- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Tennis fans have flocked to Flushing Meadows, N.Y., in record numbers, with the U.S. Open poised to lure more than 720,000 spectators over two weeks.

The USTA announced Monday that 423,420 people came to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center during the tournament’s first week, setting a record for the U.S. Open’s first seven days. The event is on pace to break last year’s record of 715,000 spectators for the tournament.

Despite a sagging economy, there is an appetite for tennis that was triggered in July when Rafael Nadal topped Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final. Tennis supporters hoped the publicity of that match would carry over to the rest of the summer, but the buzz seemed to fade. Federer and Nadal didn’t meet in the finals of any tournament after Wimbledon, and attendance and television ratings for the U.S. Open Series events ranged from down to flat. The Olympics also made for an unbalanced summer, with some players traveling to Beijing and other staying put to battle through weakened tournament fields.

But the U.S. Open figures suggest the sport is as strong as ever. For the first time, Arthur Ashe Stadium was 100 percent full for seven straight days last week. After an opening day crowd of 59,154, the tournament drew 60,000 fans over each of the next six days, also a first. Meanwhile, concession stand sales increased 6 percent, and food and beverage sales also set records.

“We are thrilled with the record response to the U.S. Open, particularly in light of the economic challenges facing the country today,” said Arlen Kantarian, the USTA’s chief executive of professional tennis. “The U.S. Open has become a global sports and entertainment event that is attracting fans from around the world in record numbers.”

The U.S. Open may be positioned to withstand some of the recent economic downturn. For one thing, tennis fans generally have more disposable income than average sports fans. And companies may find entertaining at the tournament less hectic than, say, a Yankees or Mets game. The U.S. Open is routinely one of the most lucrative sporting events of the year, pulling in upward of $200 million and a profit of more than $110 million, according to the Sports Business Journal.

This year, good weather and strong story lines have helped the tournament along. On the men’s side, there is strong hope for another Federer-Nadal final. Meanwhile, three Americans - Andy Roddick, Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish - made it into the U.S. Open’s second week for the first time since 2005. Maria Sharapova’s shoulder injury and Ana Ivanovic’s early exit hurt interest in the women’s side, but the quarterfinal matchup between Venus and Serena Williams is arguably the most anticipated match of the tournament.

A good U.S. Open would prove helpful to the USTA, which is instituting changes for next season - including a new marketing campaign and schedule, along with millions of dollars worth of upgrades to tennis facilities around the world.