—— The Acura Classic is such a great event, can you tell us how you got into promoting professional tennis?
When I was a player, I was always very interested in what went on behind the scenes of a tournament. When I was playing in the ’60s and ’70s these were different times, you had to get invited to play by the promoter and so the players of those times were very grateful and more social. We played in pro-am events and went to parties and so on. So from an early time in my career I was interested in promoting even if I didn’t fully realize it at the time. When I stopped playing in ’77 I started organizing tennis tournaments in South America. It was basically a one-person show and a lot of hard work, but I did it to make a living and to stay involved with the tennis community I had been a part of for over 30 years. While I was still playing I met Jane (Stratton), while playing doubles on the WTA tour, and we became friends. Even then we talked about how we wanted to stay involved with tennis after our careers, so later when she would come to play the tournaments in South America she always helped out and through that got to see how tournaments were run. Later, Jane and I went on to form Promotion Sports the organization that owns the Acura Classic.
—— So how did you move from promoting events in South America to San Diego?
Well in 1981 the economy in South America, Argentina and Uruguay, which is where I mainly held events fell apart. It got so I couldn’t afford to continue to promote international events in these countries, so I packed up and moved to S.D. I already had a condominium in La Jolla that I had purchased while I was still a player. I had come to play a tournament in Rancho Bernardo and I fell in love with San Diego. So when I returned, I coached for a couple of years until the tour called me and asked me if I was interested in promoting some of the smaller Virginia Slims events. They didn’t have to ask me twice. I immediately called Jane who was living in Salt Lake City. That’s when we formed Promotion Sports, in 1983, and started to promote our first North American event, the Virginia Slims of Utah, since Jane was living there and had a lot of contacts. Following that we had the opportunity to come back to S.D. in 1984 to promote the Virginia Slims of San Diego, which was the start of this event.
—— Can you tell us a little bit about the early days of the tournament?
Ah the early days were like an adventure! We started from nothing. We had no capital and we had to work like mad to get sponsors. We did just about everything ourselves for a few years but we managed to survive and get the tournament off the ground. We started of as the Virginia Slims of San Diego, and our first tournament was held at Balboa Park’s Morley Field. Later we held events at the Mission Bay Hilton and San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club before we finally moved to La Costa in 1989. In the beginning we didn’t attract any of the major stars because not many players knew about us and we couldn’t offer a big enough purse. As the tournament evolved, however, the top players started to come and now we’ve become a tour favorite. Over the years we’ve had various title sponsors Virginia Slims, Great American Bank, Mazda, Toshiba and of course now American Honda. Twenty years ago we did everything ourselves, our first purse was $50,000 and we only drew about 1,500 fans. This year we are offering $1 million in prize money and we expect to have more than 85,000 fans come to see us in La Costa. It’s amazing how we’ve grown over the years.
—— What was the turning point for the tournament in becoming a major event?
I would absolutely say 1989. That was the year Steffi Graf played here for the first time. Before that many people on our side rallied together and we presented a video to the WTA and lobbied the tour for a bigger tournament in S.D. Finally, in 1989 the WTA sanctioned us as a primary event, which meant commitments from top players, more prize money, and computer ranking points for the players. We qualified by running very good smaller events and they recognized our efforts. We were very fortunate that Steffi Graf played and won that year. At that time she was ranked number one in the world and had won the Grand Slam, so it was big boost for us. She really helped to put this tournament on the map!
—— How have you been able to attract so many of the top players annually?
The fact that it’s played in such a beautiful resort like La Costa doesn’t hurt. Players
can roll out of bed and they’re on the courts. That’s a big plus for us. They don’t have to commute anywhere, not like the U.S. Open and others, where they may have to drive for an hour just to get to the facilities. It’s easy for them to be here. The weather is gorgeous, we feed them very well here at La Costa and they get to drive brand new Acuras. They love it here and it’s a great break following the pressures of Wimbledon. I think they like the fact that the owners, both Jane and I, were former professional players, so we know what their needs are and we go about meeting them. We try and treat everyone here like a VIP, not just the top few players. Actually, we do our best to accommodate everyone, the players, press, and fans to make sure they really enjoy their time here. The players also appreciate that they are playing to a full house from the beginning through the end. That’s a compliment to our local tennis fans who appreciate great tennis.
—— Who’s in the draw for this year?
Well this year Venus will be back, fresh from her strong performance at Wimbledon, trying for her fourth consecutive title. As usual the Acura Classic will feature the top players on the WTA Tour and from around the world such as Kim Clijsters, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Justine Henin-Hardenne, crowd favorite Anna Kournikova, and Ai Sugiyama. This year is our 20th anniversary and to celebrate we are awarding a record purse of $1 million dollars. For 20 years we’ve seen our tournament grow steadily both in size and popularity. We’ve set new attendance records each year for the last four years and starting from 2004 we will be moving up to official Tier I status on the WTA Tour, becoming one of the 10 largest non-Grand Slam women’s tournaments in the world. Tennis fans who can make it to La Costa definitely should, but if you can’t fans throughout the nation and the world will be able to watch us on TV. This year the tournament will be televised in the U.S., Australia, Europe, China, Japan, the Middle East, Russia, South America and South Africa, so we’re quite proud of that.
—— How have the Japanese women fared here over the years and what kind of style do they tend to play?
Some of the Japanese women have done very well here. I think because they are such fighters. They are very tough from the baseline. They move very well and they never give up. I can’t often remember seeing them serve and volley, though, they mostly work the baseline. Another one of their strengths is that they’re not going to be intimidated by anyone... to the point where they are sometimes able to upset some the top players at this tournament. Kimiko Date was always tough and played some fantastic matches here. As a matter of fact, Kimiko won the tournament 1996 when she beat Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, after having been down a set and a break. She just kept fighting. More recently Ai Sugiyama has had some success here too. Over the years she has upset Jennifer Capriati and Steffi Graf and last year she and her partner Daniela Hantuchova advanced to the doubles finals here. After Wimbledon she’s going back to Japan for a few weeks and then she’s coming here. She’s having a very good year and she often comes to San Diego to train with her physical trainer during the season.
—— As a former pro-player, how has the game changed over the years?
Well since I was a player it’s changed dramatically. In our day we didn’t make much money so we couldn’t afford to travel with anyone... barely ourselves. We couldn’t bring our families, but the players, men and women, and all the people that traveled with the tour would spend a lot of time together. That was the hardest thing ... being away from home for long stretches at a time. There were times I would be on the road for three or four months at a time. It was a much smaller thing then, more personal. We stayed in hotels sometimes, but we also stayed with host families during tournaments, which was nice since we had home-cooked meals and access to laundry facilities. The players today are big celebrities and make a lot of money and so they stay at the finest places, they can travel with their families and their entourages of coaches, trainers, psychologists, hairdressers etc.
As far as the game itself... the players are much fitter now and they hit the ball harder.
The equipment has changed from wood to steel, aluminum, carbon graphite and titanium which makes a tremendous difference, but you still have to know how to use it. I think the majority of the players take playing tennis more seriously now too. They know they can make a fantastic living doing this if they apply themselves. They don’t just rely on their natural ability anymore, they have to develop it and are more serious about doing it. It’s a year round job nowadays.
—— What stands out for you when you look back on your playing career?
The whole experience was great. It was more social then and it wasn’t just about business... it was a way for a person to get out and see the world. Growing up in Argentina, tennis gave me the chance from a very young age to make wonderful friends all over the world and travel to places I would have never seen. For me that was a good motivator and a wonderful experience.
—— What’s more difficult putting on a tournament or playing in an event like Wimbledon?
Actually, I just flew back from London and Wimbledon. The sensation is similar. In the process of growth as a player or promoter we’re risking a lot. To be a top player you’ve got to take risks and so that feeling is similar. The nervousness of that is a bit like walking out onto the courts at Wimbledon and realizing you’re taking part in one of the world’s great tennis traditions. That’s a tradition we’re building here every year.
(07-16-2003 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)