By Ishita Singh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
The Legg Mason Tennis Classic, which began Monday at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, has seen its fair share of stars. Previous participants include Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi. But tournament founder Donald Dell said this year's draw, top to bottom, is the best it has ever been.
"This is the strongest field that we've ever had since I've been involved in the tournament, since 1969," Dell said.
Dell credited the deep field to changes to the tournament's set-up, which have increased its appeal to players. The ATP World Tour, as it is now called, updated its tier system for the beginning of the 2009 season. Under this system, the Legg Mason is classified as a World Tour 500 event. It has become one of the top 20 tournaments in the world (aside from the four Grand Slam events), and one of five premier events in the United States, including the upcoming U.S. Open.
Moving the Legg Mason to this level has meant an increase in both total prize money -- from $600,000 to $1.4 million this year -- and total points awarded, now 500. It also means more television time. Beginning Friday, the tournament will be broadcast for a total of 16 hours on ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel.
Organizers also changed the date of the tournament, holding it a week later than in years past to move it closer to the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 31.
When Dell and co-founder Ashe first launched the tournament, they decided it must be in Washington. Ashe insisted that the venue be a public park so that everyone could participate, regardless of race or wealth.
"Arthur said to me, 'I want to be in a public park where I'm gonna see a lot of black faces,' " Dell said. "So we built the tournament around the public park."
Dell prides himself on the openness of the tournament, that there is "nothing snobby about it." He calls it the antithesis of the country club, in part because profits from the tournament go to charity.
Since the tournament's inception, it has aided the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth in the Washington area through academic support and tennis lessons.
"My concept was to use tennis fans to give tennis money back to young kids in a tennis program," Dell said. "And we've raised a lot of money over the 41 years. We've probably raised close to $15 million."
As the prestige of the tournament, and the profile of tennis itself, increases, Dell predicts that the Legg Mason Tennis Classic will continue to grow: in charitable contributions, in attendance, in importance.
"The future is very strong," he said. "This is tremendous for the tennis fan in Washington."