By Chris Starrs, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.com
ATLANTA – At what other professional tennis tournament would you hear the music of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Patti Page and Rosemary Clooney emanating from a host of street-corner speakers?
The soothing music – and a ton of other amenities -- comes courtesy of Atlantic Station, a live-work-play development in downtown Atlanta that opened in 2005 and this week is hosting the BB&T Atlanta Open, its first tennis event as part of the Emirates Airline US Open Series.
Located on 138 acres on the site of an old steel mill, Atlantic Station is expected to be the home of the tournament for the next four years, said Tournament Director Robert Bryant earlier this week. The Atlanta Open this year moved to downtown after being held last year at the Racquet Club of the South in the Atlanta suburbs.
The venue’s three court settings – the Stadium Court, the adjacent Grandstand Court and Court 3, located across State Street from the development – have been placed in parking lots, with a comprehensive vendors’ row and the heart of Atlantic Station, with its myriad restaurants and shops located nearby. Surrounding the courts are skyscrapers, with Interstate 85 in close proximity.
Five days into the tournament, Bryant pronounced himself pleased with this marriage of professional tennis and sleek urban development.
"We want to get through the week and get through the weather, but as far as the site itself, it’s absolutely been everything we hoped it could be," he said, adding that ticket sales have already exceeded last year by 30 percent. "What it’s done in terms of corporate participation and title sponsors (is) critical for everybody in every sport and every event. Solidifying that had a lot to do with (choosing) the site."
‘We need more places like this’
Atlantic Station is no stranger to events, as it played host to an AVP Beach Volleyball tournament three years ago and has weekly outdoor concerts and other attractions. And fans who have ventured into the neighborhood this week clearly like what they see.
"I’m walking around and experiencing it, and I’m really enjoying it," said Bryon Graves, whose brother Erik Graves was a wild-card entry in the singles draw. "We need more places like this. The sport needs more exposure, and we should do it in other places so other people can be exposed to it."
A native of Chicago who has lived in the Atlanta area for several years, Graves said he appreciates seeing top-level tennis in a downtown setting.
"I like the convenience of it," he said. "In a lot of places I’ve been, especially in Chicago, you can’t really get into the downtown area and move around the way they’ve got this set up. It’s very convenient, it’s right near the expressway, and there are a lot of different places. It’s just nice and very unique."
"It’s really cool," added Larren Holt, who also lives near Atlanta. "It reminds me of the outer courts at the US Open. I like the intimacy here. I think they did a good job. It looks really nice. It’s a great job with a temporary setting, for sure."
The players – who are staying in hotels within walking distance of the courts and are feted in a decidedly cushy lounge just a few yards away from the Stadium Court – have also expressed their appreciation for the venue.
Roddick: ‘A win-win’
"A lot of times, we look at it from our perspective, but in order for tennis to grow, we’ve got to flip that and see what’s best as far as the fans (are concerned)," said Andy Roddick, whose next stop after Atlanta will be London for the Olympic Games. "Being located in the city is a great thing, especially in what seems to be an up-and-coming area. I can see where it would be a win-win. There will be a lot of foot traffic in this area because of tennis this week, and I think it fits… It’s outside the box and you don’t see an event like this very often. I think it’s cool. There aren’t a lot of venues I go to where I say this is a first.
"Everything is close by – it’s not often when you can walk to and from practice, and that’s kind of nice. The stadium seems fine. I didn’t know what it was going to look like in the middle of downtown, but the sightlines in the stadium are still normal. I was worried a little bit about these towering buildings in the back (and its effect) with depth perception, but you don’t really see them on the Stadium Court, so I think they’ve done a good job… of making it comfortable."
"I’ve played in a lot of different conditions all through the minor leagues of tennis, the Futures and Challengers, and you wouldn’t believe some of the sites you have to play at and some of the things you have to deal with," added Ryan Harrison, another Olympian. "Nothing will be unseen and unheard of for me. I love playing here."
Former Southern California standout (and two-time NCAA singles champion) Steve Johnson, who recently turned pro, is accustomed to a slightly different set up in the college ranks, but he’s enjoying the Atlantic Station atmosphere.
"I think it’s great," said Johnson, who on Monday posted his first ATP victory. "I felt a little embarrassed the first day when I called for a car to pick me up at the hotel. And they said, ‘Well, it’s only like two minutes (away).’ And they weren’t kidding, so I felt kind of bad calling them. This whole area is great, the way they have the courts sunk in down there. It’s really a special place to play, and it’s something I’ll never forget."
Having four members of the U.S. Olympic team in the tournament was definitely a plus, and Bryant thinks even more top-flight players will want to sign up once they hear about Atlantic Station from an important segment of the tennis community.
"Mardy Fish’s wife Stacey said, ‘The word’s going to get out. Everybody’s going to want to play because their wives and girlfriends will want to come here. Here we can be doing something all the time and still be able to watch the matches,’" he said.
Rain, rain, go away
One song that hasn’t been heard, but could well be the theme of the tournament thus far, is "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head." Play was halted for about 90 minutes Monday and nearly three hours on Tuesday due to rainfall, and Wednesday’s late-afternoon matches were suspended after less than 10 minutes due to the wet stuff and were running some five hours behind.
"You kind of expect (rain), and we’ve been getting matches in," said Bryant. "If nothing else, it’s unfortunate from a fan perspective, but it does at least mean that about midnight I get to watch some matches.
"It’s not an irritant because it’s so expected. But it does cool everything down – if you stick it out. If you’re into (tennis) and you’re here, you’re getting a good match, and you’re getting it in cool weather."
But the inclement climes probably haven’t hurt Atlantic Station’s businesses, which have no doubt seen their share of tennis fans this week.
Meehan’s Public House recently opened at the development, and corporate chef Jordan Wakefield said he and his staff have been kept busy.
"We just opened this past Friday," said Wakefield. "We’re brand new. It’s been going great. It’s obviously a double-edged sword with the tennis tournament starting. We’re learning as we go along, but we’ve seen a lot of people come through so far. We couldn’t be happier to be part of Atlantic Station and the tournament.
"Although we don’t have anything to compare it to yet, we’re very happy with the tennis traffic. Even though we’re new to the neighborhood, we’ve seen some great traffic, and we’ve gotten some good feedback from our guests who are here for the tennis tournament."