February 14, 2011
MICHAEL WADDELL | Special to The Daily NewsPrint
The Racquet Club of Memphis is in full swing this week as it hosts the 2011 Regions Morgan Keegan Championships & Cellular South Cup through Feb. 20.
Big improvements to The Racquet Club, like new video boards for the fans and new locker rooms for players and trainers, are helping to elevate the tournament experience for everyone.
“Fernando Verdasco said it’s a fantastic atmosphere to play in, and Andy Roddick said there is nowhere else you can get this intimate of a setting,” said tournament director Peter Lebedevs, who has been associated with the tournament since 1988. “Our furthest seat from the back wall to the edge of the court is 62 feet. The players and fans really feel it.”
Tournament officials expect close to 60,000 fans this year. Last year’s event drew 53,000 fans, which was up 28 percent from the year before.
“Our footprint is growing. We have about 60 groups bringing in fans from 11 different states this year,” Lebedevs said.
The annual tournaments, which started Friday, are expected to generate more than $4 million in revenue and expenses this year.
The Racquet Club is the only private club in the world to host a combined indoor professional men’s and women’s event. Nearly every inch of the 180,000-square-foot club has been renovated since new ownership took over in 2008 when Golden Set LLC – which wholly owns Tennis Club of Memphis LLC (owner and operator of the club) and GS Tournaments LLC (owner and operator of the tournaments) – bought The Racquet Club for $4.4 million.
New this year for fans will be video boards installed on the courts for displaying in-game stats and video footage. Future upgrades are likely to include Hawk Eie, tennis’ instant replay system, which works in conjunction with the new video boards.
Also different from last year will be a redesigned food court.
“We’ve learned a lot just from fan experience and listening to club members and patrons of the tournament,” said Brian Sullivan, a member of The Racquet Club’s ownership group. “We made some adjustments from a food and beverage perspective, with more offerings and more places to get food and drinks.”
Other major renovations include a complete overhaul of the men’s and women’s locker rooms, which were completed just before last year’s tournaments. Improvements include new steam rooms and player lounges with separate entrances. Local company Grinder, Taber, and Grinder Inc. handled the construction.
“Sam Querrey said it’s the best locker room he’s walked into on tour,” said Lebedevs, referring to the tennis pro. “And trainers have told us they absolutely love the changes.”
The Regions Morgan Keegan Championships is one of just 11 “500-level” ATP events worldwide, making it the fifth-most significant men’s tennis tournament in the United States.
The men’s side boasts the top four American men’s players and six of the top 20 men’s players in the world. The field will feature top seed Andy Roddick (No. 8 in the world), Fernando Verdasco (No. 9), 2010 RMKC champion Querrey, top 15 talent Gael Monfils, 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, former RMKC champion Lleyton Hewitt, and top Americans Mardy Fish and James Blake.
“It’s the best field we’ve ever had on the men’s side,” Lebedevs said. “Roddick is even skipping the tournament before that he’s always played, and he’s practicing up in New York with Jim Courier. He’s coming in three days earlier than normal to get ready.”
The men’s winner will get $264,000, and the overall prize money for the men is $1.2 million.
Nine men’s ATP World Champions have won the Memphis tournament, beginning with Bjorn Borg in 1977 and including Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and Roddick.
The women’s Cellular South Cup is headlined by 2006 winner and 2010 finalist, Sofia Arvidsson, and Alla Kudryavtseva. Also headlining is 2009 U.S. Open quarterfinalist Melanie Oudin.
This will be the women’s tournament’s 10th year in Memphis, after it relocated from Oklahoma City to The Racquet Club in 2002. Since moving to Memphis, the tournament has been won by notable players Lisa Raymond, Vera Zvonareva, Sofia Arvidsson, Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Victoria Azarenka, and 2010 champion Maria Sharapova.
Corporate sponsors this year include Regions Morgan Keegan, Smith & Nephew, Nike, Cisco and Corona.
The tournaments will be broadcast in 33 countries around the world thanks to a TV deal with the Tennis Channel. Both men’s singles semifinal matches and the women’s singles final will appear live on Saturday, followed by the live men’s singles championship on Sunday.
The ATP also plans to film a “Memphis Uncovered” project during the tournaments for the Tennis Channel, looking at highlights of the city.
Andy Roddick returns to James Blake during their 2010 match at the Regions Morgan Keegan Championship tennis tournament at The Racquet Club of Memphis. (File Photo/Lance Murphey)