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COLUMN

Berning has ideas on revitalizing city tennis tourney

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Follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and at his blog www.tailingthekomets.com.

Numbers have dropped steadily in recent years

Saturday, August 3, 2013 - 12:18 am

Lee Ann Berning may be best known in the City Tennis Tournament for winning nine women's singles titles, but she also basically rebuilt the female side of the draw in the 1990s.

After being canceled in 1987 for a lack of entries, the tournament reached a record 24 women in 1992. That's because Berning used her position as a Wildwood Racquet Club teaching pro (she's a co-owner today) to encourage her students to sign up.

Now, the women's tournament is back down to two players and even the men's draw has only 14. Next week's doubles tournaments are sparser than usual with only 16 men's, three women's and 10 mixed teams competing.

That doesn't seem possible considering there are more competitive tennis players in Fort Wayne than ever before. The individual quality is also excellent, as good as it's ever been.

That's part of the problem, Berning said. More than 600 players are playing in United States Tennis Association leagues which are heading into their playoffs over the next few weeks. With league matches two or three nights a week, the schedule has become too crowded for many players to attempt playing the city tournament.

"You have to do a little bit of hand holding and get everybody to support it, because no one has done a good job,'' Reed said. "This is a community-wide thing, and I'm just as guilty. Everyone has to keep tennis alive and support this community-based event.''

Berning believes the tennis clubs, the Parks and Recreation Department, the media and high school and college coaches need to do a better job promoting the city tournament. Why aren't high school and local college coaches nudging their players to compete or even competing themselves?

There also needs to more emphasis on younger players getting involved and returning to the tournament each year to build continuity.

Hall of Fame players such as Rick Hanauer, Tim Sullivan, Steve Beier, Jay Smithley, Sue Weigand, Babs Sullivan, Mary Colligan and Berning carried the tournament for years. With the exception of siblings Ryan and current women's champion Amy Recht and current men's champion Tom Murphy, there has not been a next generation of players to follow.

"With the USTA adult leagues, the captains are relentless to be out there around the city watching high school players and recruiting them to be on their teams,'' Berning said. "With that happening, I think some of the youth players have been insulated and don't even realize there is a city tournament they can compete in, or they thought it was only for adults.''

There also needs to be discussion about potentially moving the tournament, possibly to earlier in the summer or to a weekend if a more accessible schedule can be determined.

USTA leagues run from May through the first week of August but do not play on weekends. Maybe a city tournament could start on Friday night, play through the weekend and continue to hold the finals on a Monday night. However, the weather could be more of a factor with that type of schedule.

The last change to the city tournament was the inclusion a few years ago of skill-level draws with the hope that would encourage more players to participate. It's possible that has backfired and simply watered down the main draw.

"The tournament is trying to be all things to all people,'' Berning said. "That doesn't need to be the case for a once-a-year event. Only the age divisions and open divisions need to be played because the (skill-level tournaments) are taken care of in the adult league system.''

Whatever happens, there needs to be more discussion before next year's tournament attempts a first serve.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com .