As part of its efforts to boost the popularity of professional tennis, the United States Tennis Association finds itself molding the ATP and WTA tours into a format American patrons might be able to understand.
While maintaining its separate-tournament roots, the USTA has fashioned a regular season-postseason format to cater to the tastes of consumers used to the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
The result is the U.S. Open Series, which strings together a set of 10 North American tournaments -- including Washington's Legg Mason Tennis Classic -- and culminates with the USTA's marquee event, the U.S. Open late this month.
The Series aims to boost interest for fans, who will get to see tournaments via regular TV coverage on ESPN, with CBS and NBC. It also hopes to generate deeper draws, by tying series performance in with prize money at the U.S. Open. Whether that part of the equation works, however, remains to be seen.
"We really launched this initially as a long-term fix for the professional sport, a way to build a big league regular season leading up to a championship," said Arlen Kantarian, chief executive of professional tennis for the USTA. "In any undertaking of this nature it takes years to gain traction. We're feeling very good that viewership is up over 50 percent. Attention has been up in four of the five tournaments to date."
Organizers for the Legg Mason, which begins main-draw play at 4 p.m. tomorrow at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, are thrilled to be a part of the series.
"It really has significantly upgraded the prestige of the event," tournament director Jeff Newman said. "We've received a tremendous amount of exposure that we otherwise would not have received in the past, just by having the governing body of USA tennis on your side."
The biggest piece of the arrangement is the television schedule. The Legg Mason final on Aug. 22 will be telecast live on CBS, with additional rounds on the Tennis Channel and Fox Sports Net.
Most of the tournaments on the U.S. Open Series roster have some regional cachet already, as they bring marketable stars into an area for, usually, one time each year. But the Series seeks to bring national attention to tournaments in Cincinnati and Montreal, for example, improving their ability to lure sponsors and players.
"It creates more logic and excitement," Kantarian said. "The more excitement they get, the more sponsorship they can attract. Being part of the U.S. Open family, take that leverage and apply that to their tournament. There's a branded link to the U.S. Open. They're part of, hopefully, something bigger and something that has implications with the U.S. Open. It's transforming several disparate tennis events under one umbrella with one climax at the end."
For players, the USTA has created a points system tying their performance in U.S. Open Series events to prize money at the U.S. Open, with the opportunity to boost their earnings in New York by as much as 50 percent based on how they fared in the Series. While appealing to players' wallets seemed like a sure bet, former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt says the new system will not affect his playing schedule or the way he approaches matches.
"I'm sure for some other guys, but for the top guys I seriously doubt it. . . . I think the players, we go out there to win every match regardless," said Hewitt, No. 5 in the Series standings.
Despite the presence of Andre Agassi and Hewitt, plus past winners James Blake and Alex Corretja, Legg Mason organizers anticipate the tournament to take a hit because it is taking place during the Summer Olympics. Thus, the field has been downsized from 48 players to 32. With the change, byes have vanished and the cutoff for ranked players became lower.
"Our field is great, all things considered," Newman said. "Our quality of matches is going to be the same, and probably better, just by making it harder to get in. Every night we'll have our top seeds playing, which makes the entire week of tennis that much more attractive."
But, despite doubts about the effects of the U.S. Open Series, Hewitt admitted that the TV coverage alone could have an impact on the popularity of the sport in the United States.
"I think [I was of] two minds at the start," Hewitt said. "Purely because I didn't want other tournaments in Europe getting hurt because of it. . . . The big thing that would help is TV time. If we can televise tennis, I think that could be a big positive in the long run."