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Tennis tourney plans to stay for future

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

NORCROSS -- If you know the tennis fever that engulfs metro Atlanta, it is difficult to imagine that a professional tennis event wouldn't make an annual visit.

But that's what happened from 2002-2009 when neither an ATP or WTA event made it here.

After Atlanta was host to an ATP event from 1986-2001 when the tournament -- known primarily as the AT&T Tennis Challenge -- was hosted at the Atlanta Athletic Club, professional tennis left the area with no promise of a return.

And the closest WTA event is the Family Circle Cup in early April in Charleston, S.C.

The USTA Southern section came to the rescue late in 2009, when it purchased the sanction for the Atlanta Tennis Championships from the ATP World Tour for the tournament that had been played in Indianapolis.

A successful debut tourney in 2010 was held at the Atlanta Athletic Club, but golf's PGA Championship in August this year, tournament officials decided it would be best to move the tournament to Racquet Club of the South in Norcross.

And based on the turnout for last week's championships, professional tennis should be here to stay for a while.

Nearly 32,000 fans came through the gates during the seven-day event, including more than 6,300 for Saturday's semifinals and close to 3,600 for Sunday's finals.

"Truthfully, we couldn't be happier," first-year tournament director Bob Bryant said. "The players have been unbelievably happy with the hotels, the locker room, the players lounge, the food. I worked on that early on, that we wanted to show them some good old Southern hospitality. So we've had remarkable responses from the players, wanting to seek me out to say thanks. That makes me feel good in knowing that we did it right and that our whole team, who worked so hard, did a great job.

"And (the players) all love the stadium. The players and fans have commented about that setup and it seems to really give the tournament a championship setting."

With a firm commitment to host the 2012 event in Metro Atlanta again, a decision hasn't been made on a venue for next year, whether it's a return to AAC or staying in Norcross. However, that topic will be discussed rather quickly and a site should be locked down by the end of August.

Now that the tournament has been deemed a success for two years running, Bryant and his staff won't sit back and rest. Instead, he will be busy getting ready for the 2012 edition.

"The next steps for me are to work on sponsorship and increasing attendance," said Bryant. "Those are the two big things for me."

What goes on behind the scenes at the ATC can go mostly unnoticed, but more than 400 volunteers give up a week of their lives to make this event work. Many are avid tennis players in the metro area, but some folks simply get involved because they want to be around the tournament atmosphere.

"I get a little emotional when I talk about our volunteers," said Bryant. "We are truly like a family here this week and I know so many situations where someone has jumped in for another person to take care of a need. When you think of all the areas that we need volunteers, it is remarkable how smooth the event works with such a short amount of time to get ready. I can't say thanks enough to each and every one of them."

Even with the 2012 Olympic Games scheduled for July 27 through Aug. 12 in London, tournament officials are very optimistic the field will be strong and interest will be at a peak once the event rolls around again as part of the Olympus U.S. Open Series.

"It's very exciting because we purchased this tournament for the people of Atlanta," said tournament chairman and USTA Southern president Mike McNulty. "It's been so long since professional tennis has been here. Atlanta is the mecca of tennis. There are more tennis players in Atlanta than any other place in the world, so why should we not have professional tennis here."