Farewell to San Jose: SAP Open Ends Historic Run This Weekend

Men’s tennis says goodbye to the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend.

After a tenure of nearly a century and a quarter, the ATP event in San Jose will end this weekend.  The second-oldest tennis tournament in the United States, the SAP Open lately represented the only outpost of the men’s game in the Bay Area, which has hosted a successful WTA event early in the US Open Series for the last four decades.

As historic as it is, the end of men’s tennis in the Bay Area—for now—comes as scant surprise to someone like me who once attended the SAP Open.  Unlike the WTA Stanford tournament, which regularly attracted champions from around the world, San Jose had declined steadily over the last several years as it languished in the lowest tier of the ATP’s 250/500/1000 system.  With each year, fewer and fewer of Silicon Valley’s citizens trickled through the turnstiles of the HP Arena.  Less committed to tennis than their predecessors was the tournament’s new management, meanwhile, which grew increasingly frustrated with scheduling long road trips for the San Jose Sharks, the hockey team that makes its home there.  The venue also has only a single court, a logistical handicap unique or nearly so among ATP tournaments outside the year-end championships, which requires only one court for its eight-player field.  But the most significant obstacle confronted by the SAP Open was the task of luring European players across an ocean and a continent to a tournament diminished in status.

Attempting to bolster San Jose by signing multi-year participation agreements several years ago, Roddick and the Bryan Brothers had signaled their support for an event that had given them precious opportunities earlier in their careers.  (It now seems fitting that Roddick will appear in an exhibition on the SAP Open’s final weekend.)  Nevertheless,  the tournament’s inability to consistently draw prestigious foreign players combined with the recent stagnation of American men’s tennis to thrust this event in a converted hockey arena onto very thin ice.  Exhibitions between Sampras and a top seed provided some mild entertainment, to be sure, as did the rise of two-time defending champion Milos Raonic.  Offered a wealth of professional sports options in their vicinity, however, Bay Area fans who lack a strong attachment to tennis found little reason to prevent them from drifting elsewhere.

As for tennis fans like myself, the prospect of attending a Raonic-Harrison or Istomin-Benneteau semifinal in San Jose (the 2012 lineup) seemed a poor alternative to watching tournaments with elite contenders on television or the internet.  In February, the most compelling action in men’s tennis occurs thousands of miles away at tournaments in Rotterdam and Dubai, while the women’s Premier Five tournament in Doha grasps the attention of those who follow both Tours.  Looming just a month ahead, meanwhile, the marquee tournament at Indian Wells offered a reminder that the world’s best would return soon to California.  With Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and the rest scheduled to compete in a beautifully situated, meticulously maintained “tennis garden,” who can blame the region’s fans for ignoring the journeymen on display in a drafty hockey rink near the San Jose Airport?

Blighted by a disinterested management and dwindling commitment from both players and fans, therefore, the tournament tottered towards its inevitable fate:  a transfer to a region where it will earn more success in all three areas.  Planned to coincide with the 2016 Olympics there, the new joint ATP/WTA tournament in Rio de Janeiro should gain an early boost in publicity from which it will profit.  To achieve the stability that San Jose once enjoyed, though, Rio will want to avoid the flaws that doomed its predecessor.  As the most important tennis tournament on the South American continent, it stands well poised to do so.

Where one tradition ends, perhaps another will begin.