This past summer, I made a long-awaited return to a live professional tennis tournament at the Truist Atlanta Open. Only a short two-hour drive from Birmingham, where I currently live, Atlanta was the perfect destination to dip my toes back into live tennis for the first time since the pandemic began.
My buddy Robert and I braved the summer heat and thunderstorms to enjoy an action-packed day and night session on quarterfinals day that included Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Cam Norrie, Josh Isner, and more. Plus, not to mention plenty of delicious food, drinks, music, and entertainment off the court that kept us occupied during a thunderstorm delay.
For an ATP 250 event, the Atlanta Open brought an exceptional player field in 2021 with several high-profile names and first-round blockbusters. After attending the tournament in person, I was curious to learn more about what happens behind the scenes to run a successful ATP 250 event.
In our interview, Tournament Director Eddie Gonzalez and I dive deeper into what makes the Atlanta Open a well-respected tournament that so many top players, especially the top-ranked Americans, keep coming back to year after year. Get to know Eddie more below and check out our 7-point breaker.
Meet Eddie Gonzalez
- Tournament Director & Chief Development Officer at Truist Atlanta Open (owned and managed by GF Sports & Entertainment)
- Native of Rome, Ga.
- Graduate and former collegiate tennis player at North Carolina State University, where he served as team captain and MVP.
- Previously worked at USTA Southern Section and Aflon Sports before joining GF Sports & Entertainment in 2013.
- Favorite tournament memory: Giving wildcards to young American players, like Frances Tiafoe and Reilly Opelka, when they first started out on tour and seeing them succeed throughout their career.
Eddie’s 7-Point Breaker
1. Overall, how would you assess the 2021 event as a whole?
This year was exceptionally rewarding because we hadn’t hosted a tournament in two years. Players couldn’t have been more excited to play and interact with fans. Fans were ready to come, sponsors were ready to activate, and the venue was ready to welcome us back.
We had an incredibly strong field with big names like John Isner, Nick Kyrgios, Milos Raonic, and Kevin Anderson. Despite limited ticket capacity, we still hit our ticket goals because people were itching to get out and enjoy live professional tennis again.
Running a professional tournament in the middle of a global pandemic brought a lot of unique and unprecedented challenges, however. The City of Atlanta changed the city’s mask mandate midway through the tournament, so we had to pivot and require masks for our indoor amenities almost overnight.
Anyone with player access had to get COVID tests every 48 hours. We had three positive tests throughout the week, but fortunately no cases that impacted the players. On Friday night, we had to evacuate the stadium because of lightning four miles away.
For these types of incidents, you need a good security plan in place and be ready to implement it quickly when things happen. We try to be as proactive as possible so we’re prepared for a variety of scenarios. There are always things we can do better, but we did a lot of things well this past year.
2. What makes the Truist Atlanta Open unique from other ATP tournaments?
We’re the only men’s tournament in the world that has a dedicated college night. This past year, we gave a wildcard to a UGA player, Trent Bryde. He put up a great fight against Brandon Nakashima on college night, eventually losing 6-4 in the 3rd set. The next round, Nakashima knocked out top seed Milos Raonic. It goes to show you that sometimes there’s a thin line between a talented college player and top 20 in the world.
That’s my passion… giving our youth the ability to come here and dream. Whether you come here as a 12-year old and dream about playing high school or college tennis. Or you give someone like Trent Bryde the opportunity to make his tennis dream come true and take a wildcard as a student and player at UGA. Hopefully, that motivates him to have a good career at UGA, and if he wants to pursue pro tennis, he’s gotten a good taste of it here.
We’re also the only professional men’s tournament in the world that kicks off our event with a women’s exhibition. This year we had two world-class women’s players and grand slam champions come to Atlanta with Kim Clijsters and Sloane Stephens. We’ve been fortunate to have big stars in the past as well, including Venus, Madison Keys, and Genie Bouchard.
That’s my passion – giving our youth the ability to come here and dream. Whether you invite a 12-year old to come dream about playing high school or college tennis or someone like Trent Bryde the opportunity to make his tennis dream come true by granting him a wildcard to the tournament.Eddie Gonzalez
3. What does running an ATP 250 event look like on a year-round basis?
We host the tournament in a parking lot, so everything here is temporary, from the stadium to the light poles to the tents. After the event, it’s all hands on deck to try and move off the site. This year we partnered with the AVP tour to host a beach volleyball event at the same venue two weeks after our tournament. They came in and used our venue, threw a bunch of sand down on the stadium court, and held a professional beach volleyball tournament.
After breaking down the tournament site and taking time to recharge, we spend the next few months having a series of sponsor recap meetings. These are extremely important because, without them, we couldn’t have the event if we don’t have the revenue.
For example, can we try to get Cadillac to move from a one-year to multi-year agreement knowing the Atlanta tennis market is very important to them? If they don’t, which other auto partners can we re-engage?
On the heels of sponsor recap meetings is ticketing. We take a deep dive to see what tickets and sessions sold best. Do we keep pricing the same or raise prices?
In the middle of the 2021 event, we saw there were a few sponsors who didn’t use their suite for a variety of reasons. As a result, we offered a suite upgrade so you could buy a ticket with an up-charge to sit right behind the court in the shaded suite section. This generated a lot of incremental revenue. Next year, we want to figure out how to have a seat upgrade ahead of time and promote that.
The day session is always challenging in late summer with 90+ degrees and humidity. No matter how much you love tennis, it’s still a tough ask for fans to watch a long match in the hot Atlanta sun. How can we better engage the community for day sessions?
For the evening sessions, we do great. When you have players like John Isner, Nick Kyrgios, and Jack Sock headlining your player field, we’re always going to do well.
4. Describe John Isner’s impact on the Atlanta Open over the years.
John has won this event six times and has been the highest-ranked American player for well over a decade. He’s just a class act all around. Anyone who knows John knows that even as great of a tennis player he is, he’s an even greater human being off the court. He has been an outstanding representative of pro tennis across the board, especially here in Atlanta.
John was the only American who flew home between the French Open and Wimbledon last year. Most players typically stay in Europe during the full swing. Part of that may be superstition because he made the semi-finals the year he came home in 2018. He’s also now raising a family of three young children as a husband and father.
I mention this because, during that time, John came to Atlanta for our media day and helped build excitement for the tournament. How many players would come to an ATP tour event media day in between Roland Garros and Wimbledon? He was so important for us because we hadn’t hosted the tournament in two years. We had sponsors, VIP ticket holders, media, and elected officials join us for media day and it was huge with John there.
Plus, he’s a UGA grad and 4-time All-American, so Atlanta fans love coming to root for him.
5. With more U.S. tournaments back on the calendar during the pandemic, how would you describe the current U.S. tournament landscape?
The good news is that tennis has become such a global sport. But as the sport continues to grow, we want to make sure we don’t lose any more U.S. tournaments. When I was in college and growing up around tennis, you would’ve never thought there would be two Swiss players (Federer and Wawrinka) who would become multi-slam grand champions and all-time greats. There wasn’t an Asian swing in the fall, which has now become a huge part of the tour.
The downside is, we’ve lost several U.S. based tournaments that have been fixtures on the calendar for years. At GF Sports & Entertainment, we are committed to pro tennis in the United States. It’s more than just a statement. That’s why we give opportunities to pro college tennis players and other future stars.
We want to be in key U.S. markets, and COVID has created an opportunity to identify new markets to introduce professional tennis events. Next year, we’re excited to launch the inaugural Dallas Open in February. They have a brand new state-of-the-art indoor tennis facility that will be exciting for us, the players, and the Dallas community. John Isner was also very instrumental in having us relocate the New York Open to Dallas.
We know the top American players all want to play more tennis in the U.S. If they can make more deep runs at majors and get back to winning majors consistently, the U.S. will gain more casual fans paying attention to tennis again.
6. With so many top American players in the Atlanta field, what is your take on the current crop of American men?
The future is bright for American tennis. We have a lot of young up-and-coming talent who have the opportunity to break into the top 10 and top 20. Sebastian Korda, Brandon Nakashima, and Jenson Brooksby are the new wave, but people need to remember that Reilly Opelka, Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, and Tommy Paul are only 23-24.
I’ve been so impressed with Taylor Fritz. He’s probably the least athletic of this group but is the hardest worker. You can see how he’s worked on his movement, his serve, and his forehand. He was a finalist here in 2019. I think he’s got a big upside because he has the heart and “It factor.” Opelka has huge weapons. As long as he stays healthy, we know what he can do. Frances is probably the most athletic; he just needs to stay more focused and be ready to play every match.
I’ve got to throw Jack Sock in this conversation too. We gave him a wildcard this year and he won a match here before losing to Isner in a tight match. He was No. 8 in the world just a few years ago. I think he has another run in him to get back where he was a few years ago.
7. Many top players played both singles and doubles in Atlanta last year. Is there anything you do specifically to promote doubles?
From a tour perspective, singles guys usually play doubles so they get a match in during their off day. Atlanta is the #1 tennis city in the world because of recreational doubles and ALTA/USTA making it possible for people to play year-round.
We always get great crowds for doubles. Sock and Kyrgios didn’t go on one night until 11:30 p.m. and we still had a half-full stadium eager to watch doubles. Jannik Sinner and Reilly Opelka played together and ended up winning the tournament. Sinner is an unbelievable singles talent who lost in the first round but used doubles to stay competitive.
The next week, he went on to win the Citi Open in Washington D.C. Those two guys couldn’t be more opposite playing styles, but they complemented each other well and gelled together all week.
The Atlanta tennis community loves doubles. This is why we brought back the Bryan Brothers. We wanted to give them a proper sendoff. We’re committed to doubles because so many of our fans play doubles recreationally.
Save the Date: 2022 Truist Atlanta Open
ATLANTIC STATION | JULY 23 – JULY 31, 2022