The Farmers Classic – by any of the seven names it’s had over 86 years – once drew the biggest names in tennis: Rod Laver, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and Palos Verdes star Pete Sampras.
In 2001, Sampras and Agassi played each other in the final.
Agassi won in straight sets, but before he got his trophy, tournament director Bob Kramer addressed the fans.
“As we always say here, this might have been great, but come back next year because you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Kramer told the crowd.
That was the tournament’s apex, as Kramer remembered on a recent morning at the LA Tennis Center, on the same court where Sampras and Agassi had played.
Now, despite a website that still promises a tennis tournament in Los Angeles in 2013, the event is leaving for Bogota, Colombia next year.
Kramer stood next to an on-court plaque that recognized the Times Mirror Company for helping to build the tennis stadium on UCLA’s campus.
Another contributor was Johnny Carson.
“His donation was a major gift and we built the Johnny Carson draw board,” said Kramer. “On the west end was the Unocal scoreboard.”
Carson passed away seven years ago. Unocal and Times Mirror are gone. And soon, The Farmers Classic will be gone, too.
“There’s a big hole in my heart. This is something we didn’t see coming,” said Kramer.
Kramer managed the tournament's ball boys as a teenager. He took over managing the whole show about three decades ago.
Until a few weeks ago, he thought he could keep The Farmers Classic in LA.
“We were in many, many conversations and meetings with large sports marketing organizations and talking to potential investors, billionaires – people like the Ellisons, the Kerkorians, the Anschutzes – but at the end of the day, none of those people were able to come to the table and make a deal with us,” said Kramer. “The only definitive offers came from Colombia.”
Kramer says the tournament has been losing millions of dollars.
He blames the recession and the tournament’s location in the middle of the crowded summer tennis calendar.
But the biggest problem has been attracting the world’s top players.
“The markets globally have been stronger than the ones domestically and the events have flowed to those stronger markets,” said Kramer. “For example, in December, we understand that Roger Federer is playing five or six events and he’s going to be paid $10 million dollars in South America.”
The Farmers Classic is only the latest American tennis event to depart.
Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim remembers it wasn’t long ago that there were dozens of tournaments coast to coast.
“The tour would thread its way from Hilton Head to Amelia Island to Atlanta,” said Wertheim. “We don’t have that anymore. And it’s very hard to become a tennis fan now. You may be the biggest Roger Federer fan in the world but he only comes to the U.S. three, maybe four times a year whereas a generation ago a player like Bjorn Borg would play 15-20 tournaments in the U.S.”
In those days, the top players were American. Not anymore. Wertheim says tennis tournaments tend to follow the workforce.
“The decline of American players at the top of the rankings is directly correlated, I think, to the decline of American events,” said Wertheim.
One of the few American events thriving today is only a two-hour drive from L.A.
The BNP Paribas Open was on its way from Indian Wells to Doha a few years ago, until Oracle founder Larry Ellison swooped in to save it.
Still, Wertheim says it’s strange that LA – where Pancho Gonzales and Bobby Riggs learned the game, where Arthur Ashe went to college – will no longer have a major tournament.
“It is jarring,” said Wertheim. “Name your global city. We have tournaments in Basel, Switzerland and Barcelona and Bangkok, but not in Los Angeles. I think that it really says as much about the current state of global tennis as anything.”
A state in which American tennis declines as the sport grows more popular in the rest of the world.