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A Match Made on Mockingbird

John Isner is hoping to return Dallas to its former tennis glory with a new pro tournament hosted by SMU.
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Dallas open tennis
Order in the Court: For the Dallas Open, SMU has converted its six indoor courts into a single stadium court. The tennis complex was named the best educational tennis facility in the country by the United States Tennis Assocation in 2019. Courtesy of GF Sports

Once upon a time, Dallas was a tennis town. Arthur Ashe won the 1965 Davis Cup America Zone final here at Samuell Grand Tennis Center, on the city’s first public courts. Beginning in the ’70s, Martina Navratilova made her home here, at the height of her career.

From 1971 through 1989, the World Championship Tennis circuit held its season-ending championship in Dallas—first at Memorial Auditorium, then Moody Coliseum, and finally at Reunion Arena. All the big names turned out: Ashe, Bjorn Borg, and Boris Becker won titles in Dallas. John McEnroe took home a record five. “Dallas was, to me, in ’79 and the early ’80s, it was a bigger event, more important than the Australian Open,” McEnroe told the Dallas Morning News in 2015. When the WCT died in 1990, so did the tournament. In time, Dallas’ mark on the tennis world did as well. 

The first step to restoring it begins with the inaugural Dallas Open, which runs February 6–13 at SMU’s Styslinger/Altec Tennis Complex. It’s one of just 10 ATP Tour events held in the United States this year and the only one that’s indoor-only after the tournament spent the previous three years in Long Island as the New York Open. And while—as the shopworn cliche goes—everything is normally bigger in Texas, the Dallas Open is banking on smaller by placing a temporary stadium inside Styslinger/Altec to cap seating at 2,500 for a more intimate feel.

“The town has really gotten behind it, and the sport is played so much here,” says John Isner, the 16-time ATP tournament winner and Highland Park resident. “We want it to be something that, when February rolls around, people are talking about ‘Oh, the tennis is in town this week. That’s what we’re doing all week.’ And that’s what the brass at the Dallas Open are going to create.”

About That Name…

You’ve probably noticed the new moniker of SMU’s tennis center by now: the Styslinger/Altec Tennis Complex. It comes courtesy of a $4 million donation from Jennifer and Mark Styslinger, a pair of SMU alums who met on campus in the ’80s. Altec Inc., meanwhile, is a manufacturing company founded by Mark’s grandfather, Lee; Mark currently serves as the company’s senior vice president of sales and service. Just don’t ask us to explain why the order is switched in the Altec/Styslinger Foundation, which also pitched in on the donation.

SMU tennis center styslinger altec complex
Courtesy of SMU

But How’d They Get Here?

It’s one thing to create a new tournament. It’s another to entice top players to participate. How did the Dallas Open pull it off? Let Highland Park’s John Isner explain:

“What’s tricky is all of us go to Australia at the beginning of the year [for the Sydney Tennis Classic, Melbourne Summer Set, and Australian Open], and that’s a long stretch, and it’s tough. Far away, crazy time change. A lot of our tour is European, so, after Australia, there are tournaments in the United States. That’s going to start in Dallas, and the week after Dallas is a tournament in Delray Beach, Florida. The week after that is a bigger event in Acapulco, Mexico.

“So you want to try to have flow in your schedule, so I guess you want to look at players who are leaning toward playing in Acapulco that it would be a good fit for them to play Dallas, because you’re staying in the same continent. Also, at the same time as Dallas and the tournaments in Florida and Mexico are going on, there are tournaments in Europe and the Middle East, which are very, very big tournaments as well. So there are always going to be European players who are going to stay in Europe and play those, and rightfully so.

“So the focus has been on a lot of the players in North America: a lot of the American players and some of the good Canadian players we know will come and play. And there are always a handful of Europeans who will choose to play this stretch of year as well.”  

Who to Watch?

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John Isner 

At 36, Isner freely admits he only has so many Dallas Opens in him. Can he claim the inaugural one in his backyard?

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Taylor Fritz 

The San Diego native began the year as the ATP’s highest-ranked American male at No. 22.

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Kei Nishikori

The 32-year-old is the first Japanese male to play in a Grand Slam final and only Japanese man to earn a top-five ranking in the Open era. 

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Nick Kyrgios 

Few players on the tour are more exciting. Even fewer are less predictable. Win or lose, the Aussie will put on a show.

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Caleb Chakravarthi

 The SMU senior and two-time captain headlines the Open’s College Night, which takes place on Feb. 7.

Author

Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…