Venus Williams with Joel Fisher from Madison Square Garden and (left) and Jerry Solomon of StarGames (right). Photo courtesy of Angela Cranford/MSG Photos
From the controversial Tennis World Cup proposal, to Maria Sharapova’s scrutinized all-exo preparation for the Australian Open, to the feel-good success of Roger Federer’s Hit for Haiti, the often peripheral world of tennis exhibitions is garnering some serious attention this season.
Next up is the BNP Paribas Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup on March 1st at New York’s Madison Square Garden. In its second year, the one-night tournament features Major champions Venus Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Kim Clijsters and Ana Ivanovic. (Even exos aren’t immune from last minute withdrawals – Serena pulled out last week with a leg injury.) The four players will pair up for two one-set semis with the winners playing a best-of-three-sets final – all with no-ad scoring.
It may not be an official WTA tour event, but the women will be playing for some very real prize money: a total pool of $1.2 million, or more than five times the purse of a typical International-level, 32-woman tournament. And until Serena Williams pulled out last week, her planned semifinal against Kim Clijsters was billed as a “REMATCH!” of their 2009 US Open match. Not exactly a hit and giggle.
I had a chance to speak with Jerry Solomon, President of StarGames, the sports marketing and production company behind this exhibition and many others, including the upcoming Casesar’s Tennis Classic event in Atlantic City and the NetJets Showdown between Roger Federer and Pete Sampras that sold out the Garden in 2008. Solomon says he wants the Billie Jean King Cup to be taken seriously – which means shying away from the “exhibition” label.
“We’ve tried to keep it (the Billie Jean King Cup) away from the sort of exhibition feel.” Solomon told me via telephone on February 12. “We’ve created it in such a way where the players are actually playing for prize money – and a lot of prize money – and what we hope is a prestigious title and thus Billie Jean’s involvement.”
What really set last year’s debut Billie Jean King Cup tournament apart from a typical exo was the event’s earnest tribute to its namesake, culminating in a “halftime” appearance by President Bill Clinton. Clinton gushed over King in his speech: “She has probably done more than any other woman in the world to empower women and educate men.”
What, no toga-clad beefcakes? Rickshaws? How about pigs named Larimore Hustle?
Yes we’ve come a long way, baby, since 1973, when Billie Jean King took part in one of the biggest sporting spectacles of all time: the Battle of the Sexes exhibition at the Houston Astrodome. In front of a crowd of 30,000 spectators and a prime time television audience of about 50 million, King beat retired pro and self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in a best of five-set match. Before it started, she was carried onto the court Cleopatra-style by a crew of half nude men, and Riggs arrived via rickshaw pulled by his punnily named “Bosom Buddies.” And yes, the opponents exchanged gifts – an oversized “Sugar Daddy” lollypop for King, a live pig named Larimore Hustle for Riggs. It was a hit. (Click here for a fabulous contemporary report!)
I asked Solomon if he was tempted to revisit this quaint, 20th century idea:
“I think Billie Jean playing Bobby Riggs was important in a moment of time when women in sports were emerging and trying to gain acceptance and not have it be looked at as sort of a sideshow. Today we’re far far beyond that.
“One of the reasons that Billie Jean agreed to be involved with us is that she knows I’ve personally been involved in a lot of women’s sports over the years.” Solomon said. (His wife, Nancy Kerrigan, and other female athletes like Shannon Miller and Jackie Joyner Kersee have all been StarGames clients.) “I think she felt comfortable that we had a real understanding of women’s sports and this wasn’t something that was gimmicky.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a match like that (Battle of the Sexes) does take place. But it’s not something we’re interested in doing in Madison Square Garden at this time.”
If anything, Solomon is trying to create an anti-exhibition exhibition that not only blurs the lines between competition and entertainment but between slick promotion and grassroots sincerity. Running in conjunction with the Billie Jean King Cup is the USTA’s Tennis Night in America, which promotes youth registration at tennis clubs around the country. The tone of this year’s “halftime” presentation will be less pomp and circumstance that before but will still encompass Solomon’s big tent approach. There will be a million dollar serving contest sponsored by the Tennis Industry Association (good luck Mrs. Christine Smith of Hurst, Texas!) and the International Tennis Hall of Fame will announce its 2010 induction class. More than 15 corporate sponsors have signed on, with brands like FIJI water, Ubisoft video games and Fila running promotions and unveiling new products around the event. (No, Sugar Daddy isn’t doing a give-away.)
“All of these things are designed to bring in as much of the tennis community into this event as we possibly can and to expand it as a platform for so much about tennis.” Solomon said.
I asked the tennis promoter if he had a dream exhibition:
“I think we’d have four players: Laver, Sampras, Federer and I’d probably put (Bjorn) Borg in there and play the same format we’re playing (at the BJK Cup) and see who’s the best player.”
And would Wimbledon be the dream venue for such an illustrious exhibition? Solomon didn’t hesitate: “I’d do it right in Madison Square Garden on Tennis Night in America.”
The Billie Jean King Cup will be broadcast live on MSG Plus (semifinals) and ESPN2 (final match.) All matches will also be available on ESPN360.com. Click here for MSG ticket information.