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Game, Set And Match: U.S. Tennis Tournaments Move Abroad

Posted: January 2, 2013

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At its height, American tennis consistently fielded the world's top male players. Now that American dominance is gone, so too are many of the top U.S. men's tournaments. They're moving overseas, snapped up by groups offering more lucrative payouts in a sport enjoying huge global appeal.

Pete Sampras returns a forehand against Russia's Marat Safin during an exhibition tennis match at the L.A. Tennis Open tournament in 2009. The tournament, which has been around for decades, is now relocating to Colombia as America's dominance in the sport declines and global appeal surges.

Pete Sampras returns a forehand against Russia's Marat Safin during an exhibition tennis match at the L.A. Tennis Open tournament in 2009. The tournament, which has been around for decades, is now relocating to Colombia as America's dominance in the sport declines and global appeal surges. Danny Moloshok

Throughout most of its 86 years, Los Angeles' premier tennis tournament attracted the biggest names in the game. But over the years, stars stopped coming, and so did fans.

Now the Farmers Classic, which has been in L.A. since 1927, is headed to Bogota after it was bought by a Colombian sports marketing and entertainment company.

"There's a big hole in my heart. And believe me, this is something we didn't see coming, I'll be honest," says Bob Kramer, longtime tournament director of the Farmers Classic.

He admits that the event has been losing millions the past few years, but blames the recession and crowded summer tennis table. There were only a dozen Association of Tennis Professionals tournaments — the top men's event — played in the U.S. in 2012, which is about a third as many as there were in the '80s.

The biggest challenge, Kramer says, has been attracting the world's top players, who've been lured overseas by higher paydays.

"The markets globally have been stronger than the ones domestically, and the events have flowed to those stronger markets," Kramer says. "For example, we understand that Roger Federer is playing five or six events, and he's going to be paid $10 million in South America."

Federer was mobbed by fans when he started his recent South American tour in Brazil. Oftentimes the payout for those exhibition matches far exceeds the purse of tour events, which are also following the money abroad.

After 35 years, the Memphis men's and women's tournament is headed to Rio de Janeiro.

A couple of years ago, the Las Vegas men's event went to South Africa.

Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim remembers it wasn't long ago that the tour would thread its way coast to coast, winding through cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver and San Francisco.

"We don't have that anymore," Wertheim says. "And I think it's very hard to become a tennis fan now. You may be the biggest Roger Federer fan in the world, but he only comes to the U.S. three, maybe four times a year, whereas a generation ago a player like Bjorn Borg would play 15 to 20 tournaments in the U.S."

Decline Of American Players

An American man hasn't won a Grand Slam tournament since Andy Roddick was the U.S. Open champion a decade ago. There are only seven American men in the top 100, and 10 women — about a fifth as many as there were in 1985.

Those numbers are not coincidental, Wertheim says. The tournaments tend the follow the workforce.

"We can play the chicken and egg game, but the decline of American players at the top of the rankings is directly correlated, I think, to the decline of American events," Wertheim explains.

"I can't really draw that correlation, no I can't," says David Brewer in disagreement. He oversees pro tennis at the United States Tennis Association, which governs American tennis.

He says that despite so many tournaments leaving, the sport still remains popular in the U.S. Big events the stars play, like the U.S. Open, get bigger every year.

While Brewer hates every time a tournament decamps overseas, he says tennis fans should be happy their sport is growing worldwide.

"It's a good healthy thing for the sport as a whole that it's as popular as it is globally."

But that means, for the first time in decades, that a tennis tour that stops in Zagreb, Belgrade, Kuala Lumpur and Acapulco will skip Los Angeles, and most other major American cities.

Copyright 2014 Southern California Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kpcc.org/.

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