Record crowds are milling around the York University Tennis Centre in Toronto this week for a couple of reasons. They are Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, the world’s best tennis player fresh from his fourth straight Wimbledon title and his tempestuous aspiring rival. Borg, McEnroe and the rest of the best male tennis players, except for perennial child Jimmy Connors, are there for one reason: to prepare for the U.S. Open. And all of the best women players, except Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, are not there for one reason. Money.
For tennis fans the whys are irrelevant; for the tournament sponsor, Imperial Tobacco, they are admitted and were calculated. For 89 years, the Canadian Open Tennis Tournament had dawdled decorously along, rivalling in no one’s mind Forest Hills or Wimbledon. Like its counterpart in golf, which used to be scheduled almost to collide with the British Open, the tennis championship has long abutted the prestigious and lucrative U.S. Open and suffered the game elites’ preference of staying home to prepare for the big one. But this year, from the cosmetic to substantive, things have changed.
Ten years ago, Rothmans took over sponsorship of the Canadian Open Tennis Tournament which began in 1890. Rothmans’ first purse was $21,500 and that escalated to $210,000 last year. As promised, Rothmans bowed out, for its own corporate and brand identification
reasons and Imperial Tobacco stepped in.
Armed with tobacco profits, Imperial took a couple of calculated gambles. At Flushing Meadows, New York, site of the U.S. Open, a new surface was installed last year. Called Deco Turf, it is a number of layers of binders and fillers, rubberized cushion, sand and acrylic mix. The result is a fast (faster than clay) and hard (depending on the number of layers of cushion) surface. With tennis’ Grand Prix circuit glutted with 93 events vying for the big-name players, Imperial knew it had to have a gimmick. Deco Turf was the answer.
The company spent more than $175,000 refurbishing the York centre, including the tearing out of the threeyear-old synthetic clay surfaces and installing Deco Turf. The final coup was preparing the surfaces to the precise speed and hardness specification of the Flushing Meadows courts. The tournament’s scheduling two weeks before the U.S. Open suddenly was no longer a liability but an asset, the new courts providing the players a chance to adjust to the surface in preparation for the big one in New York.
Imperial then signed the International Management Group, one of the most powerful sports management and promotion agencies in North America,
whose No. 1 client just happens to be a blonde Swede named Borg. His pal Vitas Gerulaitis naturally agreed to play, as did the rest of the “names.” Imperial then matched Rothmans’ purse of last year, $210,000 (U.S.) and all but one of the gambles paid off.
Imperial off-and-on-agained decisions to boost the women’s purse until it was too late. It stands at $35,000enough to get Goolagong-Cawley because she is an IMG client, a personal friend of the tournament director and not a member of the Women’s Tennis Association. Under WTA rules, the women have to compete in the biggest prize money event of the week, which happens to be a $100,000 tournament in Virginia. Thus the women’s half of the event is still decidedly minor-league.
But the men’s field is the most starstudded ever to play in Canada, the best outside of Flushing Meadows and Wimbledon, and tennis fans have responded. The previous record for ticket sales for the nine-day event was about 29,000, yet by the eve of the opening match last Saturday more than 36,000 tickets had been sold. The 5,840 seats for each of the last three days had been sold out for a week, despite the addition of 540 portable seats. Organizers finally had to allow for 1,000 standees.
The tournament, renamed the Player’s International Tennis Championships as part of Imperial’s deal, shaped up as a classic, odds favoring a Borg-McEnroe or Borg-Tanner final. Thanks to fresh tobacco money, and Deco Turf, things had changed.
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