Tennis Festival brings game back to Arena


One day, Pam Shriver envisions a regular stop on the Women's International Tennis Association tour in Baltimore. A week-long parade of big names, big crowds and even bigger purses.

Now, back to reality.

The fifth First National Bank Tennis Festival will be played tonight at 7 o'clock with two of the game's rising stars, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles, as its center-stage attractions.

But the spotlight, though squarely on these two top 10 phenoms, also will be on the Baltimore Arena, which will play host to the event after three years at Loyola College's Reitz Arena and one year at the Towson Center.

"It just seemed like the time to move it," Shriver, the event's host and creator, said last week. "To me, there was no decision to make. There were people who were uneasy about it, but I didn't see it as being a mistake."

Those who had trepidations about big-time tennis coming back to the Arena probably remembered what happened in previous attempts during the past two decades.

There were the ill-fated Baltimore Banners of the World Team Tennis league, with the original nasty boy, Jimmy Connors, drawing those throngs of 800.

And how about those one-shot exhibitions of the late 1970s and early '80s, featuring the likes of Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, Bjorn Borg, Roscoe Tanner, Ivan Lendl and Yannick Noah?

"What happens when you put a tennis match into a big arena, is that when all the seats aren't filled, it looks empty," said Edie Brown, the Arena's public relations director for the past 11 years. "The people who promoted it didn't understand Baltimore.

"I think Pam's tournament will do nicely. I think it gives her room to grow. And people are much more willing to come to the Arena now than they were then. Going downtown wasn't something people did. And Pam has a good reputation in the community."

By late yesterday afternoon, about 1,800 tickets remained in a building that holds just more than 11,000 for tennis. Shriver said she hopes to raise $200,000 this year for the three charities involved. The event has raised $650,000 total for Cystic Fibrosis of Maryland.

But the success of this year's Tennis Festival also may raise Shriver's hopes -- and those of fellow tour player and Baltimorean Elise Burgin -- of a full-blown event coming to their hometown. Shriver said that it's still a way off.

"Two or three more years," said Shriver, who is vice president of the WITA. "But, at some point, it's going to be time to try to go for a tournament. It takes time."

Shriver said she has made some preliminary inquiries into the possibility of an existing WITA tournament, such as the U.S. Hardcourts in San Antonio, moving to Baltimore. The Virginia Slims of New England recently announced it was moving next year to Philadelphia.

"There are a couple of weak events in markets that don't do them justice," Shriver said. "We could probably get a tournament at the $150,000 level, but those kind of tournaments don't get Capriati or Seles."

Just how did Shriver entice Seles and Capriati -- ranked second and eighth, respectively -- to put the festival on their busy schedules? The search began last spring, when it became apparent that top-ranked Steffi Graf couldn't come.

"There wasn't a long list to choose from," Shriver said.

At the top of the list was Seles, 16, who just had beaten Graf at the French Open. And, of course, there was Capriati, the 14-year-old wunderkind who had come out on tour in March. Since they accepted Shriver's offer this summer, Seles has become the hottest female player and Capriati has won her first pro event.

Both are coming off impressive performances at the recent Virginia Slims Championships in New York. Capriati extended Graf to three sets in the opening round, and Seles beat Gabriela Sabatini in the best-of-five-sets final Nov. 18.

"You love it for your two main players to have a high-profile lead-up," Shriver said.

Though Shriver wouldn't disclose how much she is paying Capriati and Seles, she said both have agreed to give back part of their appearance fees to charity. The Arena is charging operational costs for a night.

For her part, Shriver has been in less of a featured playing role the past three years, and this year's event coincides with her comeback after shoulder surgery in June. Shriver and Burgin will play in the pro-celebrity doubles, and will team to play against Capriati and Seles.

"When I saw Elise the other day, she asked me, 'How's your serve?' and I told her that it's better than it was at Nashville," Shriver said jokingly, referring to their first-round loss in doubles earlier this month. "I said that maybe we should split us up."

One of the reasons Shriver moved to the Arena was the demand for tickets last year, when the event sold out the 5,000-seat Towson Center six weeks before Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova came to town.

Despite a significant snowstorm the day of the event -- "It gave me a heart attack," Shriver said -- the big crowd showed Baltimore's most famous tennis player that her town and the event she started could be in for bigger and better things.

Tonight might be only the beginning of fulfilling that dream.

First National Bank

Tennis Festival

Where: Baltimore Arena.

When: Tonight, beginning at 7.

Who: Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Pam Shriver and Elise Burgin, along with Cal Ripken and Julius Erving.

Why: To benefit Cystic Fibrosis of Maryland, Children's Hospital and the Greater Baltimore Tennis Patrons Association.

Tickets: About 1,800 remain. Priced from $9 to $75. Tickets can be purchased at all TicketCenter outlets, the Arena box office and by calling 800-776-7378.

Festival history

1986: Three sessions at Loyola College, featuring Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver, drew 11,000.

1987: Three sessions at Loyola College, featuring Chris Evert and Pam Shriver, drew between 11,000 and 12,000.

1988: Three sessions at Loyola College, featuring the Federation Cup teams from the United States and Soviet Union, drew 9,000.

1989: One session at Towson Center, featuring Evert and Navratilova, drew a sellout crowd of 5,000.

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