras, to name just two, and Gimelstob feels that, if nothing else, their legacy deserves more than vacant dates and empty courts.
"It's just sad and depressing that we have no tournament here," Gimelstob says, "and I refuse to accept that tennis is dead in L.A. Mardy and I don't want to see it die."
In essence, this year's L.A. men's tournament, which had been held here every year and under various sponsorships and names since 1927 — and at UCLA's tennis center since 1984 — will take place the week of July 15.
In Bogota, Colombia.
After years of trying to make a go, with dates in July that always seemed to be perfect for star players to rest between Wimbledon and the pre-US. Open hardcourt season, the Southern California Tennis Assn. and tournament director Bob Kramer, son of Jack, sold the sanction and dates to Bogota. That got them $3 million, much of it used to catch up on losses from previous years.
That left Los Angeles shut out of pro tennis, unless you think the two-week BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells every March is enough tennis for the Southland.
Gimelstob and Fish do not. They both live in greater Los Angeles and have become tennis rabbis for the City of Angels.
"It started last year . . ." Gimelstob says.
That was well before the sale of the L.A. event to Bogota had even become a serious talking point.
"It was March 4, and Mardy and I were playing at the UCLA courts," Gimelstob says. "I was hitting with Nicolas Almagro and Mardy with Novak Djokovic. It was just before the Indian Wells tournament and we talked about how natural it would be for an L.A. event that time of year.
"An L.A. event the week before Indian Wells is right in the flow of the schedule. It all starts with talent, and talent will always be coming this way to Indian Wells."
Djokovic is a prime example. He is No. 1 in the world, has never played in Los Angeles, and will make a debut of sorts Monday night. He will donate his time, as will Tommy Haas, James Blake, Sampras and the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike. Haas and Blake will play the first match at 7 p.m., followed by Fish versus Djokovic and the doubles team of Djokovic and Sampras versus the Bryan brothers.
"You've got the No. 1 player in the world, the best American player ever and the best men's doubles team ever," Gimelstob says, referring to Djokovic, Sampras and the Bryans.
"Novak is doing it because he's a friend and he understands what we are trying to do here."
Gimelstob, a former UCLA star who got to No. 63 in singles and No. 17 in doubles as a pro and had wins over Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter at the L.A. Open before retiring in 2007, says Pauley Pavilion will be configured for about 7,000 seats and that most tickets are gone. This will be the first non-UCLA event at the arena since it reopened for this basketball season after a $136-million renovation.
"We've got it reserved for next year at the same time, but two nights, Sunday and Monday," Gimelstob says.
The ATP Tour schedule isn't set in stone, but you need a hammer to crack it. The theory of a tournament in Los Angeles for players en route to Indian Wells has logic, but currently would intrude on the lucrative event wrapping up this weekend in Dubai.
"Maybe five years," Gimelstob says. "At some point, there has to be another look at where tournaments should be. L.A. fits right in the flow of schedule leading to Indian Wells."
There are pipe dreams and there are day dreams. There are also dreams of those with leverage to make them reality.
Gimelstob, a Tennis Channel commentator, is also one of three player representatives on the ATP Tour board of directors.