Los Angeles is a city generally known more for outrageous fads than its reverence for tradition. (Think hula hoops and mini-skirts.) And yet this summer would have marked the 87th anniversary of the L.A. Open tennis tournament. Originally the Pacific Southwest Championships, it began in 1927. It was won that year by Bill Tilden, who dominated tennis throughout the 1920s in what many historians consider a golden age of sports.
Under the stewardship of Perry T. Jones, L.A. Tennis Club’s iron-fisted majordomo, the Pacific Southwest was regarded as the second most prestigious tennis tournament in the U.S., right behind the U.S. Championships. (Now the U.S. Open.) The packed crowds at LATC were filled with Hollywood stars who added glamour to the already glamorous sport. But sadly the L.A. Open is no longer.
This past December, much to my dismay, I received an e-mail from the Farmer’s Classic at UCLA, the current incarnation of the Pacific Southwest. Due to financial losses in recent years, they announced they were folding the tent on professional tennis in L.A. and, oh by the way, have a happy holiday season.
As a fan of big time tennis and also of L.A. history, it was a double whammy. One only has to look at the roll call of past winners of this tournament to measure the loss. The list is a who’s who of tennis royalty: Gonzales, Laver, Rosewall, Emerson, McEnroe, Connors, Agassi, Sampras, Becker and Chang, to name but only a few.
The winner in 1966 was Allen Fox, a UCLA alum and former NCAA singles and doubles champion. Fox describes the Pacific Southwest of the 1950s as a cultural happening. The greatest tennis players on the planet, from all the cosmopolitan capitals from around the globe, descended upon the relatively provincial Los Angeles of that era. The tournament put L.A. tennis on the world stage.
Alas, those days are gone forever, or so it seemed. After the Farmer’s e-mail, I wrote a couple of columns and whined to friends about how much I longed for the “good old days.” Fortunately, two ambitious and energetic players, one retired and one on tour, are doing something about returning pro tennis back to the City of Angels.
Outspoken and occasionally controversial Justin Gimelstob, a Santa Monica resident and former UCLA tennis All-American, is a polished TV analyst for the Tennis Channel and NBC. At 36 and retired, he’s a two-time Grand Slam winner, having captured the French and Australian Open Mixed Doubles titles with Venus Williams. Gimelstob is also good friends with Mardy Fish, former no. 7 in the world who’s won six ATP titles and a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics.
The two reached out to the tennis community and, after a lot of networking, arm twisting and perhaps borderline begging, came up with the first inaugural Los Angeles Tennis Challenge to be held at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 4. The players will be donating their time and expenses, meaning all of the proceeds are going to charity. And wait until you see who’s playing.
Novak Djokovic, the no. 1 player in the world, and recent winner of his third straight Australian Open (Open Era record) has never played tennis in L.A. But on March 4 he’ll be facing Fish in the main event singles match. He’ll also be teaming up with his boyhood tennis idol, Pete Sampras, the 14-time Grand Slam champion and perhaps the greatest American player of all-time, as the two take on perhaps the best doubles team of all-time, Mike and Bob Bryan.
All the Bryans have done in their “modest” tennis careers is win 13 Grand Slam doubles titles, an Olympic gold, and racked up a 20-3 Davis Cup record. The Bryans are very comfortable at UCLA, having won an all-time best six doubles titles at the L.A. Tennis Center. (Yes, but can they beat Novak and Pete? Actually it probably should be worded the other way around.)
“It’s going to be an unforgettable night,” Gimelstob said, “and we’re proud to be bringing the highest caliber of professional tennis back to L.A. and playing indoors at the historic and newly renovated Pauley Pavilion.” And set the DVR as the L.A. Tennis Challenge will be broadcast by the Tennis Channel.
Sponsored by Audi, Esurance, K-Swiss, DailyNews.com and 10sballs.com, the star-studded event is destined to draw a celebrity-packed crowd. In the meantime, Gimelstob and Fish have secured a three-year deal with UCLA and hope for next year to include top women players such as Maria Sharapova.
It’ll take a lot to match the glory of the Pacific Southwest Championships but this is a tremendous start to hopefully a new L. A. tradition. Who knows, I may even have to stop whining about missing the good old days.