Dennis van der Meer

From Grassroots to Boardrooms: Ray Benton is a Statesman for the Game


by Steve Fogleman, Special for Tennis Grandstand

When I arrived at the Tennis Center at College Park to speak with its CEO, Ray Benton, he was finishing up a lesson with former U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman. He’d agreed to speak with me after the practice and he was still stretching when our conversation began. I admit that at first I was bemused by the notion of a crossroads of politics and tennis. You don’t see that every day. But for tennis statesman Ray Benton, it was business as usual. He’s as comfortable on court with children as he is in the halls of power in Washington. Legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to repeatedly insist that all “politics is local”. Witnessing the VIP lessons he’s giving and the expansive, state-of-the-art tennis training facility he’s managing (largely funded by the former Chairman of the US Export-Import Bank), you realize that Benton is the embodiment of O’Neill’s mantra. Benton’s career arc has taken him from local to national to international and now, to some degree, back to local tennis. With that breadth of experience, he brings with him the uncanny ability to cultivate a major-league presence even in the deepest of grassroots tennis.

His office substantially resembles the International Tennis Hall of Fame in miniature. The walls of his paper-piled workspace are adorned with posters and photos from tennis events from the last forty years. With all of his energy, it is difficult to believe he is 71. He still competes in senior tournaments “when my body’s working”, he said.

Benton is an Iowa native who moved to Washington in 1971. He started playing the game at 15 and “really took to it right away”. Later, he spent two years with the Iowa Hawkeye team in Big Ten play. While attending college, law school and a year of business school, he worked in the summer as the tennis pro at Dubuque Country Club in Dubuque, Iowa. He was brought in to start a tennis program at a “golf wacko club where tennis was a nuisance”. It had “two broken-down courts and 35 tennis playing club members”. He was up for the challenge, and within a few years, Benton had installed six lighted courts, attracted 500 players and even trained 20 state-ranked juniors there. “That’s when I figured out maybe I should be in the business”.

Even after he was drafted and sent to Fort McClellan in Anniston, Alabama in 1966, he managed to stay active in the game, serving as head pro at the Gadsden and Anniston Country Clubs and varsity coach for Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He then spent a couple of years in Colorado running that state’s Youth Tennis Foundation and putting on professional events before Washington called. Then, Benton’s call to DC came to Denver. Through Dubuque.

“As I was finishing business school, a guy I knew from Dubuque had hit it big, Bob Lange. He invented the plastic ski boot. I went into business with him to develop the first plastic tennis racquet. We had a prototype and I suggested that we have a tournament in Denver. And in order to get any American players there, I had to talk to the Davis Cup captain named Donald Dell. We worked together and a year later, I moved here.”

Dell was looking for partners in a law firm that would eventually morph into sports management company ProServ years later. During his early days in Washington, he also served as the first National Executive Director of the National Junior Tennis League.

From DC, the firm represented big names in tennis like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Tracy Austin. They also managed top athletes throughout the world of sport, including Michael Jordan, Boomer Esiason, Dave Winfield and Payne Stewart. Yet the firm’s focus stuck with tennis for an important reason.

Mark McCormick started IMG and based it around golf and Donald started ProServ around tennis. After all, he was the Davis Cup captain and Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were on his team.

As a law firm, we couldn’t solicit clients. We could write a letter to a company saying ‘I’m writing on behalf of Arthur Ashe to see if you might have interest’. We couldn’t put out a promotional brochure for Arthur, so we started the company Proserv. It was an affiliated marketing company to the law firm. When our firm split in ’83, Donald and I kept the name ProServ and made it the major identity.

During the nineties, Benton founded the Worldwide Senior Tennis Circuit. He secured more than $35 million in corporate sponsorships at a time when interest in tennis had started to wane. He also saw the events as more than a tournament, but an “entertainment event” with theme nights, contests and celebrity matches.

After spending most of the last decade doing marketing consulting for clients like the ATP, the PGA, the Vic Braden Tennis Academy and national mentoring advocacy group MENTOR, he was hired as the CEO of the Tennis Center at College Park. Once again, politics and tennis intersected, as banker and Clinton Administration appointee Kenneth Brody needed someone to market the tennis facility he had built in College Park. And he went straight to Benton to market it.

So, now that this writer knows he’s talking to the right person for the question, is DC a tennis town?

It is, but it needs to regain the stature it once had, and not only Washington, but many other area of the country. Tennis is totally a bottom-up sport. The great majority of energy comes from the grassroots. And that’s what advances tournament play, pro play, collegiate play. Frankly, I think we got lazy in this sport. We had so much momentum, so much success and great stars and I think the leaders of tennis, everyone became deluded that tennis was driven by Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. And the fact of the matter is in the days of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, participation in tennis in the United States decreased. We didn’t develop the next generation of Nick Bollettieris, of Vic Bradens or Dennis Van Der Meer or Peter Burwash. Who are the biggest names of teaching pros these days? Still those guys. If I asked you that same question 35 years ago, you’d have the same answer.

Benton’s approach to bringing the game back is simple. “A kid should be introduced to tennis the same way they should be introduced to basketball, which is they should have fun, be on a team, and compete the first day. And then they get hooked on the fun. And when they improve, then you offer them instruction. How many kids would play basketball if they were required to take three weeks of dribbling lessons and two weeks of shooting lessons before they were allowed to play the game? You’d have a lot fewer basketball players, wouldn’t you?”

He’s already building JTCC for the future. “You need leadership from the bottom. We’re going into schools now. We have a program called “Game On”. We’re trying to spread this game as far and wide as we can. We’re working with Prince George’s County Parks. We’ll have five sites in the summer. I see a lot more highly-ranked kids. I see a lot more inner city stuff. Five years from now, I see a much larger percentage of our kids coming from the inner city. I see considerable expansion here. We can expand. We’ve got room.”

As far as accolades the Tennis Center and the Junior Tennis Champions Center have received recently, he’s not wasting any time basking in the glory. “Attention is fine, but substance is what counts. We were very under marketed when I got here. There’s no question about that. One of the main reasons to get your name out is to attract the best athletes and do fundraising, because we’re a non-profit. We depend on it.”

Benton is audibly proud of the hundreds of kids who have been a part of the program. When he talks about the JTCC talent, it’s as if he is the proud grandfather of all of them. You almost expect him to have a photograph of every one of them in his wallet. “Denis Kudla is #184 in the world right now. There are only one or two players younger than him who are ranked higher. Mitchell Frank is excelling at Virginia. Trice (Capra) is at Duke. Skylar Morton graduated from here in three years and is playing very well, #3 or 4 at UCLA. She should be a senior in high school.”

Then there’s the next class of Junior Champions. After we spoke about Riverdale’s FrancisTiafoe and Reisterstown’s Yancy Dennis, he was more than ready to talk up the local girls climbing the ladder. ”We have a girl named Elizabeth Scotty, who’s 10 and 16th in the country in under 12s. We are really strong in the 14 girls, including three girls from Baltimore, NadiaGizdova (Columbia, MD), Raveena Kingsley (Parkton, MD) and Jada Robinson (Reisterstown, MD). And next week, we’ll have a girl that is as good as any of them. Usue Arcornada. She’s coming with (longtime JTCC Coach) Frank Salazar. She’s originally from Argentina, but grew up in Puerto Rico. And she is a tiger.”

 

Steve Fogleman is a Baltimore, MD-based attorney when not covering tennis. He manages the website Tennis Maryland and can be followed on twitter @TennisMaryland for further updates.

Lived up to the hype!

Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim previewed the Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer Wimbledon final by suggesting that it was the most anticipated championship final in the history of our sport.  High praise indeed, but when does the competition outdistance the hype in this day and age?  Practically never is when.

Sunday’s match was simply astonishing.  Two absolute giants of our great game did battle for nearly five hours on the world’s most important court.  As John McEnroe of NBC Sports likened it to his 1980 final against Bjorn Borg, he acknowledged that there were, truly, no losers in this match.  No less an authority than Bud Collins called it the “best Wimbledon final ever.”

When McEnroe interviewed Roger Federer as he walked off the court, it was incredibly poignant.  They now share a bond, as both lost epic “Greatest Match of All Time” encounters on Wimbledon’s centre court.  Federer started to lose his composure and McEnroe offered a hug.  It would have been appropriate for Mac to have consoled Federer by telling him that more people have patted him on the back for his efforts in losing the 1980 final then for his three wins at the Big W.

A few weeks ago, Bill Simmons, a writer for ESPN Magazine, took some snarky shots at the sport of tennis.  In fact, his article- which was, by the way, abruptly removed from ESPN.com- was based on the premise that if he was offered the promise of the greatest match ever in the Wimbledon final, then he would still not choose to watch it.  I admire Simmons, and as a die-hard Boston sports fan, I always appreciate his (warped) perspective.  After reading his article, I actually felt defensive for a little while.  I thought: What the hell is he talking about!?!?  Thankfully, I am confident that if Simmons tuned into “Breakfast at Wimbledon” for Rafa and Roger, then his perspective would be considerably different.

Simmons offered some idiotic “solutions” to what ails our sport.  I presume that these were written in jest, because they were pretty lazy ideas.  In giving “The Sports Guy” more benefit of doubt, he has purposely written reverse jinx pieces before (such as, the Celtics cannot win this year) that have proved to be good luck for his hometown teams.  Maybe that was his true intention.  If so, then we all owe him a big Thank You.

Venus Williams did not lose a set in singles or doubles during the 2008 Championships.

Serena did not look happy (big surprise!) after losing in the final.  Expect her to dominate at Flushing Meadows in a few weeks.

Congratulations to Canada’s Daniel Nestor for re-gaining the world’s #1 ranking in doubles and completing the career grand slam in doubles.  Not bad for a 35 year old!

Farewell to Jonas Bjorkman.  Saturday marked his final Wimbledon appearance in The Championships.  Of course, guys are already “queuing up” to play in the senior invitational doubles with him next year.

The Bryan Brothers faced off against one another in the mixed doubles final.  Reportedly, they evenly split all of their prize money and endorsements.  I am guessing that would have been a pretty relaxed final round encounter.  Bob and Sammy Stosur straight-setted Mike and Katarina Srebotnik over on Court One while Federer and Nadal were playing their fifth set on Centre Court.

A few final thoughts on The Championships…

Thank heavens that there will be a retractable roof on the Centre Court beginning next year.  The delayed start to the gentlemen’s singles final, and the two subsequent rain delays, would have been avoidable.  This adversely affects several million world-wide fans.  In the end, the sport loses when viewers tune out.  I wish that Wimbledon had made- and then acted on- this decision thirty years ago, but it is a sign of progress.

One example of where there has been NO PROGRESS is the middle Sunday of The Championships, the tournament’s traditional “day of rest.”  Like millions of tennis fanatics all over the world, an ideal Sunday for me is a good breakfast, hit some balls and maybe even play a few sets, and then watch tennis for the rest of the day.  The AELTC sacrifices tens of millions of pounds (double that figure in US dollars!) in sponsorship revenue and international TV licensing fees by refusing play on that prime weekend slot.  By 2008 standards, it is outrageous, arrogant, and archaic.  It is also hypocritical, because the men’s final has been played on a Sunday for a quarter century.  They were lucky that the weather was uncharacteristically pleasant during the first week of the tournament.  Relying on luck each year is foolish though.

The Russian women made another huge splash, with 6 of the final 16 players hailing from Russia.  There were 17 Russian ladies in main draw of the singles.  That is impressive.  It is not unprecedented, however, and- in fact- pales in comparison to some years where the Americans reigned supreme.  In 1984, 64(!!!!) of the 128 singles players were American men.  The Yanks had the champion, the runner-up, two semi-finalists, four quarterfinalists, and 11 who reached the round of 16.  As American Frank Sinatra used to sing… it was a very good year.

Does everybody still think that Roger Federer will annihilate Pete Sampras’ all-time records?  It says here that he might get to 14 majors, but this is not a mortal lock.  The sport has changed before his very eyes.  He will need some luck (a Nadal injury, or a Novak Djokovic disappearance in the autumn) to finish as the year-end #1.  The expectation that this would be Federer’s fifth straight year at the top is fading, and he would still be one year shy of what Pete Sampras accomplished.

In Pete Sampras’ new book A Champion’s Mind, he lists (in no particular order) himself, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer, and Ivan Lendl as the top-five players of the Open era.  After his Wimbledon victory, I would place Rafael Nadal among John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and (probably) Mats Wilander in the next tier (with apologies to Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, John Newcombe, Gustavo Kuerten, and Jim Courier).

Speaking of Pistol Pete, it took him a little while to “solve” grass court tennis.  In fact, a surprising number (17) of different players registered wins over the once-and-still GOAT.  Our Editor in Chief, Manfred Wenas, has a little swag for the first reader to submit the complete list of players that owned a piece of Sampras’ scalp on grass.

World Team Tennis began its 33rd professional season in the US over the weekend.  Go to www.wtt.com for information about players, upcoming matches, standings, etc.  It is a great opportunity to watch past, present, and future Wimbledon champions.  It is also the only competition in tennis that prioritizes doubles and team-play over singles.

Venus and Serena Williams are shattering the myth that good doubles teams would beat great singles players who pair up together.  They won their 7th major doubles title together, and it would be safe to assume that they do not practice the nuances of doubles too frequently.

At the beginning of Rafael Nadal’s ascent up the rankings, I asked Wayne Bryan (whose sons Bob and Mike were ranked #1 in the world at the time) who would win a match between his boys and Federer-Nadal.  He hedged his bets, but thought that his boys would pull through.  He did suggest, however, that if Federer were to play with Lleyton Hewitt, who had more doubles success at that stage, then he thinks the result would be reversed.  So, I will pose these questions to our readers, who would win the follow mythical doubles matches?

1)      Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer vs. Bob and Mike Bryan

2)      Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi vs. Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde

3)      Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg vs. Ken Flach and Robert Seguso

4)      John McEnroe and Peter Fleming vs. John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl (yes, you read that correctly)

5)      Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors vs. Bob Lutz and Stan Smith

Tennis Week in Newport is always one of my favorite times of the year.  This year’s class of inductees is highlighted by Michael Chang, and supported by contributors Mark McCormack and Eugene Scott.  Visit www.TennisFame.com for a wealth of information about these new- and, in fact, all- hall of famers.

When Gene Scott died suddenly in 2006, it was an awful loss for our sport.  It also, naturally, affected hundreds (more like thousands, actually) of people personally.  I had developed a great fondness for Gene Scott and treasured the time I got to spend with him.  I believed that- for some unknown reason- he had taken a liking to me, and wished to help me along in my career.  During the outpouring of grief, his dear friends at Tennis Week created a Web site (www.EugeneLScott.com) where people were urged to offer their tributes to the great man.  Reading some of these tributes, a few years after his passing, left me feeling as sad as the day he died.  Back then I wrote:

Gene Scott was like the North Star. Speaking with him or reading his column… he’d always bring you to your senses. Nobody else had his vantage point, and he knew it. That never kept him from sharing though, and his generosity was unparalleled. His departure has already left a terrible void. Goddamn that he is gone. Lucky that he touched so many while he was around.

I wish that Gene Scott had been enshrined into the International Tennis Hall of Fame a decade ago.  His induction speech would have been brilliant.  Hall of Famer John McEnroe will offer his testimonial and introduce Gene’s wife, Polly, who will accept on his behalf this weekend.

Who else should be inducted into the Hall of Fame?  I offer a dozen candidates who I believe ought to be bronzed:

1)      Donald Dell.

2)      Monica Seles.

3)      Andre Agassi.

4)      Gustavo Kuerten.

5)      Jennifer Capriati.

6)      Martina Hingis.

7)      Nick Bollettieri.

8)      Dennis Van Der Meer.

9)      Michael Stich.

10)  Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

11)  Justine Henin.

12)  Todd Woodbridge & Mark Woodforde.

Of course I will be in America’s Resort City (Newport, Rhode Island) this week to watch the best little tournament in the world and then enjoying the induction ceremony of the latest inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.  If you are a fan of this great sport, you MUST make a pilgrimage to Newport.

While at the Newport Casino, I will spend a lot of time rehashing points and moments and drama from the “greatest tennis match ever played” with old and new tennis friends.  Congratulations Rafa!  Congratulations Roger!

Note by the Editor-in-Chief: The little swag for the first reader to submit the complete list of players that owned a piece of Sampras’ scalp on grass only goes for those who use the comment system down below on TennisGrandstand.com. Other submissions will not count.