Dallas’ heyday as a tennis town ended in 1989, when the World Championship Tennis circuit, which had held its season-ending championship in town since 1971, folded. Almost overnight, a city where the likes of John McEnroe, Arthur Ashe, Bjorn Borg, and Boris Becker once won trophies became an afterthought in the sport.
The road to changing that begins February 6, when the inaugural Dallas Open comes to SMU’s Styslinger/Altec Tennis Complex. The tournament is one of just 10 ATP Tour events held in the United States this year, and the goal according to John Isner, the tournament’s host, is to make it a mainstay on the tour. The 36-year-old, currently ranked 25th in the world, has more skin in the game than most players on tour: he’s a Highland Park resident—his wife went to ESD—who hopes to grow the game in his backyard. That begins with the inaugural Open, which he’ll be participating in alongside a number of Tour mainstays, including Taylor Fritz, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, and Nick Kyrgios.
I caught up with Isner in December to discuss his role in the tournament, the process of recruiting high-end players to join him in playing the event, the local tennis scene, what he loves most about living in Dallas, and more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s one thing to hear an ATP tournament is coming to Dallas. It’s another thing to see someone like you really step up and try to do a lot to grow this event. Today, you mentioned only having a few calls to take. But how busy have you been overall trying to bring awareness to the Dallas Open and make it a destination in the tennis world?
I’ve been fairly busy, but it hasn’t been too bad. The good thing is the Dallas Open has a great team of people that make it really easy for me, and I’m always available to do whatever they need. Obviously, the bulk of the work is done by them, and they’ve done a good job promoting this event so far.
I moved to Dallas four years ago, and once I saw the passion for the game of tennis here, I just thought it would make perfect sense if you could bring a high-level tennis event to Dallas. It’s much easier said than done; you can’t just pop a tournament in whenever you want it. It’s got to fit into the ATP calendar, which is a global sport. When the opportunity presented itself for this tournament, which was formerly played in Long Island, to come here, I think the team [here] sort of saw what I saw in the market here. Now that it’s here in Dallas, it’s going to be here for good. It’s going to be great.
How did you get involved? Did they approach you asking you to be an ambassador? Did you tell them you wanted to help out?
Truthfully, people think I’m more involved than I actually am. I think when I’m done playing tennis, and I’m certainly at the tail end of my career—I’ve been playing for 14 years—I’ll definitely keep myself even more involved in the event. But as it stands right now, I’m still going to be competing in the event in February and hopefully the year after that, maybe the year after that. I want to see tennis succeed, and I want to see an ATP tournament succeed, and I think it can do very well in Dallas. It’s going to do very well in Dallas. I’m promoting it as much as I can, obviously amongst friends. I have a pretty decent reach here in Dallas. I’m just trying to help as best as I can.
When you talk about this event, whether it’s in town or trying to get other top players to participate, what’s been your sales pitch?
When I have been on the road and at other events, I’ve been talking to some select players trying to get other players to come here. My sales pitch is quite simply that Dallas is just a flat-out amazing town, and I guarantee if you come play this tournament, you’re going to have a great time. You’re going to enjoy all the city has to offer, from the food to entertainment, all that stuff. You’re going to love the tournament, the atmosphere’s going to be incredible, and it’s going to be high, high-level tennis. It can be a great stepping stone for anyone who comes here and plays well. Dallas has so much to offer, and it makes sense to have a tournament here, so I’ve been trying to recruit as many players as I possibly can.
How does that even go? You guys have a choice. You can play where you want, when you want. So, when you’re going to other players, did you have a pretty targeted list?
What’s tricky is all of us go to Australia at the beginning of the year, 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 Del Rey 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 that 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, 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.
Given all of that, one of the names that immediately pops out is Grigor Dimitrov. That’s a pretty big get.
It is, and he’s someone who’s going to play in the tournament in Mexico, so he kind of wants to limit his travel as much as possible. It was a very good get to have him come play in Dallas. If you’re a casual tennis fan, you might not have heard of him, but he’s an incredible player. Ridiculous athlete. He can do some stuff on the court that not many can, and he really is a true joy to watch.
You mentioned the tennis scene here. What did you know about it before you moved to Dallas?
That it’s pretty big and played a lot, but I had no idea it was like this. I can’t go to lunch in Dallas without seeing ladies and guys talking about tennis, and lately, it’s been, “Oh, John, we’re so excited to come to the tournament in February.” The town has really gotten behind it, and the sport is played so much here. There’s this TCD league played very prominently amongst women in the Dallas area. It’s just a big club versus club kind of league and very, very popular. Those are the type of people I think the tournament has been targeting, and they’re all going to come out in droves.
It almost feels like a well-kept secret. Being from here, I have tons of friends who play and have always known people who do. And yet, like you said, you didn’t realize how active this scene is until you got here. What has to happen next to make this a bigger, broader tennis town and also known for that, because even if it is, I don’t think Dallas is recognized as that yet.
It definitely already is. I went to school close to Atlanta, and Atlanta is very known for how many people play tennis. I lived in Tampa for quite some time as well. And the participation is way more here in Dallas than both of those towns. The tournament is going to be so well attended because the venue’s going to be pretty intimate. They’re not filling it to capacity. There’s a max on how many people they can fit inside the SMU tennis center, but the venue’s going to be cool. There’s going to be a temporary stadium constructed inside the existing SMU indoor courts. 2,500 people, so there literally will not be a bad seat in the house. It’s going to be great. I guarantee the people that come out and watch in person are going to be coming year after year. Tennis is a spectator sport you really can’t beat. It’s good on TV—obviously, I’m pretty biased—but in person, it’s one of the best sports you can possibly watch.
You mentioned that word “intimate.” Is it a nice change of pace? There’s nothing that beats the atmosphere of some of the big Slams, but I imagine it’s kind of like being in a rock band: you want to play the arenas, but it’s fun to play some clubs, too.
Absolutely. Look, when you have a 2,500-seat stadium and you have 2,500 people watching, it’s going to create a pretty raucous environment. 2,500 people in a 2,500 seat stadium is a lot better than 5,000 people in a 15,000-seat stadium. It’s going to be very cool. It’s going to create a great atmosphere for the fans and the players.
In some ways, getting involved in the tournament is a stepping stone to be more involved maybe when you’re not playing as much. Is it important to you to play a role in growing the tennis scene here in Dallas?
Yeah, it is important, because as I said, I moved here four years ago, and I can’t think of many high-ranked players in the past who have called Dallas their home. I’m probably the first guy, so I think naturally by me being here, it brings more attention to the sport of tennis. I just want this tournament—I really believe it’s going to be a great stop on the tour every single year, and we want it to be something that, when February rolls around, people are talking about, “Oh, the tennis is in town. That’s what we’re doing all week.” That’s what the brass at the Dallas Open are going to create.
And that’s a process, right? It’s not going to get there overnight. What must happen in this first year to lay the foundation for it?
I think people just need to come out and see the enthusiasm. With that is going to attract so many sponsors. It just really is going to be a super special event. As far as TV goes, it’s going to be broadcast all over the world. Our sport is such a global sport. It’s played in Europe so much, way more than it is here in the United States. The tournament automatically has great reach just being that it’s an ATP-level tournament. It’s going to be broadcast all over the world and shine a great spotlight on the Dallas community. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised. The people watching it on TV, they’re going to look and go, “This is great. This tournament is really, really cool.”
So, as you said, four years in town now. Do you feel like a Dallasite now? You travel all over the world, but is this home?
One hundred percent. My wife and I have been blessed enough to start our family—we have three kids—and certainly feel like this is home. One hundred percent. We’re part of this community. One of those deals where I’m dropping my kids off at school and picking them up. It’s just fantastic. This is where we’re calling home, and there’s no better place, in my view, to raise a family. There’s just so much to do here in Dallas, and the Park Cities area offers so much to do for a young, growing family like my wife and I have.
What’s your favorite part about living here?
I think just the people. The weather’s great, too. It’s just absolutely amazing. But on top of that, the people are fantastic. Everyone’s so nice here. It’s just great Southern hospitality here.