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Building an American Nadal

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Buchanan in Marine boot camp at Camp Pendleton.   

This is the pitch. Kantarian is sitting in his USTA office, just down the hallway from Center Court at the U.S. Open. He talks as any pitchman might, with talking points and first names. “So you see,” he says, “the Open is not only a tennis tournament. It’s a spectacle.”

Kantarian is not a tennis guy. He’s a marketing whiz. Before he took over the USTA eight years ago, he worked as an executive at Pepsi and then at NFL Properties. After the NFL, he ran entertainment and marketing for Radio City Productions, where, among other things, he produced Super Bowl halftime shows. So far, he’s increased revenues at the Open by 42 percent. (The year before he arrived, revenues were $139 million; last year, they rose to a record $198 million.)

“In the end, you have to have a good story to tell,” he says.

Kantarian is the show-business mind behind the most visible changes at the Open in recent years. As a kid, Kantarian grew up near here, in Forest Hills, and he has sought to rescue the sport from “insiders” who kept it “inaccessible.” For starters, he dropped the price of nosebleed seats. Against the players’ wishes, he also installed two Jumbotron television screens, which are mounted high in the stands so nosebleed-ticket holders can actually see what’s happening miles below. He infuriated some players even further by implementing an instant-replay system, now a fan favorite. And to allow spectators to follow the fast-paced rallies even better, Kantarian changed the color of the court from its old grassy green to a blue. He’s also added the “spectacle” part. Now, walking the grounds, you can hear live bands and see nice flowers and eat “the most high-end food in sports,” including “flaming ouzo shrimp” and “locally grown arugula.” He’s also amplified his marketing campaign. For instance: The Open doesn’t offer the best tennis in the world; it offers the toughest tennis. He changed it “because this is the toughest city in the world,” he says. “You have to fight everything, the players, the crowds, the traffic.”

“It’s about celebrating what’s New York about New York,” he says.

“Of course there’s a lot of pressure,” says a coach. “We’re trying to find the next Andy Roddick. We’re trying to find the next James Blake.”

But the story lacked leading men and women: a new generation of American players. So early last year, Kantarian budgeted an initial $10 million to build the USTA’s own tennis factory in South Florida. At this stage, it’s far from a science. The idea is to create a place for Americans only, make it free for everybody, and keep it small and competitive, so the kids have to win their matches to stay there. To run it, Kantarian recently hired Patrick McEnroe. “There’s really no secret in how to create tennis champions,” McEnroe says. “It’s actually very simple. You have to take talent and surround it with talent.”

Chase arrived in November. He flew to Fort Lauderdale, and his coach picked him up and drove north, to Boca Raton. The USTA’s academy is located across the street from a golf course and surrounded by gated communities with flowery names like the Sanctuary and Le Lac.

Chase was taken to the dorm. He put his bags down and looked around. “Everything just had this newness,” he says. The wood from his bunk smelled of fresh carpentry. His desk smelled like varnish. He looked in the bathroom, checked the toilet, and inspected the shower. “All new,” he says. “It was kind of weird.”

In the dorm, Chase met his roommate and the other eight boys down the hall. On the other side of the hall, there were ten girls. All were here for the first time, and all their stories were different.

Chase’s mother, Melissa, was a beauty queen. In high school, she swam and played singles tennis. In college, she was Miss Ohio, and competed in the Miss America pageant. She came in second, and used the proceeds to help put herself through college. Chase’s father, Todd, was a magician. He was always on the road, doing his illusions on cruise ships or at corporate retreats. Often Melissa would perform onstage with him, dressed in a slinky sequined leotard. Chase was part of the act, too. His father did one illusion where he sat on a stool in the center of the stage and told the audience all about what it was like to be a young kid and not bear the burdens of adulthood, and as he was waxing nostalgic—voilà!—he vanished. There, sitting in his place, was young Chase.

“It was spooky,” his mother says.

Then Chase started playing tennis. At 7, he was so good he was offered a full scholarship to Bollettieri. Seven was too young to go away, his mother told him. So he and his mother fashioned their own routine outside of Columbus, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to hit the ball before school.


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