By Mark Preston, USTA Magazine
THERE’S JUST SOMETHING ABOUT THE START OF a season.
If you’ve ever followed sport—any sport—you know the feeling. It’s that one-of-a-kind anticipation and eagerness that kicks in when a season begins.
From day one, you’re hooked, following the ups and downs and random turns of those in whom you have a rooting interest. You know that the proverbial "Big Event" is waiting at season’s end, and you always hope that those you’re pulling for are going to be serious contenders for that ultimate prize.
Traditionally, the concept of the “season” had never really been a part of tennis, but that changed with the introduction of the US Open Series in 2004.
The US Open Series features the world’s top pros in a city-to-city chase that takes them across North America through 10 tournaments, nine cities, two countries and six weeks, ultimately ending at this sport’s ultimate event—the US Open. Now, tennis has a very real season, and tennis fans have discovered that singular sort of season savoring that had never before been a part of their sport.
It has been dubbed “The Greatest Road Trip in Sports,” and indeed, the US Open Series annually proves a most memorable trek—always a journey full of unparalleled excitement, substantial reward and more than a few surprises, for players and fans alike.
"Sports in America is about telling a season-long story with a big finale,” says Arlen Kantarian, USTA Chief Executive of Professional Tennis. “And tennis now has that platform. Our goal with the US Open Series was to elevate the sport of tennis and make it easier for the fans to connect with the game."
Fans have connected with the concept—and the US Open Series has indeed helped to lift the visibility and popularity of the sport.
In its first three years of existence, the US Open Series has more than doubled television viewership of tennis during the summer season, and increased total US Open Series event -attendance to nearly 1 million fans.
In addition to making the summer tournament schedule more meaningful, the US Open Series has made watching those tournaments much easier. In another first for the sport in the U.S., the US Open Series introduced an easy-to-follow weekly TV schedule, which this year features more than 200 hours of coverage from US Open Series events, including live back-to-back tournament finals on Sundays.
“The US Open Series has been one of the most significant and important initiatives in tennis since the advent of the Open game,” says ESPN’s Cliff Drysdale.
"It’s done more than successfully connect a series of tournaments; it has succeeded in connecting tennis with a legion of fans—both established and new. It’s a concept that’s been good for the players, good for the fans, good for the media—and great for the game."
All told, the 2006 USOS—combined with last year’s US Open—generated a record 1.6 million attendees, 137 million TV viewers, 340 live TV hours and more than 27.8 million website visits.
All of these impressive numbers translate directly into an impressive increase in tennis’ fan base. And importantly, by elevating the profile of the pro game and creating new stars and more fan interest, the US Open Series directly supports the USTA’s mission to grow the game.
“Arthur Ashe once said, ‘The best player development program is a successful professional sport,’” notes Drysdale.
"That is absolutely true. If you become fascinated with a sport on a professional level on television, you’re more inclined to go and play, and if you’re a player, you’re more inclined to go to these events and watch on television. Those things are all interconnected.”
Here are the basics of the US Open Series:
- Ten North American hard-court events linked together under the US Open umbrella.
- More than 100 hours of live, national TV coverage on ESPN2, NBC and CBS (see schedule, page 17), including back-to-back live tournament finals on Sunday. In addition, there will be more than 100 hours of additional US Open Series coverage on The Tennis Channel.
- The US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge, a first-of-its-kind player bonus system (see box above) that rewards those who perform best throughout the six-week season with bonus prize money payouts at the US Open.
- A multi-million-dollar advertising and marketing campaign, aimed at promoting the events and the players in order to help raise the profile of the sport and reach beyond the sports pages to expand tennis’ fan base.
OVER THE LAST THREE YEARS, the USOS has served as a proving ground for a number of exciting innovations in the sport. It was here that the "US Open Blue" courts debuted, a playing surface that not only makes the ball more visible to fans in the stands and those watching at home on TV, but also creates a signature look and identifiable link between these events and the US Open.
Of course, no innovation in professional tennis has been more dramatic—or more of an immediate hit—than the introduction of instant replay and the player-challenge system. It’s almost hard to believe that this wildly popular system made its debut just last year. Now, it’s become an integral part of most tournaments, a fan—and player—favorite wherever it’s employed.
"The fans just love it," says Drysdale. "It adds so much to a match. When there’s a match that doesn’t have it, it now feels as if something’s missing. And I think the players genuinely feel now that the better player is much more likely to win, because in the course of a match, you do get calls that affect the outcome. This makes the matches more fair for players and more entertaining for fans. What’s not to like about that?"
Of course, at the heart of the success of the US Open Series is an unprecedented TV package, providing a level of coverage—and a quality of coverage—not seen in tennis before the Series came to be. "What really connects fans and players is television," says Kantarian. "And a unified Series with a consistent television platform benefits everyone."
Indeed, throughout the summer, the US Open Series provides one-stop shopping for fans eager for tennis on TV. Combined US Open Series and US Open broadcasts make up the strongest summertime package in sports—a whopping 340-plus hours of live coverage—more than any other sport in that same time period.
The 2007 Open Series shifts into high gear on July 16 with the men’s Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles, and the 10-tournament star-studded schedule promises more than a few scintillating storylines.
Keeping that interest high among fans—and most certainly among players—is the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge, which links players’ performances at Series’ events to their singles prize money at the US Open. The top three men’s and women’s finishers will qualify for bonus bucks at the end of the Flushing fortnight (see page 13), with the top man and woman playing for a potential $1 million bonus.
Last year, Andy Roddick prevailed for the second straight year as the US Open Series men’s champion—and then reached the final of the US Open, pocketing an additional $500,000 in bonus prize money. Ana Ivanovic was the Series’ women’s champion last year, but the big winner was Maria Sharapova, who finished second in the US Open Series but earned $500,000 in bonus prize money by winning the US Open women’s singles title.
And so a fourth season of US Open Series excitement is set to commence, the greatest road trip in sports ready to roll out. Ten tournaments, nine cities, two countries, six weeks. Countless thrills, one sizzling summer.
There’s just something about the start of a season.
US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge
Thanks to the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge, players who win the most during the six-week US Open Series have the most to win when they arrive at the US Open. The top three men and women finishers in US Open Series play will qualify for bonus prize money at the US Open. Players must earn points in at least two US Open Series events to be included in the final standings.
First-place finishers in the US Open Series will come to Flushing Meadows with a shot at a potential $1 million in bonus prize money, should they also win the US Open. Second-place finishers in the Open Series will compete for a possible $500,000 in bonus prize money and third-place finishers will play for up to $250,000 in bonus cash.
Last year, Andy Roddick captured his second straight US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge and claimed $500,000 in bonus prize money for his runner-up finish at the 2006 US Open. Maria Sharapova, who finished second in the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge women’s standings, took home $500,000 on top of the $1.2 million she received for winning the women’s singles tournament. And two years ago, Kim Clijsters won $2.2
million—the largest payout in women’s sports history—by virtue of her first-place finish in the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge and her ensuing victory at the 2005 US Open.
Thanks to the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge, players have at least a million extra reasons to play often—and play well—this summer.
Learn more about the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge.