It was a great week for tennis in Washington. Unfortunately, it was not a great week of tennis. In truth, Ivan Lendl's blowout of Brad Gilbert in Sunday's final summed up the week quite well: big names playing pedestrian tennis.
This is not an idealistic plea to bring back clay courts and three-hour moonball matches or finals between Karel Novacek (who happens to be one of the nicest guys on the tennis tour) and Thierry Tulasne. If you are going to have a tennis tournament you want the best and this year, thanks to the new hardcourt surface, the Sovran Bank/D.C. National Tennis Classic -- can we shorten that logo? -- had big names. It had Lendl. It had Boris Becker and it had Jimmy Connors.
The reason it had Lendl and Connors is simple. Both are clients of ProServ. You can tell me a thousand times that the Washington Area Tennis Patrons make a lot of money for junior tennis from this tournament; but this tournament is produced, directed and run by ProServ. They get the players, they supply the staff, they negotiate and produce the television, they do the promotion and Donald Dell, the ProServ president, does the TV commentary.
Becker's presence should not be expected in the future. Because he lost at Wimbledon and needed extra matches, he agreed to play here. He isn't likely to come back, although nothing is impossible. Yannick Noah, another ProServ client, is likely to play next year, although he begged off this year when Becker agreed to come.
So, ProServ gave us three of the top six players in the world. Well done. Unfortunately, because of the July heat, because most people would rather spend a week in Vermont or Canada at this time of year, the field was top heavy. Consider this: Brad Gilbert reached the semifinals without playing anyone ranked in the top 100. By his own admission he didn't play very well all week and he reached the final.
There were a couple of good matches during the tournament. David Wheaton, an 18-year-old from Minnesota, gave everyone a few thrills winning a set from Lendl. The Lendl-Connors match was excellent tennis. That was about it. Becker, exhausted from Davis Cup and nursing an inflamed elbow, was a shadow of himself. He won three poorly played matches, then lost another bad one.
To most tennis fans, none of that matters. The big names were here. As one tournament official put it, "As long as we've got those three it doesn't matter if the fourth seed is ranked 12,001, we'll sell tickets."
It wasn't ProServ's fault that Becker wasn't Becker or that Lendl manhandled Gilbert in the final. Let's just say it was nice to see the big names here and hope that some of them come back next year and produce some compelling tennis.
Looking ahead, the debate over the change from clay courts to hard courts, the building of the new stadium and how that will affect Rock Creek Park, will go on for a while. The bottom line is this: Dell and ProServ are going to get their new stadium and they will sell boxes in it next year for $100,000 each. Money talks and ProServ and the patrons have money and influence. That is nothing new or different in the corporate-commercial world of big time tennis.
ProServ will make a lot of money from the new facility. So will the Patrons, and that money will go to junior tennis. That's wonderful. And, you can be sure, the Patrons will tell us just how much money this year's tournament and next year's tournament make for junior tennis.
ProServ should do the same thing: tell the public how much money it is making. Dell says no, that's a private matter. He uses the Redskins as an analogy. They play in a public facility (RFK Stadium) but do not open their books to the public.
Good point. Except for one thing: RFK Stadium was built for the specific purpose of housing pro football and pro baseball (you remember that sport) and although some of us would make the case that any organization that sells tickets to the public should open its books to that public, there is a difference between Jack Kent Cooke and Donald Dell.
Dell's tennis tournament is played at a recreational facility in a public park. His desire to change that park will affect people who use the park. Some don't want it changed. Some do. If, as is likely, it is changed, Dell should be willing to tell people how much money his company is going to make.
"I'm not going to talk about this tournament's finances," Dell said Sunday night. "It's a private matter."
Another point of contention: Dell's continued insistence on doing television commentary. For this tournament, ProServ owned the television rights and it produced the television both locally on Home Team Sports and nationally for the final on USA cable. Dell is the tournament director, the agent for many of the players in the tournament and is deeply involved in the fund raising efforts for the new stadium.
He shouldn't be on television as an "analyst." It's a conflict of interest. Does Dell know enough tennis to be an analyst? Certainly. But how can a tournament director do commentary on a final involving two players he manages and then do the postmatch interviews? There should at least be a visual disclaimer. His ingratiating interview with Lendl after the match Sunday night was unprofessional. Even Lendl seemed embarrassed when Dell told him, "you were the best player at Wimbledon."
"That's nice of you to say," Lendl said. "But Pat Cash was the best player. He won."