“This is where fans discover the stars of tomorrow,” Anne Worcester says of the New Haven Open at Yale. As Tournament Director, Worcester would know. In 2004, she brought Maria Sharapova, then largely unknown, to teach a tennis clinic outside City Hall. It was only a short time later that the 17-year-old Sharapova won Wimbledon, stunning the tennis world. The first thing she did after that win? She came to New Haven to honor her commitment to play.
Building that kind of loyalty is a hallmark of Worcester’s leadership. “My goal is to recruit a blend of household names, complemented with the rising stars of tomorrow.” Worcester listens to Connecticut tennis fans, who’ve made it crystal clear that their favorite tournament memories are watching the legends before they were legends, playing in qualifying rounds in the outer courts, up close and personal, at bargain prices no less.
Worcester has more examples to share, such as Justine Henin coming to New Haven in 2000 ranked 70th. Six years later she came back as No. 1 and won the tournament. Caroline Wozniacki was ranked in the 40s when she first came to New Haven in 2008, upsetting five higher-ranked players to win. In 2009, Wozniacki was World No. 15 winning her second consecutive tournament here. In 2010 she was World No. 8, and won her third title. In 2011, ranked No. 1, she won her fourth NHOY, tying Venus Williams for the most wins here, a point Worcester was sure to serve up while encouraging Wozniacki to return this year and take sole ownership of the record.
Worcester’s affinity for tennis isn’t exactly shocking given her past. Her parents both taught tennis as second jobs and she had a racket in her hand by age four, spending Saturday mornings on the courts. She opted not to play in college, instead pursuing her other passion, organizing events. She volunteered at the student union and coordinated cultural events like plays and concerts. It wasn’t until she graduated and later bumped into one of her classmates that she learned of his father’s company, International Marketing Group. It occurred to her that organizing events could be more than a hobby, that she could get paid to do it. She took a job for $200 a week with no benefits and no job security, answering phones and selling tickets. Although friends thought Worcester had taken leave of her senses, within two weeks she knew she had found her calling. From this modest beginning, she advanced steadily to become the first CEO of a major sports organization, the Women’s Tennis Association. “My mother always liked to say: ‘Look where a little tennis got you.’”
Her WTA experience and connections are valuable assets today. She spends much of the year communicating with top players and their agents, who have become resources for new talent. She pays attention to the little touches. “Don’t forget that these are teenagers and 20-year-olds,” Worcester says. “You’d be surprised how much it matters to greet one of these players who feel like no one notices them yet, and go up to them and say, ‘You know, I just watched your match. Great game. We’d love to have you come to New Haven and play.’”
The New Haven Open has several selling points. First, timing. Contested the week before the U.S. Open, it’s a final chance to get in some match play before that Grand Slam event. Factor in the same time zone, same climate, same surface (hard courts), and even the same balls and it makes a convincing argument.
And then there’s New Haven itself. The worldwide WTA tour is 50 tournaments in 25 countries over 10 months of the year. Typically much larger cities host: Paris, Tokyo, San Diego. New Haven is a premiere tournament, and as such, it’s an anomaly. Tournament alumnae hold the city’s smaller size in its favor, rather than against. “Lindsay Davenport considered New Haven the calm before the storm of New York City,” says Worcester. “Martina Hingis always said New Haven feels very smart and sophisticated, like a European city. Players love that they can walk down the street like a relatively normal person, and that everyone is so friendly here. They love that the stadium is a five-minute drive from downtown New Haven, as opposed to the two-plus hours it can take to get from Midtown Manhattan to the courts in Flushing Meadows for the U.S. Open.”
And oh how they love the restaurants. “What sets New Haven apart from other small cities is the award-winning, internationally diverse restaurants all set within a manageable, walkable area,” Worcester says. As part of her efforts with Market New Haven, she created a Mayor’s Passport to Downtown Dining, this year with more than 30 spots to visit, complete with cuisine descriptions and a validation space for collecting stamps. She appeals to the players’ competitive nature with a contest to see how many restaurants they can visit while in town. Restaurants win too, their dining rooms buzzing with the excitement of sports celebrities on the premises.
“I remember when Venus Williams played in New Haven one year and she was dominating the sport. She had dropped a set in one of her matches,” Worcester says. “She was interviewed afterwards and was asked how she felt when she lost that set. She replied, ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to lose too early here. There are too many good restaurants in New Haven!’”
New Haven Open at Yale
Connecticut Tennis Center, New Haven (map)
Aug. 17-25, 2012
Written by Jane Rushmore. Photographed by Kathleen Cei.