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By Kent Oswald
(February 8, 2010) Don't read any further to answer your questions about the SAP Open, which begins tonight with an exhibition featuring Hall of Famer Pete Sampras vs. Fernando Verdasco, World No. 12 and (let's face it) hunk.

Head over to the San Jose tournament's website and check out the lower left hand corner of the home page. There is the twitter recap and if you ask a question, someone from the tournament will send back the 140 character or fewer answer, usually within an hour of your tweet.

Still here? Back? That policy of ask an honest question/get an honest answer — and quickly — begins at the top, with Tournament Director Bill Rapp, who began as a volunteer usher in 1983 and is now in his 28th year with the tournament that traces its roots back 122 years to a men's-only event held at the Old Del Monte Lodge in Monterey, Calif.

This year's version, an ATP men's singles and doubles tournament taking place through Sunday Feb. 14, at the HP Pavillion, features not just the opening night exo and a field that includes Andy Roddick and the World No. 1 doubles team of the Bryan Brothers, but a "Ladies Doubles Challenge," a "High School Writer's Day," and, Sunday, taking the Super Bowl almost head-on, a pro-am doublesathon to benefit tournament charity East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring with players including Mike and Bob Bryan, Tommy Haas, Robby Ginepri, tournament qualifier Jan Michael Gambill and wild cards Ryan Harrison and 2009 NCAA champ Devin Britten.

It's that combination of unapologetic marketing and sincere attempt to reach out to the community that is the hallmark of the tournament under Rapp.Take the first night's activity, which sees the retired Sampras return for his third straight year.

"Is it a ploy for publicity?" asks Rapp rhetorically. "Yes it is," he admits freely. "Every day the people [in this area] have at least 27 entertainment choices. I have to figure a way to cut though it."

The opening night exhibition became a strength, selling 9-10,000 tickets, out of a weakness.

"Generally Monday nights in tournaments are weak in attendance," says Rapp. "It doesn't make sense for sponsors, fans, for anyone to kick off a tournament in a weak manner. ... [I want] to "put butts in the seats."

In previous years, Rapp made international headlines teaming John McEnroe and Jonas Bjorkman in a Johnny Mac return to tennis that had the surprising result of the oldtimers running the field to capture the hardware. He has also reached out to a non-traditional tennis community by paying an appearance fee — perhaps the first ever for a doubles team — to Mahesh Bhupati and Leander Paes. The good news: about 3,000 tickets were sold through Indian community efforts and an Indian Restaurant even signed up as a tournament sponsor. The bad news, Todd Martin and James Blake signed in to play doubles and "cleaned the clock" of "the Indian Express."

He has also carefully cultivated a relationship with the USTA's North California section, offering members various benefits, supporting USTA league play and inviting members to a Monday afternoon session to hear from the pros. Rapp describes the relationship as "very, very postive" and emphasizes that no money is exchanged, only mutual benefits.

About a dozen years ago, Rapp took the unusual step of scheduling his first three nights of play before the tournament's start to let fans and the media know what was coming up.


Photo By Natasha Peterson/Corleve

This year, after the Sampras-Verdasco match, Czech enigma and world No. 24 Tomas Berdych will take on Wayne Odesnik. Tuesday evening, Haas will play his first tournament as an American citizen; Wednesday, preceding play of third-highest ranked American Sam Querrey, center court will feature the World No. 1 doubles team —  who last year won the first ever identical twin tennis showdown at the HP Pavilion when they defeated the twin Thais, Sonchat and Sanchai Ratiwatana. He always wants to create a sense of excitement, to get even casual fans in the area and around the country to say to friends, "you want to see something cool and interesting, check out what they're doing in San Jose."

However, in aggressively marketing tennis, Rapp, who in his off time also runs SportsRapp marketing handling tennis-related events in other cities and invented Prince Grip Plus, may have set the bar where it won't be reached for years. This year he went guerilla, first taking Harrison and Britten to a high end mall's courtyard and then a farmer's market where they unfurled a net, grabbed junior racquets and started volleying Quickstart balls back and forth to grab the interest of the passing shoppers. No doubt Memphis should be on the lookout as he heads off on a red eye to start work on the Regions Morgan Keegan and Cellular South Cup tournaments as soon as he can put this year's SAP Open to bed.

On the Sunday before the tournament began— a day that began early with a review of the court and its signage and continued with some handholding of media and players before the Pro-Am that would precede a player's barbecue and Super Bowl party at the tournament hotel and would eventually end late with the finalizing of the first days' scheduling — Rapp is clearly enjoying everything coming together.

"I love the game of tennis," he says. "I really enjoy putting together a quality event. As I tell my staff, it's about 2700 different details. Some small, some large; we have to do them all well."

Any more questions? Don't be afraid to ask.

Kent Oswald is the producer of the Jock Book Review, the former editor of Tennis Week and a long-time tennis journalist. He lives in New York.

Photo Credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve


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