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Anne Worcester Works To Make Connecticut Open A Festival

Aretha Franklin won't make it to the Connecticut Tennis Center this year. Yet here was Anne Worcester on Saturday, celebrating the 20th year of women's tennis in New Haven, still pounding out R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the tournament she loves.

"It's my 20th anniversary here, too, and I don't think I was prepared for how emotional it would be," Worcester, the tournament director, said before Daria Gavrilova defeated Dominika Cibulkova 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 for the 2017 Connecticut Open title.

There was a time when Connecticut almost lost its golf tournament. There also was a time when Connecticut almost lost it tennis tournament. Yet it's crazy to try to compare the Travelers Championship in Cromwell and tennis in New Haven. It's especially crazy this year. Line up Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. Watch Spieth drop a 60-foot bunker shot to win the tournament. Watch 290,000 people pour into TPC River Highlands. The earth shook in Cromwell in June.

Still, both tournaments must constantly evolve. And after a week of tremendous activity, a terrific final and so-so crowds, Worcester is convinced that to remain vibrant, the tennis must be wrapped in a greater fan experience and be part of a larger blueprint that includes multiple uses of the newly renovated complex.

"A festival," Worcester called it.

Enter and exit Aretha. A promoter willing to take 100 percent of the risk stepped forward for a September concert. The city's Board of Alders authorized a permit for the Tennis Foundation of Connecticut. Worcester said there just wasn't adequate time for the promoter to get all the details ironed out in time. The last time a concert was held at the Tennis Center was Julio Inglesias in 1994.

Yet before you can start singing "to all the New Haven tennis players I've loved before," Lendl, McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras, Martina, Venus, Graf, Sharapova and many more … Worcester pulls out her iPhone.

"Sometimes I say it's our worst enemy," Worcester said. "Fans can watch every match on a mobile phone. We have to work even harder to make sure our on-site experience is so superior to streaming a movie or being on Facebook, Snapchat or Twitter.

"We just can't rely just on the tennis anymore. It's the state of women's tennis, but it's a much bigger social phenomenon. This device has changed our lives. All forms of sports and entertainment are feeling the pressure. It's harder and harder to get somebody off their phone, off their couch and out to a live event."

The tournament drew the No. 10 [Agnieszka Radwanska] and No. 11 [Cibulkova] players in the world. Traditionally, it has drawn two or three Top 10 players. More players are winning than ever before. They all think they're going to win the U.S. Open, Worcester said. You can count Gavrilova among them after winning her first tournament. She was a joy all week, went to nine restaurants around New Haven, spent time on the Yale campus photographing historical gates and doors.

"She's already become a New Haven ambassador," Worcester said.

The Russian turned Aussie — can I call her Crocodile Dundeeova just once? — gave it all over 2 hours, 45 minutes in front of 4,911 fans. She jumped around in joy after her 35th winner. The tournament drew 50,599 fans this week, after announcing 51,725 last year, 51,946 in 2015 and 47,140 in 2014, after a low of 45,796 in 2013. The combined men and women drew a record 100,375 to New Haven in 2005.

"Hovering around 50,000 is a giant accomplishment," Worcester said. "How many other sports and entertainment events attract 50,000? Believe it or not, the last time I checked the Connecticut Open is the fourth best WTA-only attended event in the whole world.

"We're not a combined event. James Blake, our hometown favorite, isn't getting to the final. There is no J Block. Times change. We all need to adapt."

Worcester is indefatigable. She starts listing all the changes and features at the Tennis Center and can't stop. There have been major renovations to the players' center, the media center and the tournament offices to make the complex multipurpose. Corporate events and trade shows, weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, they all can be hosted here. There was a Chamber of Commerce event of 150 people in early August. New HYTEs, the New Haven youth tennis and education initiative, uses the building throughout the year. Yale is looking at renting out conference space.

The number of food trucks has been almost doubled. There are three new adult beverage spots, chic, hip. Porsche was added as a significant sponsor. There were seven car displays. There was a Dyson vacuum cleaner challenge. Blake's wife, Worcester said, now knows her man can vacuum very well. They had 800 women at the Courtgirl Lifestyle Experience the other day, with makeovers, shopping and celebrity appearances.

No total solar eclipse is left unturned by Worcester. The top four seeds even dressed as scientists to make a video explaining the eclipse this past week.

"We have to be more than tennis," Worcester said. "It's absolutely essential."

PowerShares Legends Michael Chang, Mardy Fish, Blake and Mark Philippoussis played exhibitions. Worcester expects an agreement for that to continue. As part of the 20th anniversary, Martina Navratilova played doubles exhibitions and Mats Wilander was moved to call her "definitely the best doubles player male or female in the history of the sport."

After the state bought the tournament in 2013 for $618,000, it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The tournament raises funds for breast cancer research, the Connecticut Food Bank, collects shoes for Soles4Souls. Andy Murray's mother came from New York with a program designed to get inner-city girls into tennis. Latino Day, Autism Awareness Day, every day, every night, there's something. Saturday was Military Appreciation Day. There were more than 600 complimentary tickets handed out to veterans and active military. Constantine Ludovico, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, was among the guests. The 96-year-old from Hamden looks like he still could play a couple of sets.

"For many years we were a for-profit corporation," Worcester said. "We were the sole tenant with the previously constituted Tennis Foundation of Connecticut. We contributed a percentage of our tickets, sponsorship and all the parking. That $250,000-$300,000 was the only way the building was maintained all year. If I only had a dollar for every time someone said to me: Why don't you use this facility more year-round? We were the tenant not the landlord.

"Now, thanks to the state, we are the tenant and landlord."

The board has been totally reconfigured with stakeholders. The last piece was the renovation completed only a week before the tournament.

"We want to generate revenue but also do things for the community," Worcester said.

The iPhone texting, in this case, is a plus in recruiting players. She especially wants to attract Americans and nearly landed wild card Madison Keys, coached by former New Haven winner Lindsay Davenport. Keys kept winning at Cincinnati last week and decided to save her energy for the U.S. Open.

Just as important to Worcester, there is interest in corporate events and trade shows and from that Aretha concert promoter. And there's a festival.

"We hear people say all the time: I came the other night and never made it to my seats," Worcester said. "Great. No problem with that. I will continue to try to recruit the the best players we possibly can, but there's definitely no carving out the competition from the festival. We can even do more to make this a big party."

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