The Irving Tennis Classic (ITC) has traditionally attracted some of the stronger fields on the ATP Challenger Tour as the only tournament to take place in between the two Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami. This year's event is no different. ITC tournament director Zoltan Papp took time out to visit with VAVEL for a behind-the-scenes look at this week's stop in Irving, Texas.
Important Challenger Stop Needed Saving
This year's Irving Tennis Classic will mark the fifth year that the Challenger Tour has made the stop in Texas, sandwiched in between Indian Wells and Miami. That wasn't always the case. Prior to 2012, this week would see the Challenger stop in the U.S. between Indian Wells and Miami taking part in Sunrise, Florida. The Sunrise stop, known as the BMW Tennis Championship, served as middle ground for some players who lost early at Indian Wells and were hoping for more matches before heading to Miami. From 2004 to 2010, Sunrise was the place that saw big names like Jurgen Melzer, Dmitry Tursunov, Gael Monfils and Robin Soderling all win titles.
Current ITC tournament director Zoltan Papp said that the tournament in Sunrise ran into trouble in 2010. Tournament organizers were no longer going to be able to hold the tournament in Florida, due to financial issues. Papp told VAVEL that it was difficult for him to swallow, having been around the tour for years. He knew this was an important week for players to have another playing option. That is when he got involved in an effort to keep a United States-based Challenger stop active for players who might be looking for more match play, while the second week of Indian Wells continues.
Papp was born in Budapest, Hungary, but found his way state-side to pursue his passion in tennis. Before arriving in Texas, Papp cut his teeth in the juniors ranks playing at three of the four junior Grand Slams at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Papp would wind up at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. When his playing career ended at Baylor in 2003, he would be the program's leader in winning percentage in both singles and doubles play. He would team with current ATP tour pro Benjamin Becker to record 35 wins as a doubles tandem during their collegiate careers.
Papp would play some on the ATP World Tour after Baylor, with his matches coming at the Futures level. Following his playing career, Papp stayed close to the tour and became a tour manager. He would travel on tour and work closely with the players week in, week out to make sure their needs were being met by tournament organizers.
Birth of the Irving Tennis Classic
With the Sunrise Challenger out of commission, there was no bridge from Indian Wells to Miami for players who wanted the extra match play or a stop-over if they lost earlier than expected at Indian Wells. That is where Papp came together with the ITC's two other founders and co-owners, Vince Menard and Brent Haygarth. As Papp tells it, the trio were brought together by chance. Papp had made up his mind that he wanted to purchase the tournament to take the place of the Sunrise Challenger. He felt it was important for the players to have the opportunity to play that week.
Papp says three-time Grand Slam doubles champion Mark Knowles was the unwitting beginning to his relationship with Menard and Haygarth. In talking with Knowles at a tournament, Papp said that Knowles introduced him to a friend. That friend was Vince Menard. Papp and Menard began talking tennis and when Papp made up his mind that he wanted to go after the tournament and locate it in the Dallas-Ft.Worth area, Menard was a logicial first phone call. Papp began to express his game plan to Menard and as Papp says, "he loved the idea."
Menard made perfect sense as a partner because he had connections at the current site of the ITC, the Four Seasons in Irving. Menard had been a member of the club at the Four Seasons for 25 years and as soon as he heard Papp's idea, he included their third partner. That was Menard's good friend, Brent Haygarth. Haygarth was another easy choice as he had worked at the Four Seasons for a decade.
Challenges Then, Challenges Now
When Papp, Menard and Haygarth made the purchase of the Challenger and relocated it to the Dallas-area, there was only one place that had the facilities the tournament required. The Four Seasons Resort and Club in Irving. Papp said the group looked around for acceptable facilities, but none compared to what the Four Seasons could offer. It was a challenge getting the tournament off the ground in 2012. Getting sponsors was one of the more difficult tasks at-hand for the group. Papp admits that is still a challenge with the tournament in its fifth year, saying that getting "high level" sponsors is still a year-to-year process.
While the venue is the best in the area currently for the tournament's needs, Papp acknowledged that the tournament has a need to grow and expand. That could ultimately lead to a different location for the ITC at some point. To that note, Papp is hopeful that the City of Irving will step to the plate and perhaps build a unique facility to house the event to help meet their expansion plans.
One of the other main challenges that the ITC faces each year is competition in a bustling sports market. The Dallas-Ft.Worth area is home to MLB, NBA, NFL and MLS franchises. As Papp put it, "we can't compete with the Dallas Mavericks." That means media coverage often is spread thin for the event, despite its strong field. Attendance is also an uphil battle with both the NBA and MLS in-season as the ITC takes place.
The Yearly Tournament Building Process
Most casual fans and even players in attendance won't know the level of hard work that the all-volunteer staff with the ITC puts in for a large chunk of the year. Papp and many of the others involved with the tournament have full time jobs in addition to their dedication to the ITC. That sees them working nearly eight months a year on both the tournament and their regular jobs. Papp says outside of the week of the tournament, the biggest weeks for the ITC each year come just after the tournament ends each year.
"We have to strike while the irons are hot," said Papp.
He is referring to the seemingly unending process of trying to get corporate sponsors for the ITC. Papp says they will look for sponsorship renewal almost immediately after the tournament ends and work the following weeks to try and pull in new sponsors. Sponsors play a large part in helping the tournament meet all its financial needs each year.
The other big part of the yearly process of building the ITC is getting players to come to Irving. Papp says that he feels he has a good feel for the process due to his days as a tour manager. That has kept him in touch with many players, something that can be helpful in drawing bigger names to the event. Papp says about three weeks away from the yearly entry list deadline, he will send out e-mail reminders to players ranked from 11 to 100.
"It's just friendly reminder to them to make sure they get their names on the entry list, " said Papp.
Papp says he then looks over the entry list once it is complete as he continues to monitor players who are taking part in the Masters tournament at Indian Wells. The tournament"s director says it feels odd to cheer a loss, but when a player loses in Indian Wells, Papp knows that could mean getting a big name to come to Irving. Some of the players scheduled to take part in this year's ITC include Thomaz Bellucci, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Gilles Muller, Albert Ramos-Vinolas and Lukas Rosol. All of those players are ranked 51st or better. Americans Donald Young and Denis Kudla are also on the entry list with two wild cards already given out to Dmitry Tursunov and Frances Tiafoe.
The Unseen Benefits
Most will see the substantial prize money as the biggest lure to the ITC. At $125,000, it is nothing to sneeze at, but the tournament is about more than just the money lure for the players. Papp says the tournament has gone from a "for-profit" structure when they first began to its current non-profit status. That has made it more rewarding for the co-founders of the event according to Papp. The tournament is affiliated with Emily's Place, a residential facility in Plano, Texas that provides long term transitional care to women and children, who are seeking to break the cycle of domestic violence in their lives.
The tournament is now structured to allow Emily's Place to benefit directly from donations collected at the tournament. This is something Papp says provides himself and the others at the ITC with a "great feeling" at the end of the day. The ITC is also made to benefit the players who choose to make Irving their "layover" in between Indian Wells and Miami. Papp says that he felt the players were owed the opportunity after the Sunrise Challenger unexpectedly went away.
It is that unselfish attitude that has put Papp, Menard and Haygarth in this position. There may be obstacles each year that this group has to overcome in organizing this event, but the feeling is that they are up for the challenge and will continue to make this tournament more successful each year.
Be sure to keep following VAVEL Tennis this week for in-depth coverage of the Irving Tennis Challenger. Main draw play begins on Tuesday, March 15th and runs through Sunday, March 20th.