Top Tennis Comes to Town

Two upcoming tennis events may be the biggest in Knoxville history

Tennis happens to be just about my favorite sport. So I am delighted by the prospect that more top-flight tennis is coming to Knoxville over the next few weeks than during any short span in the city's history.

Two events are scheduled that will afford anyone with an interest in the sport opportunities to watch professional competition among both rising stars and two of the top names in the sport.

One is a tournament next week at UT's Goodfriend Tennis Center that's drawing 32 competitors from around the globe who will be vying to improve their world rankings that are currently below the cusp needed to qualify for most of the top-tier tournaments on the men's pro circuit. The other is an exhibition match at Thompson-Boling Arena on December 14 that will feature the top American men's player, Andy Roddick, and one of if not the top woman in the world, Serena Williams—each of whom will have worthy opponents for their matches.

Next week's tournament is the final stop of the year on the USTA-sponsored Challenger tour that's been a fixture in cities such as Lexington, Louisville, and Nashville but regrettably has been an off-again, on-again event in Knoxville. The first Knoxville Challenger in 2000 showcased none other than Roddick at a time when he was just beginning his rise to the top of the tennis ladder. The 2001 winner James Blake has gone on to become the only other American ranked in the top 10 in the world. Dutchman Martin Verkerk followed up his win here in 2002 by making it to the finals of the French Open in 2003.

Then came a five-year hiatus before the Challenger was resumed here in 2007 without nearly as much promotion as it deserved, and this year's tournament has been lacking for same as well. Indeed, it came close to being scratched until several local tennis boosters stepped forward last month with enough financial support to keep it on the docket.

Hopefully, this column can serve to build fan interest in what promises to be the best field ever assembled for a Knoxville Challenger. The list includes both younger players who are clearly on the rise and veterans who've been ranked as high as 20th in the world.

One of the most charismatic of the younger players is a 19-year-old Atlanta native Donald Young. He's widely considered to have the potential to make it to the sport's top ranks and played Blake a very tough five-set match before losing in this year's U.S. Open. Another is 6'9'' John Isner, who made a big splash after graduating from the University of Georgia last year by parlaying his huge serve to the finals of one of the major tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open. A wild-card entrant is Knoxville's top junior player, 18-year-old Rhyne Williams who made it to the quarter finals of this year's U.S. Open junior championship.

Among the veterans in the field, Taylor Dent and Vince Spadea stand out. The 27-year-old Dent was a quarter finalist at Wimbledon and fourth rounder at the U.S. Open in 2005 before developing back problems that led to spinal fusion surgery in 2007. At 34, Spadea's best days may be behind him, but they include victories over Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.

The $50,000 in Challenger prize money, including $7,500 for the winner, may count for less than ranking points that top finishers can get toward qualifying for next year's Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian, French and U.S. Opens along with Wimbledon. Paradoxically, the Grand Slams are easier to get into than the rest of the tournaments on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) circuit. That's because the two-week Grand Slams have a field of 128 players whereas most of the other one-week ATP tournaments only have 32 players in the draw.

The Challenger starts next Monday with early round matches through Wednesday, quarter finals on Thursday, semifinals on Friday and the finals on Saturday. A tournament schedule is due to be posted on the Knoxville Racquet Club website (krctennis.com). Tickets costing $5 per session can be purchased at the Goodfriend Tennis Center.

If experience in prior years in other cities is any guide, the Andy Roddick, Serena Williams, et al. exhibition could well attract the biggest crowd ever to watch a tennis match in Knoxville. The December 14 event marks the seventh annual "Rock n' Racquets," as it's billed, which has drawn on the order of 10,000 in several other cities of similar size at ticket prices ranging from $12 to $77. It's also billed as a charity event with proceeds going to foundations that Roddick and Williams respectively support—or in Roddick's case, his own.

Roddick's opponent will be none other than John Isner while Williams will face stiff competition from 18-year-old Danish phenom Caroline Wozniacki whose ranking rose to 13th in the world after her quarter final finish at the U.S. Open. m