PRO TENNIS MISSED IN INDIANAPOLIS

“RAKE’S TAKE ” BY GREG RAKESTRAW

Sports Journal Columnist

As the thermometer continues to rise in Central Indiana, most of us want to find ways to stay inside as much as possible. From a sports standpoint, there’s not that much to pull you out of the house in the month of July, especially early in this month.

As you read this column, its moratorium week for the IHSAA. It’s the week where coaches and athletes can have no contact, no summer drills, no workouts, etc. It’s a chance for families to go on vacation, and one last chance for coaches to get away, especially those whose fall seasons are only weeks away.

In my days in radio on a full time basis, I would refer to this downtime as the end/start of the sports fiscal year. The Indy 500 would hopefully carry over in good years to a continued playoff run for the Indiana Pacers, which would then lead to momentum for the NBA Draft. After that… crickets until one of my favorite events that no longer has a place on the Indy sports calendar.

In a couple of weeks, tennis junkies like me will mark the third straight summer without the ATP Tour stopping in Indianapolis. I was around for the tail end of the great days of the tournament, watching Andre Agassi resume his Hall of Fame worthy career and seeing Pete Sampras tune up his game for another U.S. Open run. I covered a final four who had all won Grand Slam events (Safin, Kafelnikov, Rafter, and Kuerten) in the early 2000s. I even saw Andy Roddick begin his run to his lone U.S. Open title in 2003 as he began his hardcourt season that summer by winning the RCAs in downtown Indy.

That tournament was also the first July based event after the tournament was moved by the ATP Tour from its late August date that led up to the U.S. Open. It was a move that in one sense helped draw in American players: for the last several years of the late August date, Indy would compete against an event either in New Haven, Conn., or Washington, D.C. Indy would get more of the top international players, but the top Americans (Agassi, Sampras, etc.) seemingly would head the other direction. When the tournament moved to July in 2003, it was easier to draw the Roddick’s, Blake’s, and Fishe’s of the world – the top American players; but there would be no way the top international players would come over to play 6-7 weeks before the U.S. Open.

At that same time, the rise to power of Roger Federer that very summer, followed two years later by Rafael Nadal, and eventually Novak Djokovic, meant that fans had switched from wanting to see the top Americans to wanting to see players who weren’t going to play here. It took seven years for the sponsorship and fan support to completely erode. I happened to be lucky enough to be the public address announcer in parts of the last two years of the tournament, including the final day in 2009 when Robby Ginepri took the final singles crown in the Indianapolis Tennis Championships history.

Those of us close to the tournament all thought it might be the end, and that was confirmed to us a couple of months later. The names had gone away, the crowds weren’t terrible, but they certainly weren’t the heyday. While the complex was in good shape, the stadium was certainly in need of work. With downtown land getting to be more and more of premium, and the expansion of IUPUI and the NCAA seemingly meeting on top of the Indianapolis Tennis Center, the tourney’s fate was sealed.

Three years later, all of the tennis courts and facilities from that place are long gone. The first time I turned right, just south of New York Street to head towards the IUPUI gymnasium and saw nothing, a spot where a parking lot would eventually go instead of a 9,000 seat stadium, a place where I played my first official collegiate tennis match, where I got to work with a legend in Bud Collins doing tennis on the radio (how about that for a non-every day experience!), I literally stopped my car for about five minutes and stared. It was like part of my childhood (even though these memories happened primarily in my twenties) had been taken away.

So, while we all need a little downtime in the sports calendar, and business will pick up again very soon with the Colts training camp less than a month away and the Brickyard 400 in that same time frame, here’s a few words about one of my favorite events. It was always the beginning of my sports “fiscal year.” I know it’ll never be back, and I miss it. I always will.

(Greg Rakestraw is vice president of Hometown Sports Indiana. His familiar voice can also be heard on the IHSAA Champions Network, NCAA.com, and on ESPN 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis, where he hosts the Sunday morning “The Golf Connection” and is the primary fill-in host for The Dan Dakich Show and The Ride with JMV. His column appears monthly in the Sports Journal.)

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