Thursday, August 16, 2012

Welcome to tennis heaven

Center court at the Seascape Sports Club in Aptos, Calif., features permanent
bench seating for 1,180 fans. Photo by Paul Bauman
   If you have to be in tennis' minor leagues, there are worse places to play than Aptos, Calif.
   There's a reason the Comerica Bank Challenger, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last week, is the second-longest-running men's event on the USTA Pro Circuit behind Little Rock, Ark., (32 years). Actually, there are several reasons.
   Let's start with the glorious weather. For one week, the pros can escape the oppressive heat on the various North American summer circuits. While they toil on the court, fans bask in sunny, 75-degree weather. During the daily featured match at 5:30 p.m., a cool breeze from the nearby Pacific Ocean wafts over the Seascape Sports Club. It does get chilly as the sun sets, but it's nothing that a sweatshirt can't solve.
   Then there's the beautiful setting. The club, 80 miles south of San Francisco, is perched on a hill about a quarter-mile from the ocean. Unfortunately, trees block the view, except from one small area near a side court.
   Seascape's center court is one of the few at the minor league level with permanent seating. Dark green wooden benches surrounding the court accommodate 1,180 fans. A nice touch is that the matchup for the evening's featured match is shown on a board above the east stands.
   The tournament's purse, $100,000, is the highest for a Challenger in the United States. Steve Johnson, a wild card who turned pro last month after a stellar career at USC, pocketed $14,400 for winning the singles title. Ticket prices rise from $16 for Monday through Thursday to $30 (50 percent discount for seniors 50 and over) for the final.
   The Comerica Bank Challenger attracts a mix of prospects such as Johnson, 22, journeymen such as 204th-ranked Alex Kuznetsov and veterans returning from injuries such as 2005 U.S. Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri. Past champions include International Tennis Hall of Famer Patrick Rafter (1993) and Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray (2005). 
   Beginning this year, the Comerica Bank Challenger was moved back three weeks to Aug. 4-12, when there's less competition from other tournaments. The USTA wanted the Comerica to attract a better field to provide more competition for Americans, tournament director Judy Welsh said.        
   The strategy worked, as the cutoff for direct acceptance in the main draw rose from No. 389 last year to No. 275 this year. Three top-100 players (No. 78 Brian Baker, No. 92 Igor Andreev and No. 93 Rajeev Ram) entered the tournament vs. one last year (No. 62 Igor Kunitsyn). The field might improve even more next year without the Olympics being held the previous week.
   In short, Aptos is minor-league tennis heaven.
   "The tournament was great, the environment was awesome, and I hope to come back next year," Colombia's Robert Farah, the runner-up to his former USC teammate, Johnson, said in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
   Perhaps the best tribute to the Comerica Bank Challenger, though, came from 2011 champion Laurynas Grigelis. The 20-year-old Lithuanian didn't enter the 2012 tournament because he has slumped recently and didn't feel good about his game, according to the woman who housed him last year. But he enjoyed the area so much that he returned for a few days the week before the tournament to visit his 2011 host family and surf.
   Aptos notes -- Welsh has served as the tournament director for all 25 years.
   "It's a passion," she said. "I like trying to figure out who the next star will be."
   Welsh lives in Palm Desert, Calif., and stays in Aptos for three months before each Comerica Bank Challenger to work full-time on it.     
   --Johnson has a rather short fuse. It took him all of three games in the second round against Dmitry Tursunov, a Russian who has residences in Moscow and the Sacramento suburb of Folsom, to receive a warning for an audible obscenity. Tursunov retired from the match with a groin injury while trailing 4-6, 0-0.   Johnson, by the way, wears a necklace with a cross while he's playing.
   --This year's tournament featured three former top-20 players (Ginepri, Andreev and Tursunov) and the last four NCAA singles champions (Johnson in 2012 and 2011, Stanford's Bradley Klahn in 2010 and Mississippi's Devin Britton in 2009).
   --Tursunov described his second Olympics experience as "very brief." He played one match, losing in the first round to Feliciano Lopez of Spain 6-7 (5), 6-2, 9-7 at Wimbledon.
   "It didn't really feel like the Olympics," said Tursunov, adding that he did not watch any other events. "We stayed in the Wimbledon village, not the athletes' village. It felt like another Wimbledon. If you get to the medal round, it might feel completely different."
   At least Tursunov didn't have to play Roger Federer. Tursunov lost to the Swiss star twice at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, falling in the first round of singles and (with Mikhail Youzhny) in the second round of doubles to eventual gold medalists Federer and Stansilas Wawrinka.  
   Tursunov's Olympic career probably is over. He will turn 30 in December.
   --Another tournament, another hair color for John Paul Fruttero. The doubles specialist showed up in Aptos with white spiked hair. Fruttero is old (31), but not that old. At the Natomas Challenger in Sacramento last October, his hair was blue and gold in honor of his alma mater, Cal.
   What's next, J.P.? Black and orange at this year's Natomas Challenger? After all, Halloween is only three weeks later.

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