Like a once-bloated balloon, the Bob Wall Memorial Tennis Tournament deflated as player participation curiously dwindled and dwindled in recent years. Finally, that balloon popped.
The news that, after 36 years, the plug has been pulled on the tournament was greeted with sadness and puzzlement by players and others. Times/Review Newsgroup announced last week that it was withdrawing its sponsorship of the tournament in light of declining player participation.
Troy Gustavson, the former co-publisher of Times/Review Newsgroup who was instrumental in launching the tournament in 1978, announced “with profound regret” its demise last week in his column in the company’s newspapers. “It has been a staple of North Fork summers for more than 35 years now, but time and the grayification (that’s not a real word, is it?) of our community have finally taken their toll,” he wrote.
The drop in player entries was the reason given for the decision.
“We’re not getting the group of [players] from like [ages] 25 to 40, in that range, and I don’t know why because I know there’s a number of players who I know play in the area who played for Mattituck High School or Southold,” the tournament director, Jim Christy, said. “They may be playing, but they’re not signing up for the tournament.”
In recent years the tournament dropped women’s doubles because of a lack of interest. This year’s tournament had 42 entries: 12 in men’s singles, five in women’s singles, four in men’s doubles, 10 in mixed doubles, seven in men’s 50-plus singles and four in men’s 50-plus doubles. But even those numbers are misleading because some players played in more than one division.
“We were having double that amount years ago,” said Christy.
Although the tournament has had a loyal corps of returning players, it seemed to have trouble attracting new players to make up for players it lost over the years.
Bob Lum, 58, of Flanders, who is also the Riverhead High School boys tennis coach, is one of the diehards. He said he has played in the tournament for more than 15 years. Now, to see it end, he said, is “really sad because it’s a great event.”
Lum and his men’s 50-plus doubles partner, Richard Chizever played in the tournament’s final match on Friday against Ed Lee and Tom Cahill, who won. Chizever, 58, of Aquebogue, who first entered the tournament when he was in his young 20s, said he was surprised to see the numbers of players fall as it has.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “It’s a shame. I don’t really understand it.”
For young players like Liz Dwyer and Molly Kowalski, this year’s women’s singles finalists, this was their first, and last, year in the tournament.
“I wish I played in more of them,” said Kowalski, 18, of Mattituck.
The tournament had modest beginnings, starting off as the Orient Tennis Tournament on clay courts in Orient off scenic Long Island Sound. Players who remember those early days look back on them with nostalgia and talk about the charming setting. Christy recalled it as something like a scene from the movie “The Great Gatsby,” with people sipping a glass of wine as they enjoyed the matches.
The tournament finals were later moved to the North Fork Country Club before settling at Robert W. Tasker Memorial Park in Peconic.
Along the way, there have been standouts like Dahlia Ferrando-Aman, who won at least 10 straight women’s singles championships; 10-time men’s singles champion Chris Ujkic; and eight-time men’s singles champion Steve Paskiewicz.
Some players hold out hope that the tournament will be resurrected.
“The draws have gotten very thin over the years and it’s up to us to talk it up and try to get new blood in the tournament and hopefully we can get it to continue if we get more participation,” Cahill said. He added: “The competition’s good. Everyone’s at a nice level of tennis. It’s good ball.”
Christy said the tournament could be reincarnated in a different form, perhaps, after a hiatus. He said, “Whenever one door closes, another door opens.”