At the top level of professional tennis, the job of tournament director is glamorous – look at Tommy Haas, who now runs the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
But most toil in relative anonymity.
Former pro Keith Evans is the director of tennis and tournament director for the USTA $25,000 Futures tournament held at his club, the Germantown Country Club in Germantown, Tenn., a suburb of Memphis. The event took place the first week of April; young American Jared Hiltzik won the singles title.
Evans has plenty of personal experience in the trenches to draw upon. Through six years during the 1990s, Evans won more than 20 titles in singles and doubles at the Futures level (then called the satellite circuit) in the U.S., Canada and India and reached a career high of No. 195 in the ATP Tour rankings. Tennis.Life caught up with him to talk about the complexities of running a small professional event.
TENNIS LIFE: This is the 12th USTA professional event you have run. How did you get in to this?
KEITH EVANS: The first one I ran in 2004 was a women’s $25K in Tunica, Mississippi. I went to college at Ole Miss (Ed: the University of Mississippi), eventually becoming director of tennis at a new facility called Tunica National. In 2005 we ran a $50,000 Challenger that James Blake, coming back from his neck injury, entered and won.
Hosting events like these is a great way to get your club on the map. They’re not easy to run, take a lot of man-hours and the club and community really need to step up to make them successful. When I got the job at Tunica National, I just started bidding on all sorts of USTA events. Seniors championships, men’s and women’s Futures and Challengers – heck, even the Davis Cup. We were actually in the running to host a tie in 2005, but the US team lost first round to Croatia.
Having played so many of these as a player, I thought I knew what it took. Until you actually start doing all the work yourself. The amount of organizing and detail that goes in to running a successful event is staggering.
TENNIS LIFE: How far before an event do you start really cranking up the workload?
KEITH EVANS: You never really stop, to be honest. We just finished our 25K here in Germantown on Sunday, and all I’ve been doing this week is taking calls about next year’s event and how we can make it bigger and better. Especially now being in the Memphis area, and the Memphis Open moving up to Long Island after 41 years. We’re already trying to see if we can grow the event into a Challenger level event, maybe $100,000, right around that. (It’s) probably too early to think bigger than that. But this community loves its tennis, so we’ll see.
To be more specific, I would say about three months before the event we need start getting our staffing and volunteers and everybody cranked up doing their respective duties.
TENNIS LIFE: What’s the incentive to running an event like this? Can you turn a profit?
KEITH EVANS: Sure you can. You can also lose a lot too. Nobody’s getting rich running Futures tournaments. Players, organizers, clubs – nobody. But I love being around the stars of tomorrow. It’s amazing the level of talent in the pro game outside the bright lights of the big events. Last year we had 17-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov come down here and win our event. Couple months later, he’s taking out Nick Kyrgios in a Masters 1000. The average fan may not fully grasp just how high the level of play is here. It’s extraordinary, really.
Secondly, the tournaments live and die by the communities that support them. Where I am now in Germantown is an awesome private club. The whole area comes out to support the event. Many of our members open their homes to the players, providing them housing, which is great for the players, the hosts and us, the organizers. It creates a real community feel. Players get close with their housing and vice-versa. It makes the guys want to keep coming back, which is how you build and grow a successful event. In the end, the real pride in this is not so much the bottom line but in hosting a great event that people really look forward to year after year.
TENNIS LIFE: Where does the $25,000 purse come from?
KEITH EVANS: The USTA underwrites it. The first year they provided $20,000. This year it was $17,500. Next year we get $15,000. It’s a good system; each year we grow and engage the community more through sponsorship, the USTA expects us to carry a little more of the weight.
TENNIS LIFE: What is your biggest expense?
KEITH EVANS: The umpires, for sure. All week, all day, full crews going on several courts. The umpires have to provide their own transportation to our event, but once here we take care of them: putting them up in hotels, feeding them and then paying them their daily rate. It adds up.
TENNIS LIFE: Hawk-Eye is obviously quite expensive and not that portable, yet events like yours spend $25,000 on umpiring year after year. What is the USTA’s position on this?
KEITH EVANS: I’ve been discussing this for a long time, with all sorts of interested parties. It turns out the USTA likes the optics of having full crews working these smaller events. If you’re a newer fan walking in off the street, it gives off an aura of importance, that something significant is taking place here. I never really thought of it that way, but I see their point. The linespeople, for better or worse, are part of tennis theater as we know it. Certainly, for the players, having some kind of highly accurate system in place would be optimal. But I don’t think the linespeople are going away anytime soon.
TENNIS LIFE: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever had to deal with? Anybody ever try to buy a wild card from you?
KEITH EVANS: Ha. Never, but I have heard of such things. They finally did away with getting a single ATP point for just making the main draw of a Futures. You have to win a round now to get a ranking, so buying wild cards doesn’t get you what it used to.