The New York Times
July 20, 2012
Tennis Gets an Uptown Updating in Atlanta
By MIKE TIERNEY
ATLANTA — Wearing tennis whites, Gilles Muller stood on the corner of 19th Street NW and East District Avenue, a few doors down from a 16-screen cineplex, earlier this week. Heels on the pavement, Muller situated the balls of his feet on a curb that bordered a red brick sidewalk and stretched.
Then he strolled a short block past a yogurt establishment, turned the corner occupied by a nail salon and, within minutes, was warming up on the stadium court for his first match of the BB&T Atlanta Open.
In the annals of top-tier tennis, there have rarely been settings quite like the one at this ATP event, which is being held through Sunday at Atlantic Station, an upscale retail, office and residential complex just north of the city center that is billed as the nation’s most expansive brownfield redevelopment.
A Disney theme park aura prevails — litter-free streets, Frank Sinatra and show tunes spilling from camouflaged speakers, signs galore. Players emerge from the locker room and limber up while dodging shoppers toting Victoria’s Secret bags on their way to see “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
During matches, players can peer up at high-rises close enough to cast a shadow on the main two hardcourts while cocking an ear to the whir of nearby traffic on a highway interchange that absorbs 560,000 vehicles daily.
“Nothing ever like this, particularly in an urban environment,” said the tournament director Bob Bryant, who persuaded the United States Tennis Association and the ATP to approve the site.
The players, including the top Americans Mardy Fish, John Isner and Andy Roddick, seemed to have the same four-letter endorsement: cool.
“This is pretty cool,” Roddick told Bryant after arriving last weekend.
“It’s cool,” said Fish, who had to retire from a second-round match against Muller with a sprained ankle. “I don’t think we’ve played in a parking lot before. It’s a beautiful stadium, a cool setting.”
After his opening-round win, Jack Sock said, “With the cool venue, it’s kind of a special tournament, unlike others.”
Roddick had worried that the imposing buildings might serve as a distraction but said he barely noticed them once the ball was served. He found the in-stadium sight lines normal, allaying another concern.
“In order for tennis to grow, we have to look at it from the fans’ perspective,” Roddick said. “This is outside the box.”
Mike McNulty, president of U.S.T.A. Southern, said some players who were afforded a sneak peek at the site encouraged a few others who were not planning to play the event to enter the qualifying tournament.
In its two previous years, the tournament was tucked away in separate country club environments on the northern arc, the core of Atlanta’s tennis community. The city fancies itself as the capital of grass-roots and adult-league tennis, but its legions of participants seemed disinclined to go watch the pros. The tournament’s nomadic ways did not help to advance awareness.
Bryant sensed that plunking the matches into this milieu would create a buzz, luring the curious along with the die-hards. Having honed his event-promoting chops with the Ringling Bros. circus, he had no trouble envisioning tennis with an unusual backdrop.
After viewing the grounds on Google Earth, Bryant was convinced that the requisite six courts, half of them for practice, could be accommodated. The players’ lounge in its former life was a children’s playhouse, the media center a sports bar and grill.
Atlantic Station was agreeable under previous management, but room and cost issues proved prohibitive. With an ownership change in late 2010, the bustling mixed-use layout, which is a home or workplace for 10,000 people, decided to hitch its marketing efforts to the tournament.
By happy coincidence, one of the towers overlooking Atlantic Station housed the area offices for BB&T, a banking services company. Aware that its huge sign would be noticed by every attendee, the company signed on as a title sponsor.
Initially, the sport’s authorities were chilly to the idea, beginning with the U.S.T.A. The daunting task of retrofitting Atlantic Station for tennis gave rise to doubts.
“We’d have to reinvent the wheel here,” McNulty said.
But McNulty, the U.S.T.A., and the ATP were ultimately converted.
The original architectural design placed the main court in the scenic, if cramped, courtyard. Sacrificing aesthetics, the organizers shifted the main court to a roomier area for a seating capacity of 3,612. The new space wound up meeting a higher ticket demand than at first forecast, offered a glimpse of the city skyline and provided a “giant billboard,” as Bryant put it, to the endless parade of interstate cars. Mark Young, the ATP Americas chief executive, even imagined motorists swinging by after noticing the stadium from the highway.
Rain, normally the bane of an outdoor tournament’s existence, has been a welcome invader, at least to the complex’s owners. Weather-related delays have driven some ticket-holders into stores and eateries, with time to kill and debit cards to swipe. The contract calls for four more years at Atlantic Station. For now, where else can a player zip up his bag after a match and, in no time, be sitting down for a pedicure or a double feature?
Tennis promoters and officials, near and far, will stay tuned in. Bryant said, “They might look at this as, ‘Where else might this model work?’ ”