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Southern California losing its place in the tennis world

The region once central to the sport has lost tournaments in recent years due to economics, competition and the tennis calendar.

September 08, 2013|By Diane Pucin

NEW YORK — As the most important two weeks of tennis each year in the United States reaches a conclusion, it's natural for Californians to let nostalgia to creep in, remembering a time when the state was a hotbed of tennis.

Two decades ago, after Wimbledon in July, the tennis world migrated to California.

There were women's tournaments at Stanford, Manhattan Beach and Carlsbad. (The Manhattan Beach tournament moved to Carson in 2003.) There was a men's tournament at UCLA until last year, when it was bought and moved to Colombia. Earlier, an indoor tournament that had been in San Jose for 125 years was played for the last time. Technically, it moved to Memphis, and now is moving to Brazil. Net loss to California and the U.S.

Now, this isn't to discount Indian Wells, which nearly always commands a field of the top 50 players, except for Serena and Venus Williams( who haven't played in the desert since 2001 when their father, Richard, heard a racist comment in the stands.

But with that exception it does seem as if the state has given up on pro tennis tournaments.

But it isn't only Southern California that is losing events. As players and officials point out, tennis has become a much more global game in the last decade even as the financial situation in the United States has made finding sponsorship difficult.

"Our economy tanked," said Bob Kramer, who ran the Los Angeles men's event.

"The last four years we held it, we lost money. It was unsustainable."

And it was bought for about $3 million and moved away.

Carlsbad, which featured world-ranked No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, who won the 2013 Australian Open, and 2011 U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur, was played without a title sponsor and in front of a smattering of fans last month.

It is rumored to be moving to Tokyo.

"Doesn't surprise me," said Michael Roth, AEG's vice president of communications. AEG brought the WTA season-ender to Staples Center for four years from 2002 to '06. Attendance was so bad that when players would hit tennis balls into the seats, you could hear them rattling around. There weren't enough people to chase them down.

Bob and Mike Bryan are the No. 1-ranked doubles team, although they lost in the semifinals at the U.S. Open. They're from Oxnard, and they aren't optimistic that tennis will return to the state that produced the dominant champions in the 1990s, such as Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras, who won the final of his 14 majors at the 2002 U.S. Open.

"It's a tough market," Mike said. Bob said, "There are only so many weeks on the schedule and this is a worldwide sport. You've got another 50 countries that wish they had a tournament. For California to still have Indian Wells is great. They lost San Jose and Los Angeles, which is unfortunate with so much history."

Mike noted it was a tough time of year for the Los Angeles men's tournament, coming within weeks after Wimbledon. It did well when Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang were dominating the… game and were happy to play near home. "But Europeans don't want to travel to the States that soon after Wimbledon," Courier said.

"Asia wants more tournaments," Bob Bryan said. "So do other places. It was just tough for Los Angeles."

"Once Sampras and Andre were done," Mike said, "you couldn't get a huge name like they did in the past."

Pam Shriver, a former player and an analyst for ESPN, said Southern California needs stars to be successful.

"The region that produced Kramer, Maureen Connelly, Billie Jean King, Sampras, Tracy Austin, Davenport … needs the great ones to move, to watch live," Shriver said.

"The Southern California market has so many great live sporting and entertain events that sponsorships are hard to sell with mediocre fields. So recent tournaments … haven't been profitable."

Gordon Smith, executive director of the United States Tennis Assn., said, "Events conspired against Southern California. We've had the Olympics, Wimbledon's moving a week later in 2016, [and] San Diego lost a sponsor, and it will be hard to get one knowing the Olympics are coming and Wimbledon is moving."

Shriver thinks Southern California will see more exhibitions, such as the one done by Novak Djokovic in Los Angeles last year or maybe something similar as players head to the area to prepare for Indian Wells.

"All is not lost for tennis in Southern California," Shriver said. "It's just in transition. In the meantime, thank goodness for Larry Ellison."

Ellison bought Indian Wells and kept the tournament in California. But he only bought one.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

Twitter: @mepucin

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