Tennis Channel Open not just another ATP event

The ATP Tour returns to Las Vegas for the first time in 21 years with the Tennis Channel Open. And, as Miki Singh writes, tournament director Steve Bellamy intends to make this event a fan-friendly experience.

Originally Published: February 23, 2006
By Miki Singh | Special to ESPN.com

Would you expect anything different from the man who sold his guitars to raise money to start The Tennis Channel?

"Tennispalooza" is the theme for the Tennis Channel Open, the new ATP event next week in Las Vegas. Tournament director and Tennis Channel founder Steve Bellamy has created a circuslike atmosphere (literally -- there will be a circus as part of the week) at what he envisions as a prototype for the future of tennis events.

The fun begins on Thursday, four days before the actual tournament starts, and marks the return of professional tennis to the gaming mecca for the first time in 21 years.

Bellamy, an eccentric Californian who also serves as president of The Tennis Channel which he founded in 2003, sells the event as unlike any other on the pro tennis circuit, transforming the stodgy country-club sport into a full-fledged entertainment event for the whole family.

"My mission is always to grow the game of tennis," said Bellamy, whose mantra is not getting a bigger slice of the tennis pie but making the pie bigger. "I didn't want to just put on another tennis tournament. I wanted to do something that was different. I wanted to do something that could bring people that wouldn't normally go to a tennis tournament and watch, and then sell them on tennis while they are there."

The event will be held at the brand-new $41 million, 41-acre Amanda & Stacy Darling Memorial Tennis Center located just off the Vegas strip, featuring a $380,000 men's ATP tournament and a $75,000 ITF minor-league women's event.

Despite the absence of the city's top tennis name, Andre Agassi (he already had committed to play in the Dubai Duty Free Open, which is the same week, long before the Las Vegas event became official), the event still boasts an impressive field, with top stars such as Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and James Blake on the men's side and Jelena Dokic and Alexandra Stevenson in the women's tournament.

But unlike most events -- where the players are the main attraction -- in Vegas, it's also about the events surrounding the tournament.

Among the many activities fans can experience are events in paddle tennis, featuring the country's top pros; pingpong; college tennis; junior tennis; and pro squash. According to Bellamy, the event also will feature an air hockey tournament with eight of the top 25 players in the world and even a motocross exhibition.

No event of any type in Las Vegas would be complete without star-studded performances, and the Tennis Channel Open will be no different, with acts like Cirque du Soleil, the Sirens of TI and The Scintas, and daily paintings from Malcolm Farley.

"What other tennis tournament has motocross?" Bellamy asked. "The fact that we have it, and Cirque du Soleil, is just so cool."

Roddick, who will be the top seed in the men's event, concurs.

"The excitement of the city should be a tremendous draw for guys on the tour," he said. "The Tennis Channel's plan to build a tennis-festival atmosphere is a great idea that's going to be a lot of fun to visit each year."

Fans can get into the act further with a fast-serve competition that will pit them against the pros as well as a unique racket-stringing competition. Kids will even get free guitar lessons on site.

Perhaps the unique attraction of the Tennis Channel Open -- and certainly the first time this has happened in an ATP tournament -- will be the ability of any fan off the street to actually play in the main ATP event.

Starting Thursday, the event will run a "Shotgun 21" coed mini-tournament, with the winner earning a place in the qualifying field. The Shotgun event will pit male vs. female players on the court, pingpong style -- that is, with no serves  playing to 21 points.

"In our industry, we've done it the same way since the dawn of time," Bellamy explained. "There are three things in life that haven't changed: the price of tennis balls, the price of Matchbox cars and the tennis tournament experience.

"We are in an industry that appreciates the purists, appreciates the traditions. I'm just one of those guys who doesn't."

After purchasing the tournament last February and moving it from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Las Vegas, Bellamy said the fit thus far could not be any better.

"It was the perfect storm of positives," he said. "The city is so searching for sports teams, so they really bent over backwards accommodating us.

"They've got the best hotels, best restaurants in the world. Obviously, the [men's players] are really into poker now. It was like the stars were in alignment." Bellamy noted that the city chipped in over $1 million to help.

Las Vegas last played host to an official ATP Tour event in 1985, the Alan King Tennis Classic. The city is looking to land a professional sports team, and it is host to a NASCAR series event and PGA Tour event.

As for the future, Bellamy said that next year he hopes to run a televised "American Idol"-esque countrywide amateur tennis tournament culminating with the winner earning a spot in the 2007 Tennis Channel Open.

"I'm pushing it to boundaries that are way new, and much, much further than any of these other events do," Bellamy said of his competition on the ATP Tour. "And if other people decide to be more like us, then I think that's fantastic."

Miki Singh provided research for ESPN during the Australian Open.