No S.O.S. needed for SAP Open with Rapp in charge
By Darren Sabedra
Posted: 02/06/2010 07:29:18 PM PST
Updated: 02/06/2010 08:34:21 PM PST
As recently as late last week, SAP Open tournament director Bill Rapp was getting health updates on his No. 1 drawing card, Andy Roddick.
The top-ranked American tweaked his right shoulder at the Australian Open last month and essentially has gone underground, at least publicly, since returning from Down Under.
"He's coming to play," Rapp assured.
Given that another of the SAP's billboard-promoted players, Lleyton Hewitt, withdrew because of hip injury suffered in Australia, Roddick's encouraging bill of health is a relief for a tournament that doesn't have another Grand Slam singles champion in its field.
"The good news is he's going to be here, and I think he's going to be fine," Rapp said.
The competition for this year's title starts Monday at HP Pavilion. But for Rapp, the battles began long ago. The way the schedule works, he competes with two other tournaments for top-tier players — one in Brazil, the other in the Netherlands — and generally has done well.
Andy Murray won the SAP Open in 2006 and '07 on his way to becoming one of the sport's top stars. Juan Martin del Potro reached the quarterfinals of last year's SAP en route to stunning Roger Federer in the U.S. Open final.
But Rapp's challenge is to keep foreign players coming back after they've hit it big. Rapp acknowledges that appearance fees are a huge part of pro tennis, and it's his job to determine which players are likely to offset those fees by putting fans in the seats.
Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras were definitely worth the extra cash. But del Potro, who is from Argentina, obviously hasn't reached that level.
"Del Potro loved playing here," Rapp said. "But it was a situation where he wanted more money than Agassi wanted in his day. Great player, but also, too, we have to be fiscally responsible."
"Murray's sponsor, the World Bank of Scotland, wants him to play in Europe. But we'll get him back here, though," Rapp said.
Even without Murray and del Potro, Rapp believes he has put together a strong field. Second-seeded Fernando Verdasco of Spain has worked with Agassi's former trainer, Gil Reyes, and steadily climbed the rankings, reaching a career-best No. 7 last spring. The 26-year-old, currently ranked No. 12, will be making his San Jose debut.
Defending SAP champion Radek Stepanek, who also won the doubles title here last year, is back. Perhaps best known for his "worm" celebration dance, he clearly plays his best in San Jose. Stepanek, who is from the Czech Republic, reached the '08 SAP final, losing to Roddick.
The field also features fourth-seeded Tommy Haas, the German-born player who recently became a United States citizen, and doubles stars Bob and Mike Bryan.
Rapp continues to push creative buttons to sell the sport. Four years ago, he lured John McEnroe out of retirement to play in the doubles competition. McEnroe ended up winning the title, drawing big crowds in the process.
This year, Rapp has again signed Sampras to play in a Monday night charity exhibition match. Sampras will face Verdasco this time.
"Some of my peers are like, 'What are you doing?' " Rapp said. "I'm here to get people watching professional tennis. (Sampras) is a past player, but he still can play with these guys, and he enjoys it. Monday night used to be you, me and our cousins. Now you've got 6,000-8,000 people coming."
Rapp also is constantly looking for the next big name. This year he has given wild-card entries to young Americans Ryan Harrison and Devin Britton. Harrison, 17, qualified for this year's Australian Open; Britton, 18, became the youngest NCAA singles champion while starring last spring at Mississippi and was up a service break against Federer at last year's U.S. Open.
"It's unreal," Britton said Friday of his opportunity this week. "This is awesome to play in a tournament this big, to get the opportunity to play with these guys."
Rapp doesn't mind his own challenges. He prefers that the SAP is early in the year because he has mostly avoided the injury issues that have plagued tournaments later in the season. He also doesn't mind following the Australian Open because if his players do well there, it's good for business.
This year, though, he was on pins and needles when Roddick's shoulder flared up. But all appears well now.
"Let's not forget that Roddick is the only player besides Federer to finish in the top 10 eight years in a row," Rapp said. "Roddick does carry the (American) tennis banner well."