“When this job opportunity came up, I knew nothing about Memphis. Nada.”
Erin Mazurek — the new general manager of the Memphis Open — may well personify a renaissance for professional tennis in Memphis. Hired last fall by the Unites States Tennis Association to oversee the newly named Memphis Open, Mazurek arrived in Memphis with more knowledge of a two-line pass than a crosscourt backhand. She spent five years, you see, as director of private event sales for the Detroit Red Wings, among the most powerful brands in the National Hockey League. Her task with the Red Wings was maximizing that powerful brand name for revenue-generating events when the hockey team was not playing at Joe Louis Arena. She wasn’t selling hockey players. She was instead creating a buzz-worthy atmosphere, an environment where people wanted (and maybe needed) to be seen.
The Racquet Club of Memphis and its longtime tournament are in desperate need of a buzz booster.
There was a time when a person holding Mazurek’s job merely had to announce the players coming to Memphis and lines would form for tickets. Bjorn Borg won the first championship in 1977. Jimmy Connors won four titles between 1978 and 1984. Other Memphis champions: John McEnroe (1980), Stefan Edberg (1985 and 1987), Andre Agassi (1988), Ivan Lendl (1991), Pete Sampras (1996). All seven of those tennis legends finished at least one year atop the world rankings.
But since the turn of the century — the dawn of the Roger Federer Era, you might say — fields at the Racquet Club have been decidedly less buzz-worthy. Andy Roddick — the tournament’s top seed every year from 2003 to 2011 — was an annual draw, a rare American ranked in the top 10, and won three championship here (2002, 2009, and 2011). Other recent champs, though, were names you didn’t see or hear during the second week of coverage at Wimbledon: Joachim Johansson, Kenneth Carlsen, Steve Darcis, Jurgen Melzer. While Federer and fellow stars Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray played most of their tennis overseas, the Racquet Club was left to sell what amounted to ATP leftovers. The tournament’s fortunes seemed to bottom out in 2013 when it was played without a title sponsor (the U.S. National Indoor) for the first time in more than two decades.
If you listen to Mazurek, though, pro tennis in Memphis is on the verge of a bounce-back much like the fuzzy spheres fans will follow this week. “I think [the previous owners] lost some of the pulse on the community,” she says. “This tournament has to be sold from the grassroots up. It’s as much a community event as it is a professional sports-and-entertainment function. You have to remember there are people at the core, relationships.
“We need more pre-match entertainment,” emphasizes Mazurek. “More sizzle to the show. Let’s face it: There are people who go to a Grizzlies game and barely pay attention to what’s happening on the court. I’m that person who loves the atmosphere, the music, the promotions, the branding. If we’re doing our job right, this will be a festival for tennis fans and casual fans.”
An early sign of better days ahead was the announcement last month that ServiceMaster has signed on as the tournament’s presenting sponsor (not the same as a title sponsor, but significant). Japan’s Kei Nishikori — the world’s fifth-ranked player and a finalist at last year’s U.S. Open — is back to defend his title. America’s top-ranked player, John Isner (No. 18) and South Africa’s Kevin Anderson (No. 15) will each be contending for his first Memphis title. Federer’s absence, like Nadal’s, has become a fact of life for the Memphis tournament, and so be it. Let’s give the new blood at the Racquet Club a chance to wow us. World-class tennis comes in many shapes and sizes. This week, its home is Memphis, Tennessee.