The best thing about the Irving Tennis Classic is the thing that makes it tough on tournament director Zoltan Papp.
With the $125,000 ATP Challenger event, formerly the Dallas Tennis Classic, set to start Monday at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Irving, all Papp has to determine the makeup of the field is a tentative entry list, which has borne little resemblance to the actual field the past two years.
Papp and the tournament are at the mercy of what happens 1,300 miles away in Indian Wells, Calif.
The Irving Tennis Classic dates fall between ATP Masters events in Indian Wells and the Sony Open in Miami. For that reason, the tournament has been granted an unusual exemption from the ATP that allows players ranked in the top 50 in the world to accept a wild card into the field, if they are eliminated early in California.
It is that exemption that has resulted in an above-average field for the Challenger the past two years, putting it on par with most ATP Tour 250-level events such as Memphis and Delray Beach.
“It’s tough because we don’t know in advance who are the big names that are coming to our tournament,” Papp said. “This year, we’re lucky because we have [former Australian Open finalist Marcos] Baghdatis, who committed with a wild card. With the entry list, we can show how deep our field is, and it will be mainly top 100 players. So, it is looking to be another strong, strong tournament.
“What we do, instead of looking at the entry list and knowing in advance who is coming, we look at the history of the event as guidance to know year-in and year-out what caliber player can come to this tournament.”
Past tournaments have featured defending champion Jurgen Melzer, Tommy Haas and Marin Cilic. Melzer, ranked No. 38, is on this year’s entry list, along with No. 27 Vasek Pospisil of Canada and No. 47 Lukas Rosol of the Czech Republic. Twenty of the 25 players on the entry list are ranked in the top 100, and more are expected to accept wild cards.
Papp, a former Baylor standout from Hungary, has worked as an ATP Tour manager, giving him insight into the tour and credibility with many of the players.
“Knowing what the field and the cutoffs used to be [for ATP Tour events], we beat them by far,” Papp said of the talent level the past two years. “It was a little bit of a surprise how good it was. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the players knew me and that gave this tournament a little bit more credibility, knowing that they had worked with me. They know I’m always looking after them.
“But at the end of the day, it’s what fits into the schedule of these players. What matters is whether they can play this week or not — whether they are tired and need more rest or they just need more tuneup matches before Miami. So, yes, I’m a little bit surprised [with the quality of field this tournament has drawn], but then again, I was expecting all this to happen.”
The success of the tournament hasn’t been overlooked outside of North Texas. Papp said he has been approached by the ATP about the possibility of hosting a bigger event.
“We have been approached about hosting a 250- and even a 500-level event, and possibly moving it indoors,” Papp said. “To fit into the current schedule, we’d have to go back to the same setup as when there was an indoor event in San Jose [now defunct] and then Memphis, another indoor event. So there is a possibility for that, but that’s a huge financial commitment. I think we’re still just a few years shy of being ready to host that caliber of an event.”
For now, Papp is focused on growing the tournament. He said ticket sales have been good, and the tournament, which falls during spring break for many area schools, has reached out to local coaches and clubs to increase interest.
“Being during spring break is good and bad,” Papp said. “Spring break hurts us because a lot of people go out of town on vacation, but there are a lot who can’t go out of town for the whole week, and they will be here for part of the time or the entire time.”
The tournament runs through March 16 and, in addition to afternoon sessions, will offer featured singles matches starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. The semifinals and final are scheduled to start at 1 p.m. on March 15-16.
Tickets are available at Irvingtennisclassic.com or by calling 214-507-0157, as well as walk-up admission at the tournament box office.