For most of the 21 years that the men's professional tennis tour stopped in Washington, the players knew they would swelter in the summer heat and humidity, be forced to take showers in cramped facilities, then pay for their own dinner.
It was not much better for the fans, who were more loyal than was warranted. Getting a hot dog was an adventure. Going to the restroom was a nightmare.
Another annual problem: late withdrawals of top name players. Last year, within a one-week period just before the tournament, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe phoned in belated regrets.
"It was the worst thing that could have happened to us, and it was the worst type of thing that could happen to tennis," said Sovran Bank Classic tournament director Josh Ripple. "It was a disappointing, depressing time."
And despite Connors's 1990 withdrawal last week, the tournament -- starting Monday at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center -- will be in full splendor for the first time. The purse is $550,000, almost doubled from last year. The field is one of the strongest in years, led by McEnroe and Andre Agassi.
But the tournament again takes place in mid-July, a couple of weeks after Wimbledon and during a time many top players remain in Europe to play big money tournaments. It comes about five weeks before the U.S. Open, a little too soon for some players to get serious about the hard-court season.
However, in 1992 the Association of Tennis Professionals, which governs the men's tour, will review the dates it apportions to Championship Series tournaments, including the Sovran. To organizers of the Sovran, who hope to gain one of the coveted dates within a week or two of the U.S. Open, the impressions the Washington tournament leaves this year and next are critical.
"That is very fair to say," Ripple said. "We have a very good tournament now. The biggest way for this tournament to make a dramatic improvement is to move it to another date. All tournaments want to move closer to the U.S. Open. Could it happen? I think it could."
On top of McEnroe and Agassi, this year's field includes Michael Chang, defending champion Tim Mayotte and 1989 runner-up Brad Gilbert.
After last year's sudden collapse of the field, and a second straight year in which attendance was off more than 20,000 from the high of 103,705 in 1987, Ripple said he lobbied to prevent ticket prices from taking their annual hike. "I was determined to first prove to the community that we could put on a first-class event."
With tournament improvements already made, Ripple thinks the Sovran could draw at least six top 10 players if it were held a month later.
The Sovran has made serious strides to try to impress players. The main stadium is the obvious one.
Known as Rock Creek Tennis Stadium when it held 2,500 for the first Washington event in 1969, then referred to simply by its address (16th and Kennedy streets) and later the Washington Tennis Center, it has become a modern facility that seats 7,500. Players now have plush locker rooms; they originally used public showers and trailers.
Last year the surface was changed to Deco Turf II. The hard court replaced clay, which favored baseliners who could withstand the heat for hours and outlast serve-and-volleyers. That led to many top players bypassing Washington.
However, what may ultimately be the difference in whether the ATP is willing to give the Sovran a more prominent date -- and with it more prestige -- are more subtle factors.
"This tournament had a bad reputation and the weather will always hurt," said Silver Spring native Harold Solomon, the winner here in 1974 and back to play in the Grand Masters tournament. "We would be cramped in this little locker room and it always seemed the air conditioning was not working. With this facility now, as guys see it, more will come. But to improve the tournament more, one big thing is that the amenities must be there. It is important to arrange things for the players to do, like maybe go to the White House. And how they treat the players' wives is very important."
Ripple understands. His staff spends much of its time arranging player events such as a golf tournament, a fishing expedition on the Chesapeake, complimentary dinners at top restaurants, movie passes and special family tours. Ripple further knows that a golf tournament is not enough -- there must be prizes, like a set of clubs.
"These guys are used to being treated pretty well," said John Harris, co-founder of the tournament with Donald Dell. "For example, Indianapolis was a place people hated to play because of the way they felt they were treated. But a new management group came in, changed all that, and now people love to play in that tournament."
Harris said he is unsure what other steps the Sovran must take, but thinks more prize money is not the answer. "If we raised the purse a million dollars, we might get one or two more top players," he said.
Harris agrees the tournament is at the point where it must make a statement through player benefits.
"This tournament never paid for players' food -- now we pay for all of it. We do their laundry. We used to house the players in nice luxurious homes with pools, but now the ATP rules say we must pay for a hotel," he said. "You must remember that the majority of players aren't winning the top money and these things could add up to 400 or 500 dollars a week for them -- a lot of money to a guy who loses in the first round."
Harris said that in 1969 he never envisioned the tournament reaching its current magnitude. He also never thought acquiring movie passes could be so important.
"For me, it is still fun, but it is much more of a business now than when we started," he said. "Of course, it is 22 years later."
Sovran Notes: The sixth annual D.C. Wheelchair tournament takes place next Saturday and Sunday mornings, starting at 9 each day. Pam Shriver will present awards to the winners. A wheelchair exhibition will be held between Saturday's Sovran semifinal matches. . . . The Sovran final is sold out. Last year's rain-delayed final that was moved to Monday afternoon attracted only 2,023 fans.
SOVRAN PLAYERS TO WATCH
Andre Agassi (top seed)
After a disappointing season in 1989 in which he won only one tournament and slipped from No. 3 to No. 7 in the rankings, Agassi, 20, has used one of the tour's best forehands to rebound with a solid first half of 1990. The two-time U.S. Open semifinalist has won the International Players Championships and in San Francisco and was runner-up at the French Open. He has won $484,497 and is the Sovran's highest-ranked player at No. 5.
Brad Gilbert (second seed)
The 10-year veteran has maintained the No. 6 ranking he achieved last year. He has won 1990 tournaments in Rotterdam and Orlando, Fla. At 29, the U.S. Davis Cup player has shown the ability to defeat the world's premier players. A five-time winner last year, Gilbert was runner-up here two of the past three years.
John McEnroe (third seed)
The tournament's biggest draw was a late entry, likely trying to bounce back quickly after losing in the first round at Wimbledon. The world's No. 1 player from 1981 through 1984, McEnroe, 31, still believes he can overcome long spells away from tennis to edge his way back toward the top of the rankings. He has won more than $11 million, $117,000 this year. He is ranked No. 12.
Tim Mayotte (fourth seed)
Last year he defeated Gilbert in the final here for his 12th career title, but the only one in the past two years. For the third straight year, he has slipped in the rankings, now No. 19. The 6-foot-3 serve-and-volley specialist plays his best on hard and grass courts, though last month he was upset in the first round at Wimbledon.
Michael Chang (fifth seed)
After coming into prominence in 1989 by winning the French Open, the 5-8 Californian is just rounding into form, having endured a hip injury. He has slipped to No. 22 in the rankings (from No. 5) and has had several disappointing defeats, but reached the fourth round at Wimbledon before falling to eventual champion Stefan Edberg.
Jim Grabb (sixth seed)
At 26, he has made major strides, now ranked No. 37. In his previous six professional seasons, Grabb never ended the year ranked better than No. 66, although he briefly was No. 41 last year before finishing No. 91. He is a doubles specialist, but reached the singles semifinals here last year, falling to Mayotte.
Richey Reneberg (seventh seed)
The 24-year-old could be the player to watch this week. He was a semifinalist here last year, losing to Gilbert. An excellent doubles player, Reneberg is at a career-best No. 39 in singles, having improved from No. 128 in 1988 and No. 80 at the close of last year.
Christo van Rensburg (eighth seed)
The South African native has been inconsistent this season, dropping to No. 49 after peaking at No. 19 in 1988 and closing last year at No. 27. He is a good hard-court player and is a fine illustration of the money available in tennis: Despite only one victory in nine professional seasons, he has won $1.1 million.
Jakob Hlasek (ninth seed)
If healthy, he could cause problems this week. After finishing 1988 ranked No. 8, the Czechoslovakian native -- now a Swiss citizen -- has had elbow problems that have dropped him to No. 50. Hlasek showed his talent in the 1988 Masters, going 3-0 in the round-robin format with victories over Ivan Lendl, Mayotte and Agassi.
Dan Goldie (10th seed)
The former McLean resident now living in Redwood City, Calif., has been disappointing this year, dropping to No. 84 in the rankings. After reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year, Goldie, 26, has shown little of the talent that put him as high as No. 27 in 1989. At 6-2, his serve-and-volley game is suited for hard courts.