The Sponsor’s Pavilion at the New Haven Open sits back from the traffic of fans walking to center court at the Connecticut Tennis Center to watch the next tennis match. The white tent is surrounded by a white picket fence that seems oddly out of place when separating cement from more cement.
On a Wednesday night in August, a week into the tournament, guests who have paid $150 per plate are streaming into the Grand Tasting Event, the highlight of the Open’s Food & Wine Festival. Before entering the tent itself, they flash their purple “VIP” bracelets to two less-than-menacing bouncers — 20-something blondes wearing New Haven Open T-shirts and chatting about the next match — and receive a large, plastic plate, equipped with a hole for the stem of a wine glass. The tent is lit only by a purple light at the apex, bathing the collared shirts of those present — New Haven government officials, Yale spokespeople, bank presidents — in a pinkish hue. The walls are lined with booths covered in black linen displaying hors d’oeuvres from nearly every major restaurant in town. Guests attempt to balance small bites of Catalan-inspired flan from Barcelona, chipotle-glazed bacon donuts from Box 63, and deep red ceviche from Ibiza while shaking other guests’ hands. In one corner, Claire of Claire’s Corner Copia chats with a Yale student about the cooking classes she plans to offer at one of the residential colleges next semester. In the opposite corner, the Mayor of West Haven poses for a picture with his wife. It is five minutes until the featured match of the night, and only a few people are beginning to move toward the door.
A year ago, New Haven’s Pilot Pen Tennis Tournament was dead. The pen company, a corporate sponsor since 1996, was relocating its headquarters from Connecticut to Florida and thus pulling its funding. The tournament had, in the past, attracted 80 to 90 thousand people to New Haven per year, according to the New Haven Chamber of Commerce, bringing with them business and the attention of tennis fans around the globe. But convincing corporations to take Pilot Pen’s place and share even just a fraction of the financial burden (estimated at $1.2 million) proved tricky. At a press conference on October 21, 2010, Butch Buchholz, the tournament chairman, explained, “We had to ask … the USTA [United States Tennis Association] for two extensions.” The tournament remained on shaky ground until the final deadline: “It got down to literally hours.”
The USTA had started looking for other locations to host the tournament when Yale, which was already a sponsor and had always provided the facilities, stepped in to help. President Richard Levin recalls, “I remember sitting down [with the people involved] … and recognizing we really had to get this done in the next few months or Butch Buchholz would have to move the tournament somewhere else.”
President Levin recruited sponsors, acting as a white knight of sorts. Anne Worcester, the tournament director, has often called Levin her “sales director,” saying that by opening doors and making introductions, he found the funds. His strategy? Convincing sponsors that the tournament was essential to the New Haven community.
By the October 21st press conference, Yale University, Yale New Haven Hospital, Aetna Insurance, and American Express had become the four “cornerstone” sponsors, having signed a deal to keep the tournament in New Haven through 2013. First Niagara would join later as the presenting sponsor. The unusual plan of shared sponsorship was heralded by Worcester as “the best thing that ever happened to this tennis tournament.”
Bruce Alexander ’65 stands alone in the middle of the Grand Tasting tent, looking rather pensive. He knows perhaps better than anyone else at that event what change has come over New Haven in the last few decades. Alexander became Yale’s Vice President and Director of New Haven and State Affairs in 1998. He is responsible for much of the revitalization of New Haven, having led initiatives to redevelop the commercial properties adjacent to Yale’s campus, and for Yale to reach out to the New Haven community. He also chairs the board of Market New Haven (of which Worcester is also a member), whose mission is, according to its website, “to enhance the positive image of New Haven, communicate its renaissance, and to improve the prosperity of the City, its residents, and its business.”
Alexander and others on the board understand that this tournament brings national and even international attention to New Haven. Alexander says of the tournament, “Those of us who live in New Haven know of its spectacular renaissance. But other people around the world have not caught on yet. The New Haven Open is one of those events that showcases the new New Haven.”
But Yale’s heavy involvement with the tournament drew questions — universities rarely, if ever, act as a sponsor of professional sporting events. And yet Yale, in a year filled with economic predicaments and plans for a new campus abroad, has dedicated a significant amount of time and effort to the preservation of the tournament. Anne Worcester’s explanation is simple: “As goes New Haven, so goes Yale.”
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John Koelmel, President of First Niagara Bank, sets aside his food to keep up with the number of handshakes he has to make. When the four cornerstone sponsors had yet to reach their financial goal for the tournament, Levin and Worcester approached First Niagara for help. As a new member of the New Haven community — First Niagara merged with Connecticut-based New Alliance Bank in April — the bank saw an opportunity to help the city. “[The tournament] is a unique event that New Haven could not afford to lose,” says Koelmel.
First Niagara’s investment is larger than that of the other cornerstone sponsors, and the tournament could have been called the First Niagara Tournament. But instead, it got a new name: the New Haven Open. “We’re not in the business of putting our names on things,” says Koelmel. “It’s about the New Haven community.”
While the USTA itself does a great deal of community outreach through its various events, the New Haven Open has gone above and beyond in its efforts to help its host city, utilizing the celebrity of professional tennis to build interest at the community level. “It’s always been our philosophy that this is much more than a tennis tournament,” Worcester says. “We leverage this large-scale, international sporting event to engage the community, especially among youth.” Over the years, the tournament has partnered with the Parks and Recreation Department and local school systems to create affordable tennis programs offered year-round. More than 5,000 children have gone through these clinics so far. And the New Haven Open has been consistently recognized as a leader in community outreach: last year, Worcester was invited to be the keynote speaker at the largest USTA conference on growing community tennis programs.
This year, the New Haven Open’s featured community event was the First Niagara Block Party at the Wexler-Grant School. Wexler-Grant is located in the Dixwell neighborhood, in which, according to the New Haven Independent, the police recorded 151 criminal incidents in the month of July alone. There, not only did rising 19-year-old American tennis star Christina McHale teach a clinic of 200 kids, but First Niagara also gave out tennis racquets to all the children. With the event, Worcester and First Niagara hoped to expose children to the sport of tennis and teach them about the importance of fitness. “We took it to the Dixwell/Newhallville areas because kids there don’t have as many after-school activities and summer activities as other places,” says Worcester. The tournament followed up three weeks later with the first-ever summer tennis program in that neighborhood, which quickly became oversubscribed.
Anne Worcester, who has directed this tournament for 14 years, moves efficiently through the Grand Tasting. She stops occasionally to greet sponsors and city leaders but usually she’s explaining to her staff how to prepare for that night’s big match. Worcester is the picture of composure; each of her words, even side remarks, seems practiced. Throughout the tournament she is ubiquitous — holding a microphone at every game, every press conference, every promotional event.
Worcester spent the entire year preparing for the revamped event, even persevering through a number of personal trials to reach the opening days of the tournament. Doctors diagnosed Worcester with breast cancer in March after she received an abnormal result from her annual mammogram in January. Just a few weeks later, Worcester’s mother, Karene, who also had breast cancer, passed away. Despite her personal tribulations, Worcester did not give up on work. Two days after her mother’s funeral, she traveled to Florida to try to recruit players for the 2011 tournament; she especially had her eye on the three-time champion of the Pilot Pen tournament and number one tennis player in the world, Caroline Wozniacki.
“It would have been easy to cancel the trip,” Worcester told the Hartford Courant in June. “[But] I knew I had to lay the groundwork.… And I also wanted to look Caroline Wozniacki in the eye and make sure she knew how important it was to come back.” Worcester underwent surgery in April, and Wozniacki agreed to play in the tournament. As living proof that early mammograms are essential to fighting breast cancer, Worcester decided to use the tournament as a platform for the breast cancer cause.
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Eight months before Worcester’s surgery, it had been decided that the New Haven Open would be a women’s-only tournament — unlike Pilot Pen, which had been men’s and women’s. The men’s side of the tournament had been added five years earlier but had never attracted much star power, largely because the tournament takes place the week before the U.S. Open, and many players want to take that time to rest. The men’s side was determined to be a financial drain, and thus it moved to North Carolina.
Switching back to a women’s-only format proved useful financially. The target audience does not change dramatically between a mixed and women’s-only tournament, but many companies have women’s initiatives. “So,” Worcester says, “almost every company has a way to tie in with a women’s-only event that might not have been appropriate for a combined event.”
Earlier in the afternoon, a crowd had gathered around a pink Cybex treadmill in front of the stadium. Caroline Wozniacki was running steadily at 8.8 miles per hour. She had popped one headphone in her ear, and the other was dangling down her shoulder. Her blonde braid swung back and forth as she jogged, and she smiled awkwardly at the 50 people surrounding her — fans, reporters, small children holding out giant yellow tennis balls that already sported the signatures of other players. The previous night, she won the second set of her first game of the tournament, against Polona Hercog, in 11 minutes. The next day, she would play rising tennis star Christina McHale, whose claim to fame was beating Wozniacki in Cinicinatti two weeks earlier. Standing next to the treadmill, Anne Worcester explained that every mile run on the treadmill would raise donations for the Smilow Cancer Center at Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. The treadmill, which all the women playing in the tournament signed, was to be auctioned off after the the championship game. Wozniacki hopped off the treadmill, having completed three miles in 22 minutes. When she left, the crowd dispersed, and some headed toward the Mobile Mammography Van, a vehicle provided by Yale-New Haven Hospital to offer free mammograms.
Throughout the matches, the players sport pink gear as they play. Everyone who runs on the treadmill — player or fan — receives a pink towel. “We may have done it if we were still a combined event,” says Worcester, “but being that we reverted to a women’s-only event again, and based on the fact that one in eight women in the country is diagnosed with breast cancer, it was a natural tie-in.”
Tony Rescigno, the President of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce, leans over a tall table in the middle of the tent at the Grand Tasting. As a representative of the workers of New Haven, he is pleased that the tournament, which generates 26 million dollars of economic impact, has remained in the city. The most apparent form of this income to the city is the work generated by the tournament: though Yale provides the facilities, the event employs workers to construct tents, set up lighting, and paint, among other jobs. According to Rescigno, 80 to 90 thousand people come into the area for the tournament, and while they are in New Haven, they buy gasoline, stay at hotels, go out to dinner, and shop. “And it all adds up to a fortune,” he says. But there are more subtle economic effects. “People say, ‘That was a good tournament. Those were good restaurants. Let’s go back to [New Haven] sometime,’” Rescigno continues. He gestures broadly around the room and jokes, “There are people here who never come to New Haven. What’s the matter with them?”
Those involved with the New Haven Open hope that the tournament will showcase a city vibrant with culture, not the FBI-ranked fourth most dangerous city in the country. Of course, the sport itself also carries certain connotations. Charles Harris, a sports marketing expert, told the Associated Press during the first days of the Open that the audience Yale University is trying to reach often overlaps with the audience for tennis, which projects a sophisticated image. Events at the Open — such as a High Tea with former tennis star Stefi Graf (though Graf was unable to attend the tea because of Hurricane Irene), the Grand Tasting, and a Vineyard Vines Fashion Show — certainly suggest that the tournament and Yale are catering to the elite image of tennis. “You’re trying to attract and send a message to people who can afford to attend Yale,” Harris told the Associated Press. “If they were doing another type of sport that didn’t fit their demographic, you would raise your eyebrows.”
Yale’s role as a sponsor is not just unusual, it is unprecedented. But the relationship is mutually beneficial: New Haven benefits from Yale’s fundraisers and name. Indeed, First Niagara spokesman James Bzdyra told the Associated Press the company would not have become a sponsor of the tournament if it were not for Yale. And Yale, in turn, takes advantage of the local and international attention to its home city. Worcester concludes, “I don’t know that there’s any university in the world that leverages a professional hometown sporting event in such a smart way for supporting the community with its year-round programs as well as its international branding.”
‘Nihao.” With five minutes before Chinese superstar Li Na steps on court for her first match of the tournament, Anne Worcester is practicing her Chinese. Soon the Chinese Consul from New York, who has come to watch Li play, will be arriving at the Grand Tasting to meet Worcester. Li quickly rose to national attention in June when she beat out defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the French Open, becoming the first Chinese Grand Slam champion in history. According to the Los Angeles Times, 65 million Chinese people watched her win.
After Li wins the match, in a tiebreaker against Maria Kirilenko, she is swiftly taken off the court to a meet and greet. There, the emcee — who has now mentioned to the crowd several times that he is the father of the Bryan brothers, a doubles team that took home the bronze for America at the Beijing Olympics — is killing time before she arrives. “I’ve never seen such an organized group before,” he observes before cracking the joke, “I’ve never seen so many Communists before either.” The stands have filled with Chinese people, many who belong to the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale. Bryan asks the audience where the best Chinese food is in New Haven. The resounding answer is Great Wall, which prompts the owner of that establishment to stand up and introduce himself.
Li steps onto the court quietly and without much fanfare. The staff is too distracted to notice when she walks up to the edge of the stands to sign one child’s ball. Suddenly there is a surge of Chinese children moving toward her, some encouraged by the gentle pushes of parents from behind. Adults follow the children, and soon everyone is out of their seats, standing on tiptoes trying to snap pictures of Li. A microphone makes its way through the crowd and questions are thrown at her in Chinese. Hongda Xiao, the President of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale, says that he thinks speaking in the language of her hometown made Li feel like she was coming back home.
“The New Haven Open at Yale puts the city of New Haven in a national and international limelight, as well as Yale,” says Worcester. The tournament is televised in 100 different countries around the world and features players from a variety of countries. The potential international exposure is not lost on Yale. As Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, the Associate Vice President of the office of New Haven and State Affairs explains, “Yale is a global institution rooted in New Haven. [Thus the tournament] is a natural match for us. The best example this year of the tournament’s international reach is Li Na.”
Li is a naturally appealing character, answering reporters’ questions with a deadpan sense of humor. In the interview after her first match, the emcee asks her how she pushed through a tough tiebreaker at the end of her last set. “I’m strong,” she answers simply, evoking laughter from the crowd. As a public female figure from China, the tennis star is somewhat of an anomaly. The meet and greet with the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale exemplifies her sudden popularity in China and beyond.
Li’s success and her presence at the New Haven Open will increase the tournament’s exposure in Asia. “CCTV [China Central Television] in China and other Asian networks will expand their broadcast of this tournament because of Li Na,” says Worcester. “So all of Yale’s critical initiatives in Asia will be —” she pauses, “it sort of connects the dots.”
Levin is well aware of the Chinese exposure that Li has brought to the tournament, and thus to Yale. “I think it’s great publicity for the city and wonderful publicity for Yale — [there’s] great footage of Yale in every show,” Levin says, mentioning that a friend in Beijing saw the tournament on TV. “The background [of the match] features Yale’s name prominently. It’s a great vehicle for letting people know that there are some first class things happening in New Haven, and Yale is associated with them.”
As Caroline Wozniacki follows through on the last serve of Saturday’s championship game, she launches herself forward onto her front foot and swings her back leg, bandaged at the thigh, high into the air. Her motions reveal her bright pink spandex that match her bright pink sports bra, her bright pink nail polish, and the bright pink stripes on her shoes. Her outfit complements the free pink hats honoring breast cancer awareness that 7,500 fans received upon entering the final match.
At match point, Wozniacki has all but won the tournament. Though she only escaped the first set of the match with a narrow 6-4 victory, she has destroyed Petra Cetkovska in the second set, five games to one. But she still needs one more point to be the champion. The ball comes back slightly to her right, and she squats so low to receive it that her knees practically touch the court.
The remaining rally is barely a challenge: Wozniacki returns an easy backhand, and Cetkovska hits the next ball too long. Before the ball even lands out of bounds, Wozniacki is pumping her fist.
There are few in the stands to celebrate Wozniacki’s fourth consecutive victory at the New Haven Open. A time change from 5 p.m. to 1 p.m. because of the threat of Hurricane Irene and a one hour and 40 minute rain delay has left the stands depleted. Fans from the upper decks have slowly trickled down over the course of the game, taking more expensive seats soaked in raindrops. It begins to rain again as the trophies are brought out, and more people flee for their cars.
The rain is a disappointment, and the tournament staff seems to recognize that. Worcester begins her speech, “Caroline, sweet Caroline, you are now our four-time defending champ,” before asking Wozniacki if she will return next year to defend her title, even asking for Wozniacki’s agent. Wozniacki smiles and says “I’d like to” in a cheery but slightly hesitant voice. Fans clap, not totally sure if that is the appropriate response. Minutes later in the press conference, a reporter asks again if Wozniacki will be returning next year. Wozniacki answers more firmly this time: “I’m sure I’ll be back next year.”
In 2009, Caroline Wozniacki had just won her second Pilot Pen Tournament when Yale football head coach, Tom Williams, asked her to speak to his team. He hoped that the words of an accomplished (and not to mention very blonde) athlete their age — Wozniacki was 19 at the time — would inspire his players to stay focused. Tom Beckett, Yale’s Athletic Director, remembers that the football team was “riveted because she was talking about competing and staying in the moment.”
“She seemed really down to earth,” says now-captain Jordan Haynes ’12. “I had no idea at the time that she was going to be the number one tennis player in the world.”
Since then, the team has adopted her and started a tradition of coming to her matches every year. But the team’s love affair with Wozniacki was complicated this year when rumors emerged over the summer that the tennis all-star was dating Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, who won the U.S. Open in June. Nobody knew if the team would show up to Wozniacki’s game with the threat of McIlroy in the stands.
The footballers not only came to her semi-final match, but they also embraced McIlroy. After introducing the Yale football team as it ran onto the court and giving them a moment to celebrate with her and pose for pictures, the tournament emcee announced the addition of a new player to the team — number 96, from the foothills of Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy. When he walked out in an Eli uniform, the team thundered. The Bulldogs reached out to high five him and patted him on the back as they posed for pictures with the couple. The players and audience cheered loudest of all when the couple kissed.