Column: Women’s tennis stars headed to San Diego for a new, historic tournament

Column: Women’s tennis stars headed to San Diego for a new, historic tournament

The staid name of the women’s tennis tournament coming to San Diego in October fails to sell the real and significant sizzle.

The San Diego Open WTA 500 will land Oct. 8-16 at Barnes Tennis Center. It hardly bear-hugs the marketing potential of memorable monikers like the Super Bowl, Frozen Four or Royal Rumble.

Why does the tournament matter so mightily?

Because it means serve-and-volley royalty like Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, Madison Keys and former world No. 1 Simona Halep could be lured to play, with Grand Slam winner Serena Williams and sister Venus offering a reason to dream. Because it becomes the highest-level tournament — men’s or women’s — to be played in San Diego proper.

Because, in a city starved for the cream of the crop in sports, here they come.

“You can see the best athletes in the world up close and personal,” said tournament director Ryan Redondo, the CEO and GM of Barnes and Youth Tennis San Diego. “It’s a boutique-style event, so they’ll be 10 feet away from you at times.

“You want to be in the Olympic Village? You’ll be in the Olympic Village here.”

San Diego Open WTA 500

The inaugural tournament will feature the world’s top women’s tennis players.

When, where: Oct. 8-16, Barnes Tennis Center.

Format: The $823,000 tournament will feature a 32-player singles draw and 16-team doubles draw.

More info:

The last time WTA tennis was played in San Diego County was 2015, a 125-level tournament at Aviara that was moved to Hawaii. The Mercury Insurance Open, which was called the Southern California Open during its final lap in 2013, shifted to Tokyo.

Since then, WTA crickets.

Redondo, Southern California Tennis Association Foundation President Bill Kellogg and SCTAF board member and San Diego Open co-chair Jack McGrory decided to use the $600,000 ATP 250 men’s tournament played at Barnes last September and October as a springboard.

They began chasing down tournament options, eventually landing the $823,000 WTA event. The contract with owner Octagon is for three years, with a two-year option that could extend the stay to at least five years. The event had been anchored in Luxembourg for three decades.

The San Diego area once claimed historic connections to top-level women’s tennis. Grand Slam event winners Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf, Tracy Austin, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams and more have won titles here.

Then, in large part because of the tennis surge in Asia, American tournaments like those in San Diego drifted away.

Suddenly, it’s back. The tournament becomes one of just three stand-alone, 500-level-and-above WTA tournaments in the US — joining San Jose and Charleston, SC

“It’s amazing to have professional sports in this city,” Redondo said. “In a place like San Diego, why don’t we have more of that? We should have things like that here.”

He’s right, of course.

The thought of those types of women’s players roaming the courts at Barnes reminds us that the swaying palms and sunshine of San Diego still have the power to flirt with big-boy and big-girl sports.

Another reminder: There are people willing to go out and sell the city, while reimagining what’s possible.

“It’s awesome that we got this,” Redondo said. “It’s going to be a big-time event.”

Forbes recently reported that last year’s US Open final between Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez averaged 2.4 million television viewers, outdrawing the men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev.

The top three women’s sports earners in terms of endorsements and prize money in 2021, Forbes added, were all tennis players. Osaka pocketed the most for a women’s athlete in history, followed by the Williams sisters.

The stars who could play at Barnes staggers.

“This will bring the best players in the world to San Diego,” Redondo said.

One fortunate scheduling bonus for the new tournament revolves around the Guadalajara Open, which begins immediately after the San Diego Open. It’s a 1000-level tournament, meaning the spike in prize money and points make a competitive stop up the coast convenient and attractive.

Riding coattails benefits both.

“I think that’s always a factor on the tour,” Redondo said. “If you’re going from Romania or Asia to the US and back to Europe again, it’s a nightmare. If you can hit a 500 and 1000 (easy on one trip), that’s ideal.

“You want the shortest trip and highest level of events you can get. It gives us an opportunity to have a really strong field.”

The story of elite women’s tennis in San Diego began with the Virginia Slims of San Diego at Balboa Tennis Club in 1971. Tournaments at La Costa Resort & Spa later operated under multiple names, uninterrupted from 1991-2007.

In the last six years, though, top players hammered thundering backhands in other places.

“Given the prestige of the tournament,” Redondo said, “it’s awesome to have one in San Diego.”

Now it’s time to flex the marketing muscle.

The Battle at Barnes? Hey, it’s a start.

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