CINCINNATI - Sports fans are known to have absurd discussions, usually because they don't have anything else to talk about. Such was the case a year ago when a friend wondered aloud about "the best sports event" that we get a chance to see in Cincinnati.
One guy said Opening Day. Another favored the Crosstown Shootout. Some gearhead suggested NASCAR. Another said any Bengals game against the Steelers/Browns/Ravens.
"Not even close," I said and I meant it. All those are nice one-day affairs, often memorable affairs, sometimes historic affairs. But they don't approach the week-long power, punch and prestige of the Western and Southern Tennis Open.
Let me clarify that statement. It's not just the best sporting event in our community. It's the best event. Period.
There's simply nothing else like it. In fact, if you want to see anything similar, you have to go to Paris, London, New York or Melbourne. As in Australia. Not Melbourne, Kentucky.
For more than one week, one can watch Roger Federer face Rafael Nadal, or Serena Williams match Maria Sharapova. And it's been that way for a few decades.
In a football comparison that would be like having Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning competing side-by-side for a week. Or Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter and Josh Hamilton if you're a baseball fan. You get the point. You can watch these world-class athletes play from several yards away, and you can even watch them practice from several feet away.
I came to town in the late '70s. Since then, I've watched John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, Andy Murray and Roger Federer win titles. That's a "Who's Who" list of the tennis world for the past 30 years. Those are just the guys who won. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic haven't won here yet, although the Joker has finished second four times.
I bring up this old argument because the guy who made it happen, Paul Flory, died Thursday at age 90. In the bold world of tennis, Paul was unassuming. In the young, vibrant world of tennis, Paul was grandfatherly.
In a sport of overhead slams, Paul was a soft, effective lob.
World-class events have come to Cincinnati before. The World Figure Skating Championships were here. The Women's Final Four in basketball found its way here. So did the World Choir Games. All came, had an impact and left. Most of those event will probably never to return to the Queen City during this generation.
But world class tennis came here, grew here, thrived here, and stayed here.
Flory was a big reason why. I can't tell you how he did it, but I know he did it.
My first experience with the tournament was 1979 when it was called the ATP Championship. The event featured large temporary grandstands near Kings Island. Peter Fleming won. The competitive fields were solid, but not star-studded.
That changed gradually. McEnroe and Jimmy Connors came and were worth the price of admission alone. Ivan Lendl was a breakthrough. Sweden sent Edberg, Wilander and a troop of good players. Becker Mania raged and girls squealed as Boris walked out to practice. Agassi started here as the epitome of young style. He left as a mature, bald man.
Then the stadium was built. And expanded. Then improved. Then expanded and improved again. Adjacent courts were built and food courts flourished. It was great tennis, but it was also a must-attend social event.
Flory was the architect. I imagine Carl Lindner was incredibly instrumental with his financial support. It was the Thriftway ATP for several years. When Thriftway went away, John Barrett put the backing of Western & Southern behind the tournament. From there it just kept getting better.
When you go to the tournament, take a look at the license plates in the parking lot. Fans come from all over the country, in fact, all over the world to take part in it. The tournament is televised worldwide. More than once I've been asked "How did Cincinnati get a great event like this?"
It seems to me that Paul must have been very persuasive with the Cincinnati business community. He made it see the possibilities. And he also had to be very persuasive with the governing bodies of tennis. The Cincinnati stop wasn't just another event, it became "A PREMIER YOU CAN'T MISS THIS TOURNAMENT" event.
Paul got the stadium and the dates that he wanted allowing the tournament to be first-class. Then he worked on adding a women's tournament. There were long waits and disappointments before it happened. I'm glad he lived to see it.
Even before Cincinnati became a mandatory stop, many players came here because of the hospitality. Connors loved to bring his family and spend time at Kings Island. Lendl was a regular golfer on the Grizzly. Sampras and Jim Courier went downtown and took batting practice with the Reds. They weren't hounded and hustled in Cincinnati. This was a welcome break on a brutal tour. In return, they gave us great tennis.
Flory led the way. He always acknowledged his staff and the hundreds
of volunteers who supported him and his vision. Whenever I went to the tournament, I inevitably ran into Paul because he was wandering around the stadium making sure everything was working and everybody was happy. He didn't sit up in the luxury box and let somebody else do the dirty work. That wasn't Paul's style.
Leaders leave their mark. Bob Howsam gave us the Big Red Machine. Paul Brown gave us pro football. Ed Jucker gave us national titles.
Flory didn't coach and didn't play. All he gave us was an event that props Cincinnati onto the world stage every August. That's a pretty good mark. An indelible mark.
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