The year was 2007. The RBC Tennis Championships of Dallas was embarking on its second decade on the ATP Challenger Tour, as the tournament steadily continued to grow roots in the Texas metropolis.
At the time, the circuit was growing and developing at a rapid rate. An influx of new tournaments provided fresh opportunities for players, while giving fans in non-traditional tennis locales the chance to catch world-class action in a more intimate setting.
That year, something unique was happening at T Bar M Racquet Club. The age of social media was in its infancy and so was the concept of live streaming. People were beginning to be connected across the globe with the press of a button and the folks in Dallas had taken notice.
You can call them innovators and pioneers, but the tournament staff merely wanted to extend the fan experience outside the cozy confines of T Bar. Armed with just a camera and a long pole, the first-ever ATP Challenger Tour live stream in North America was born. It wasn’t a high definition feed, but it didn’t matter. The ability to connect a Challenger event to the rest of the world was an incredible concept.
While live streaming had already been established in Europe, it was revolutionary for a tournament across the pond. And having identified the great potential of a live streaming service, they took it one step further in 2008. With current tournament emcee Craig Karseno and former club instructor turned professional coach Craig O’Shannessy serving as commentators, they launched a full-scale operation.
Club member Marc Lemke was the brains behind it all, creating his own company called Front Row Tennis and establishing the entire operation from scratch. A former executive at IBM, he spent six months learning the business and the technology behind live streaming. Identifying it as a potentially lucrative investment, Lemke purchased the equipment which included six cameras, broadcast gear, sound mixers and green screens for off-court player interviews. The rest was history.
Watch: The Birth Of Live Streaming In Dallas
A total of 350,000 people accessed the stream in its first year, consuming not only the live action, but instant replays with highlights, interviews, as well as commercials from local businesses. Lemke would manage the production for four years in total, with a pair of viral moments providing a surge of publicity. In 2008, a match point foot fault led to a memorable tirade and in 2011, Michael Yani made SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays on ESPN with a diving winner.
“Marc took a leap of faith, investing his own time and money,” Karseno told ATPChallengerTour.com. “He took six months off from work, figured out the technology and hired a crew. At first, it was just a long pole with a hook that went on the top of the fence and points down. The following year, Marc established his company and saw an opportunity to make it a permanent fixture.”
“I remember Judy Murray contacted the tournament and thanked us for giving her the chance to see her son Jamie Murray play a tournament on the other side of the world,” said tournament founder Bob Raedisch. “She was so excited. At the time, unless you qualified for a Slam, you weren’t getting exposure or getting interviewed. It morphed into something bigger than what the tournament ever imagined.”
In Dallas, while they are constantly seeking ways to set themselves apart, there is one thing that has never changed in 22 years: the tournament’s culture.
Photo: Tessa Kolodny
On the Challenger circuit, every tournament has their own method of establishing a unique sporting culture within the community, while striving to attract potential sponsors. At T Bar, they have been laying the foundation through years of hard work and dedication to create the perfect tennis experience.
A modest tennis facility in North Dallas, T Bar has been home to the Challenger 100 event for more than two decades. If you walk through the main entrance during the tournament, you won’t find any flashing lights, dramatic player entrances and boisterous entertainment. The event has always stayed true to its roots and that is reflected in the passion and core values of its founders and current staff.
‘Southern hospitality’ describes the warm and welcoming attitude of people in the Southern United States. At T Bar, they take that philosophy to the next level. The tournament’s culture is predicated on a family-first mentality. That extends to the players battling between the lines, the fans streaming through the gates and the staff working tirelessly to make the event run as smooth as possible. If you’re there, you’re family.
“There is a strong appetite for tennis in the Dallas area,” said Karseno. “In terms of the club membership and the community’s demographic, this has been the place to be on a Saturday night. Women are getting dolled up and people are getting babysitters for their kids ahead of a night out. It’s a party and it still is a big social event in the city. People will mingle in our pavilion, enjoying locally catered food and drinks, before taking their seats for a night of tennis.
“And from what players tell us, it’s all about the way we take care of them. It’s a relationship that we build. I don’t just interview a guy [for our social media] and then never talk to them the rest of the year. I always tell the champions that I hope we never see them back here again. You always want them to graduate to the next level. But when they’re here, we put them in housing in the mansions of our club members and they give them their cars for the week. It’s all about the relationships you build over time.”
The tournament has also become a social event for stars of other sports. A big tennis fan, NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki and his wife Jessica have visited the tournament nearly every year. This week, he was joined by former New York Knicks player Kurt Thomas, current Dallas Cowboys football star Michael Gallup and former Dallas Stars ice hockey goalie Marty Turco. In fact, Thomas and Gallup visited the tournament on multiple occasions throughout the week, staying for hours on end.
“It’s cool to see stars of other sports coming to watch us play,” said 2020 finalist Denis Kudla. “That doesn’t happen often. I never knew they were tennis fans.”
In addition to the players and the fans, local businesses have also taken notice. Many sponsors have been with the tournament since its inception in 1998. When Andy Teller agreed to make RBC the title sponsor, the goal was to not only organize meet-and-greets, pro-ams and clinics for his clients, but to engage with the local community and make it an integral part of the tournament’s culture. They aim to turn the non-club members into tennis fans that will continue coming back year after year.
Mackenzie McDonald, who reached the final in both 2018 and 2019, stays with the Teller family every year.
“I’ve always played pretty well here,” said the 24-year-old American. “The courts suit my game and the staff are very accommodating. They treat me like family and it just allows me to play my best tennis.”
Giving back to the community is just as important for the tournament and its sponsors, raising more than $1.25 million for charity over the years. The tournament has held its annual Pink Day for the past 12 years, supporting the Susan G. Komen foundation and the fight against breast cancer.
Photos: Tessa Kolodny
A tennis celebrity is invited to host the event, with more than 250 people – all dressed in pink – attending every year. In the past they had the likes of Stan Smith, Brad Gilbert and Patrick McEnroe managing the festivities, with Judy Murray taking the reins this year. It includes a speech by the host, a clinic on stadium court, meet-and-greet and catered lunch, in addition to tickets to watch the tennis.
Silent auctions are also held by local charities throughout the week, including the Dallas Tennis Association. The DTA helps underprivileged youth by providing donated racquets, shoes, balls and tennis clothing. The tournament also hosts a visit to a different children’s hospital each year, as well as a latino clinic and a hearing impaired clinic with ATP pros and club pros.
Dallas has a storied history of professional tennis, with another ATP Challenger Tour event running in nearby Irving from 2012-18. Prior to that, the World Championship Tennis Finals was held for nearly 20 years in the 1970s and 80s, featuring some of the top players in the world. That was staged at the Moody Coliseum and Reunion Arena.
“Back in the day, this area did not have pro tennis,” added Raedisch. “And there are so many high-end clubs here. There’s a lot of money here and many tennis players, with some top guys coming from the Dallas area. Dick Stockton was Top 10 in the world and he was a pro here at T Bar.”
Dallas in 2005
Now, the RBC Tennis Championships of Dallas has become a critical stop on the ATP Challenger Tour. The week before the spring U.S. swing on the ATP Tour gets underway in New York, top players have flocked to the tournament over the years. In 2018, Kei Nishikori lifted the trophy in his comeback from a wrist injury, while Nick Kyrgios and John Isner both participated in the doubles in 2019. The tournament was also the site of Kyle Edmund’s title in 2016 and a runner-up finish by a 19-year-old Taylor Fritz the following year.
This week, Jurij Rodionov became the first #NextGenATP champion of the 2020 season, winning six matches in seven days to lift his second Challenger trophy. He defeated Kudla in a thrilling final.