GOING ON THE TOURNEY TRAIL
The Times Union
Wednesday, August 26, 1992
I'm out walking my dog in Central Park, the usual Tuesday morning romp through the fitness trails near my house, listening to the chirping birds and crickets, when my dog and I are stopped dead in our tracks by an unusual noise.
Not like the back and forth of the well-intentioned hackers who usually populate the park's tennis courts each morning. These were really hard smacks and thwacks. Gunshots. The kind of crushing hits that quickly eradicate the yellow fuzz from the bouncing balls.
"Gee, Sophie," I wonder out loud to my canine companion. "What's going on here?"
A little deeper into the park, my dog and I happen upon a tree that has, oddly enough, sprouted a color television set. We gaze up the craggy bark, where a Sony has been strapped a little above eye level, and watch two guys in white zigzagging across the serene, green screen. There's no audio emanating from this lonesome tube, but soon enough, an amplified voice pulses, God-like and calmly, through the trees: "Game and first set, Ferreira."
I tug on my dog's leash and we wander through to a clearing, startled to find ourselves suddenly in the sweaty presence of some of the world's top-ranked tennis players. In fact, a few more steps and we're right up to the fence, watching the world's No. 12 player, Wayne Ferreira, doing away with his opponent in straight sets in front of a couple of dozen tennis fans dressed to kill in K-Swiss and Ellesse court gear.
"Oh, that's right," I say to myself, all the contextual clues clicking into a revelation. "It's time for the OTB Open Tennis Tournament!"
How appropriate that I could sort of just wander into the thick of this $255,000 pro event almost by accident. How telling this low-key, dog-walking entrance is about the tone of this tournament. If you didn't know there were some big names battling for some big bucks on these pastoral city courts, you would never, ever guess. No hordes, no fees, none of the mess usually associated with big-time sports extravaganzas.
The names and accomplishments of the OTB's top seeds belie the neighborhood atmosphere of this tournament, one that has sprouted wildly over the past 11 years from a $3,400 event to its current quarter-million-dollar status.
With the U.S. Open set to start next week in steamy Flushing Meadows, this event in the heart of Schenectady has grown up to be an important, hard-court tune-up for the final Grand Slam.
The OTB tournament has done all of this without losing its grass-roots feeling, mostly because it is free. Free, as in no charge to the public. Free, as in free to wander in by accident or intent. Free, as in free to drift from court to court to watch some of the stars and rising stars on the men's and women's international tennis tour.
There's enough involved to warrant tighter security against absent-minded dog walkers. There's certainly enough star attraction to warrant ticket sales. There's Michael Stich, a guy we've seen doing damage at Grand Slam events. There's Helena Sukova, the woman who has had some of her finer moments against the likes of Martina Navratilova. These top seeds, and the 62 others in the tournament, will try to bolster their annual earnings with a win in the finals Sunday, worth $18,700 for the men and $18,000 (that's $18,700 MINUS $700) for the women.
But the tournament has earned its great reputation because it has remained a "gift" from OTB to the community. Such benevolence and altruism have not been lost on the hundreds of spectators who have in the past queued up for one of the precious few 4,500 stadium seats for finals.
The unique quality of the tournament - the only pro tour prize money event in the world that charges no admission - has not been lost on players like Ferreira, the No. 3 seed.
Ferreira, whose first-round stadium match Tuesday was simulcast to the treed-TVs in Central Park, speaks for almost all the players who come back again and again to Schenectady.
"I like to play here," Ferreira said. "I have fun here because it's so relaxing. It's one of the few times I get to spend outdoors, out in the open, in nature."
Where dog walkers are so freely transformed into tennis gawkers.