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Superstar Tennis In San Jose

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San Jose© Ron AngleThe San Jose tournament is coming to an end after 125 years.

With a touch of sadness and thousands of memories big and small, Northern California and the tennis world bid a fond farewell to an event that thrilled millions and created its own rich history.

It was 8:48 p.m on a Saturday night in San Jose, California. The H-P Pavilion was the setting for the final run of the SAP Open, a tournament whose 125-year history is only exceeded in the United States by the US Open (previously the US Championships).

On this evening, three-time San Jose singles winner Andy Roddick was part of a mixed doubles exhibition, Roddick partnered with Stephanie Graf versus Lindsay Davenport and Justin Gimelstob. The crowd of 5,774 was thrilled to witness Roddick and the mix of skills and entertainment that make such exhibitions engaging.  

But of course on the eve of the final they were also aware that they were witness to an imminent conclusion, a reality Roddick addressed soon after the doubles was over.  He’d first played San Jose as an 18 year old, won it on his third try and now, at 30, was enjoying his first few months of retirement.  Said Roddick, “We’re sad to see this tournament go.”  That simple – and yet so complex.    

Across such sponsors as SAP, Siebel, Sybase, Volvo, Transamerica, Fireman’s Fund and Redwood Bank, from old school clubs to arenas, the roster of champions was prominent.  Open Era notables included Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe, Arthur Ashe, Roy Emerson, Jimmy Connors, John Newcombe, Rod Laver and Stan Smith.  Dig further back and you’ll find such Hall of Famers as Fred Stolle, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, Don Budge, Fred Perry and Bill Johnston.  And then there was a two-time champion who shaped the event’s history more than any single person: Barry MacKay

Even more, as the longest-running event in the single most productive region in the history of the sport, the event contained multitudes, a kaleidoscopic community.  Listen:  

There was a two-time champion who shaped the event’s history more than any single person.

July 4, 1889: Inception 
The first Pacific Coast Singles Championship concludes. The winner: William H. Taylor. The setting: Monterey’s Hotel Del Monte. In time the tournament will relocate to such Bay Area venues as the Hotel Rafael in suburban San Rafael, the California Tennis Club near downtown San Francisco, and, most notably in the pre-Open era, the Berkeley Tennis Club.  

October 4, 1959: MacKay and McManus  
A month after he’d beaten Rod Laver in the Davis Cup Challenge Round, 24-year-old Barry MacKay arrived in Berkeley for the Pacific Coast.  He found affinity with a Berkeley Tennis Club member and fine player, Jim McManus. MacKay was even more comfortable on the club’s slick hardcourts, on October 4 taking the first of two straight singles titles.  

“Berkeley was great,” said MacKay 30 years later. “The autumn leaves, the college town – it was a lot like Ann Arbor where I’d gone to school.”  

By the end of 1960, MacKay joined Jack Kramer’s retinue of touring pros and commenced an education that would revolutionise both the sport and the tournament.

From his base in Berkeley, McManus traveled the world for more than a decade, cracked the US Top 10 – including two runner-up appearances at the Pacific Coast -- and by 1972 became one of the founders and eventually, first employees of the fledgling players union, the ATP.      

McEnroe, BjorkmanOctober 3, 1970: Into the Modern Era 
Having relocated to the Bay Area once his playing days were over, MacKay began work as a stockbroker. 

Soon after the game went Open in 1968, MacKay approached the Berkeley Tennis Club with the idea of making the Pacific Coast Championships a bigger event. Aiding his cause: $25,000 in sponsorship dollars from Redwood Bank. 

By 1970, the tennis boom’s in high gear and MacKay’s at the helm. With the stands filled to capacity, MacKay created the “Magic Carpet.”  For $20, fans were given a piece of a rug and a spot right on the court. 

“Barry had such vision and passion,” said his best friend, Hall of Famer Donald Dell.  “He understood what everyone from players to fans wanted.”  

Year One of the upgraded tournament finished in grand style. In those pre-ATP computer days, becoming number one in one’s country was incredibly meaningful. The battle for the US top ranking would be settled by a semi between Cliff Richey and Stan Smith. The tie-break had also been introduced, in those days a sudden death, best-of-nine points version. It came down to 4-all in the fifth set tie-break, one point to decide the ranking – and Richey won it with a lunge volley. Ballboying the entire match: nine-year-old Brad Gilbert.     

September 30, 1973: A Star is Bjorn
Seventeen-year-old Swede Bjorn Borg reached the finals, losing to 36-year-old Roy Emerson.  Borg’s appearance kicked off a trend.  Borg, McEnroe, Edberg and Chang would all make a major splash at this event as teens – the other three going a step beyond Borg by winning the tournament – and within 12 months earn Grand Slam singles titles.

Agassi1976: Pyramid Power
Having outgrown the Berkeley Tennis Club and a two-year stint at Round Hill Country Club, in 1974 MacKay relocated the event to a major arena – the Cow Palace, a spot that had hosted everything from the NBA’s Golden State Warriors to Beatles concerts.  

In 1976 Transamerica, a major financial services firm headquartered in San Francisco, began a 14-year stint as title sponsor. Total prize money in 1976 was $125,000.  

Said MacKay’s close friend, Sony Ericsson Open founder Butch Buchholz said, “Back when we were touring, Barry would pound his fist on the table and say, ‘One day we’re going to be playing events with $100,000 in prize money.’  We all laughed, but Barry helped make it happen.”   

Transamerica in 1972 had opened a new headquarters building shaped like a pyramid. The tournament’s trophies were shaped similarly. Said Gilbert, who reached the first of four singles finals in 1984, “You always wanted to win one of those pyramids.”  

Throughout the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s, the Transamerica Open became more than mere tournament, but a significant part of the San Francisco cultural landscape. Guests included tennis notables who’d won the title such as Fred Perry, Don Budge, Art Larsen and Jack Kramer, to celebrities Carlos Santana and Robin Williams.  

September 27, 1977: Meet The New Star
On the first day of the tournament, an 18-year-old Stanford freshman barged into MacKay’s office.  “Mr. MacKay,” he said, “I’m told you’re the one to talk to about money for expenses.” 

“Yes, that’s right,” he said, peeling off a pair of hundred dollar bills.  “And second, call me Barry.”

A satisfied John McEnroe exited and a year later would haul off the first of 12 pyramids – five singles (an Open era record) and seven doubles.  For good measure he’d take yet one more trophy, winning the doubles in 2006 at the age of 47.  “Because he’d been a player, Barry understood what it took to create a great atmosphere for players,” said McEnroe.  

“Just a great guy and a great event.”      

October 2, 1988
Sixteen-year-old Michael Chang wins his first ATP tournament and first of two titles at this event.  “It was thrilling,” said Chang. “My rookie year on the tour, and so great to win the title in a place like the Bay Area where there was such a big Asian community, where my brother Carl went to school and Barry was always so positive.”  

Running the ballboys: a local teaching pro, Bill Rapp, who five years earlier had first started working at the event as a volunteer usher. 

“Barry had such vision and passion. He understood what everyone from players to fans wanted.”

October 1, 1989 
Local boy makes good: Gilbert the winner. But as the trophy ceremony got underway, there was no pyramid, Transamerica’s sponsorship having ended a year earlier.  Six months later, Gilbert got a package in the mail from MacKay: a customised pyramid.

Over the course of 30 years involvement with the tournament, Gilbert was a ballboy, linesman, player and coach.        

February 11, 1990
A new ATP calendar rescheduled the event to February. There was also a new venue, the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. As McEnroe faded, yet another charismatic American teen emerged, 19-year-old Andre Agassi, who that year won his first of five San Jose singles titles. Over the next 15 years, Agassi will be an integral part of the event in many ways – from the week he commuted by his private jet from his home in Las Vegas to San Francisco, to his romance with Brooke Shields, to his work with trainer Gil Reyes, coaches Gilbert and Darren Cahill and his marriage to Graf.  His five titles – tying McEnroe’s Open era mark – will come in his teens, 20s and 30s. Said Agassi, “Great court, nice environment, just a natural fit for me and my game. Lots of good memories there.”

February 6, 1993
Tennis took a backseat.  “I can’t believe it,” says an anguished MacKay moments before the Gilbert-Connors semi-final. “I just learned that Arthur died.”  Besides being a good friend of MacKay’s and so many people in tennis and beyond, Ashe had won MacKay’s tournament in 1970 and ’75.   

Relocation to the emerging economic center of the Bay Area: Silicon Valley and a new arena in San Jose. Marking the shift, the title sponsor will be a technology giant – Sybase, followed several years later by Siebel Systems and, most recently, prominent software firm SAP.  

Bill Rapp’s role with the tournament grew.  Besides bringing in new sponsors and creating the Elite Staff Program, a community and sales partnership with local teaching pros, Rapp helped the tournament pioneer what’s now a staple of many tournaments – Kids' Day.  Aided by the over-the-top passion of Luke Jensen and Murphy Jensen, Rapp, MacKay and staff conduct a Friday morning tennis festival for hundreds of local children. By 2001, Rapp took over as tournament director. 

March 3, 2002 
The greatest match in the history of the tournament pitted two number ones. For nearly three hours, ‘01 US Open champion and world number one Lleyton Hewitt and Agassi go toe-to-toe, thrilling fans with one great rally after another. In the end, Hewitt was the victor, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6. “I believe in myself,” said Hewitt. “I know what I'm capable of. I was born with that (competitiveness) to some degree, but it's something I've gained from doing it time and again. Nothing worries me.”

February 15, 2004 
First San Jose title for Roddick over good friend Mardy Fish in the finals. The first set was a thriller, squeaked out by Roddick 15-13 tie-break. Roddick then closed out the second set 6-4.  “I always felt very comfortable there,” Roddick said nearly a decade later. “At first, I was working the late shift, the match after Andre. Then I got to be the first match guy, so that was pretty cool.”   

Murray, HewittFebruary 19, 2006
All week, 18-year-old Andy Murray discounted his chances, frequently saying “I should lose that one” about his next match. But he didn’t, capping it off yet another thrilling San Jose final – Murray over Hewitt, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 – for his first singles win. A year later, Murray will successfully defend versus Ivo Karlovic – also in a third set tie-breaker.

February 13, 2011 
San Jose was the spot for 20-year-old Milos Raonic to break through and capture the singles – yet another prodigy who first held up an ATP World Tour singles trophy at this tournament. He’ll take it again in 2012.

February 17, 2013
Facing 34-year-old former World No. 2 Tommy Haas in the final, 22-year-old Canadian Milos Raonic draws the curtain on the storied history of the SAP Open by becoming the first player since Tony Trabert in 1953-55 to win three consecutive titles in the Bay Area. Raonic's 6-4, 6-3 win saw him farewell San Jose with a perfect 12-0 match record. He won all 24 sets he played in the HP Pavilion.   

- The first pro tennis event Joel Drucker ever covered was the 1982 Transamerica Open.  

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