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By E.J. Crawford

At the time, Brian Earley thought of it as little more than a job opportunity. He had been managing the courts at a public facility in Pittsburgh in 1979 when he heard that the USTA was taking ownership of a series of regional satellite tours to create the USTA/Penn Circuit. Intrigued, Earley pursued a job with the new circuit and was rewarded with a position running the qualifying at select events. “I made $200 a week,” Earley recalls, “and I had to pay all my own expenses.”

Three decades later, both the Circuit and Earley are still going strong. The name has changed from the USTA/Penn Circuit to the USTA Pro Circuit, and Earley has graduated from running qualifying to supervisor to director, now overseeing the circuit he helped build.

The USTA Pro Circuit is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2009, growing from a handful of regional tournaments in 1979 to the largest professional developmental tennis circuit in the world today, with more than 90 tournaments and $3 million in prize money annually.

USTA Pro Circuit tournaments are held throughout the country and routinely draw top young talent, both American and international. Past participants include 15 players who have been ranked No. 1 in the world, and Pro Circuit graduates have accounted for 50 Grand Slam singles titles.

“For 30 years, the USTA Pro Circuit has been a place where young pros can mature and develop into the next generation of stars,” Earley says. “We’re very proud of our efforts. And best of all, we continue to grow the USTA Pro Circuit in a way that will benefit American tennis for years to come.”

The USTA Pro Circuit is similar in format to the ATP and Sony Ericsson WTA tours, but spares up-and-comers the expense of traveling the world. The Pro Circuit features weekly tournaments from January through the end of November, providing the proper preparation to transition to the game’s highest level and giving players the opportunity to accumulate the ranking points they need to gain entry into the main draw of tour and Grand Slam events.

“To be able to play so many tournaments, week in and week out, in the States, it helps you get the points needed to move up the ladder,” says American veteran Bobby Reynolds, who won six titles (singles and doubles) on the USTA Pro Circuit in 2008 and finished the year ranked a career-best No. 70 in the world. “It would be so much more of a grind if I had to go to Europe or Asia for five, six weeks at a time. It’s nice to be home and play here.”

The USTA Pro Circuit put down roots in 1973, when tennis pioneers Larry Turville and Armistead Neely started the World Association of Tennis Champions, or WATCH circuit, the first in a series of satellite tours in the United States. In 1979, those regional satellite tours came together under the umbrella of a single organization—the USTA. That’s not to say the first few years of the USTA/Penn Circuit didn’t have its share of ups and downs. In the age before laptop computers and PDAs, draw sheets and results were written out by hand. Communication was often difficult, and the Pro Circuit supervisors and officials had to lug large typewriters and fax machines from city to city to keep the Circuit running on schedule—or at least close to it.

Thirty years later, Earley’s memories of the early days are vivid. “The very first tournament I worked was in Bonita Springs, Fla., in 1979,” Earley says. “There was a guy there who needed a wild card to get into qualifying because he didn’t have any ranking points at all. But he won four rounds to qualify and then went on to win five matches in the main draw to win the tournament.”

That player was Andres Gomez, who went on to win a combined 54 singles and doubles titles on the ATP tour, including the 1990 French Open.

While Gomez took advantage of the opportunity, the days of “open” qualifying had their issues. One event saw an astounding 243 players sign up. Another time, 150 players signed up and it rained for five days, leaving just a long weekend to complete the qualifying tournament and the main draw.

It was, as Earley recalls, organized chaos on a week-to-week basis. “In the formative years, from 1979 to 1984, we were just trying to figure out the job, inventing ways to make it work,” he says. “We were making decisions on court that had no precedent. We’d call each other at the end of the day and discuss what we’d done—learning, clarifying, establishing protocols and procedures and consistent ways to adjudicate a tennis match or even a circuit. It was fun, and it was baptism by fire, but it was nuts.”

Today, the fruits of those late-night phone calls, time spent on the road and beat-up, oversized fax machines are on display on the USTA Pro Circuit, where tournament qualifying and procedures have been streamlined and standardized, and at the US Open, where each year more than half the men’s and women’s singles fields are made up of Pro Circuit graduates. In fact, the past few years have each featured several Pro Circuit players who have broken through on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, including Ashley Harkleroad, John Isner, Vania King, Sam Querrey and Donald Young.

In 2008, current Pro Circuit player CoCo Vandeweghe won the US Open girls’ singles title, and past Pro Circuit champions Bob Bryan, Mike Bryan and Liezel Huber all claimed doubles titles. Moreover, the four members of the 2007 Davis Cup championship-winning squad—Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers—have each won at least three Pro Circuit titles and together combine for 35 Circuit crowns, and the 2008 Fed Cup semifinal team—active players and practice players—was populated entirely by Pro Circuit players or graduates.

“With so many more talented competitors around the world in recent years, young players absolutely have to prove themselves on the USTA Pro Circuit,” says Jim Curley, Managing Director, Tournament Operations, USTA. “Players do not bypass developmental tennis anymore. Those who grind it out on the Pro Circuit are best prepared to face the rigors of the pro tours.”

That group extends from Andre Agassi, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras to Roddick, Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova, and now includes young standouts like Vandeweghe, Young and Melanie Oudin.

“The USTA Pro Circuit is where you develop professional tennis players,” Earley says. “The middle of the pathway [from the juniors to the pros] is completely vacant without the USTA Pro Circuit. This is it.”

About the USTA Pro Circuit 

  • More than 90 events nationwide annually 
  • More than $3 million in prize money 
  • Allows young American players the opportunity to earn ranking points without having to travel abroad 
  • Serves as a bridge between the USTA junior championships and the major pro tours 

Men’s events:

  • $10,000 to $15,000 tournaments (“Futures”) serve as proving grounds for top-ranked juniors and collegiate players 
  • $50,00 to $100,000 tournaments (“Challengers”) span the Futures and the ATP tour 

Women’s events: 

  • $10,000 to $25,000 tournaments for players looking to establish their rankings and gain ranking points 
  • $50,000 to $75,000 tournaments are close in level to that of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour 
  • Graduates include Grand Slam champions (Andre Agassi, Lindsay Davenport, Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras and Maria Sharapova) and today’s young stars (Jelena Jankovic, Andy Murray, Sam Querrey and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga)

The USTA Pro Circuit is a national circuit. Events are held at public facilities and private clubs throughout the United States, from Auburn, Ala., to Wichita, Kan., and from Boston to Yuba City, Calif., including stops in Humacao, Puerto Rico and Vancouver, Canada, giving local fans a chance to see some of the top tennis players in the world in their own backyard. If you’re looking to get a taste of life on the USTA Pro Circuit, be sure to check out these marquee stops:

Midland, Mich.—$75,000 women’s—February 9-15
At 21 years and counting, the Dow Corning Classic is the oldest tournament on the women’s calendar and also features the longest-running continuous sponsorship of any USTA Pro Circuit event. And, as one of three $75,000 events on the women’s calendar, it routinely draws top fields to its indoor venue. In 2008, Laura Granville defeated Ashley Harkleroad in the final, one week after both suited up for the U.S. Fed Cup team’s quarterfinal victory over Germany.

Little Rock, Ark.—$15,000 men’s—April 6-12
The oldest tournament on the USTA Pro Circuit and annually one of the Circuit’s best-run events, the Little Rock Futures is celebrating its 29th year in 2009. The only professional event in the state of Arkansas counts Malivai Washington and James Blake among its finalists, and the 2007 final featured a West vs. East battle of rising stars, with American Donald Young holding off Japan’s Kei Nishikori for the title.

Charlottesville, Va.—$50,000 women’s—April 27–May 2
This is home to the USTA Pro Circuit’s most famous tennis fan and tournament sponsor, Boyd Tinsely, violinist for the Dave Matthews Band. Tinsley serves as both sponsor and host, handing out the trophies to the tournament winners and runners-up—a list that includes Jelena Jankovic, Bethanie Mattek and Dominika Cibulkova.

Lexington, Ky.—$50,000 men’s and women’s—July 20-26
The only combined Challenger on the USTA Pro Circuit, Lexington is typically one of the Circuit’s top draws. One in a series of Pro Circuit hard court events leading up US Open, Lexington’s past champions include John Isner and Paul Goldstein on the men’s side, and Katarina Srebotnik and rising American star Melanie Oudin among the women.

Calabasas, Calif.—$50,000 men’s—Oct. 12-18
The Challenger at Calabasas heralds the stretch run of the USTA Pro Circuit calendar with an accomplished group of former champions that includes Michael Chang, Ivo Karlovic and Mark Philippoussis. Located amid a number of state parks west of Los Angles and just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, Calabasas is also one of the most scenic of the 90-plus Pro Circuit events.
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