Serving aces

Quick quiz: What’s the highest-attended annual sporting event in the world?

What’s that you say, the Super Bowl? Or maybe the World Series? It’s got to be Wimbledon then, right?

Nope, it’s the US Open, which last year drew 710,803 spectators to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y. – making it the fifth time that attendance has topped 700,000.

The TV numbers were just as impressive, with 17.7 million viewers tuning into CBS Sports to see Serena Williams defeat Victoria Azarenka for the women’s championship, which was on a Sunday. The numbers were slighter lower for the men’s Monday final but still good, with 16.2 million watching Andy Murray defeat Novak Djokovic in five taut sets. It was the most-watched Open men’s final since 2007 when Roger Federer defeated newcomer Djokovic.

Such numbers are music to the ears of David Brewer – chief professional tennis officer of the United States Tennis Association and tournament director of the US Open.

“I think it speaks volumes about the quality of the US Open and the Open brand,” he says. “It’s a tribute to the entire organization.”

You’d never know it from Brewer’s relaxed, genial demeanor at the USTA’s sleek White Plains headquarters, filled with stunning photographs of past Open champions, but he and the staff of some 350 full-time employees – which will expand to more than 1,500 at the Open – have entered “high crazy mode,” with the action set to kick off with a qualifying tournament that begins Aug. 20 and Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day of tennis and music set for Aug. 24. But though the USTA may be busier than H&R Block in early April, it’s not due to any lollygagging. A portion of the staff is already working on the 2014 and 2015 Opens, and changes are afoot, beginning with this year’s Open, which runs Aug. 26 to Sept. 9. After five straight years in which Mother Nature pushed the men’s finals to a Monday, the Open is taking an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude and officially scheduling the men’s final for Monday, Sept. 9 at 5 p.m. Brewer already knows what you’re thinking, and the answer is this creates the most equitable schedule for the final four, with the women having a day of rest between their semifinals on Friday and final on Sunday, and the men getting a day off between their semifinals on Saturday and the Monday final.

Also new this year – more money.

“So not only a day off, but a raise,” Brewer says with a laugh.

The USTA has raised base prize money to more than $33.6 million, a more than $8.1 million increase over the $25.5 million awarded to players last year. The USTA will provide $50 million in Open prize money by 2017. This has been a subject near and dear to the heart of Roger Federer, who as president of the Association of Tennis Professionals’ Player Council, the men’s governing body, has pushed for more prize money, particularly for those who lose in the early rounds.

In a written statement, Federer says: “The excellent outcome for the sport of tennis wouldn’t have been possible without the open-mindedness and fairness of USTA President Dave Haggerty and the USTA staff. They approached our concerns with a true spirit of partnership. …Everyone I have spoken with is excited about the increases in prize money, as well as the agreement to change the schedule for 2015 and beyond.”

Ah, yes, 2015 and more big changes. The men’s final returns to Sunday afternoon, with the women’s semifinals on Thursday and final on Saturday and the men’s semifinals on Friday. Plus, adios, CBS. All of the action will be carried exclusively on ESPN in the U.S.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Brewer, who stresses the USTA’s respect for and long history with the network. “But there’s an advantage to having one domestic broadcaster. …No one is bigger and better than ESPN.”

While the Open may be the jewel in the USTA’s crown, it’s far from the 760,000-member nonprofit’s only commitment. The USTA has launched the Emirates Airline US Open Series, linking nine summer tournaments to the Open; owns some 90 Pro Circuit events across the country; and selects the U.S. teams for the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup, the Olympics and the Paralympics.

But beyond pro tennis, there is service to the community. You can see this, Brewer says, in such programs as 10 and Under Tennis, in which the USTA works with retailers to ensure that pint-sized players get off the ground quickly with affordable, graduated equipment.

And you can see this community-mindedness in the qualifying tournament beginning Aug. 20 – 128 men, 128 women competing for $1.5 million in prize money and a chance, if they’re in the final 16 men and 16 women, to move on to the big show.

“So in essence there’s three weeks of tournament,” Brewer says of the qualifying and the opportunity to see the stars of tomorrow. “There are 5,000 spectators a day for the qualifying. It’s a unique experience, and we use the qualifying tournament to bring kids to the site.”

To keep up with the action, Brewer will try to get in a jog or a nap when he can, maybe even hit a few balls himself. But he’s more concerned that you love tennis – as a spectator but also as a participant.

“Our big function is to promote the growth of tennis in the U.S., to get more people to play tennis and to play more frequently.”

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