Q&A: Peter Lebedevs, Dallas Open Tournament Director
On Wednesday, November 29th the Dallas Open announced it would be moving the Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, the home of the Dallas Cowboys corporate headquarters and training facility. This comes on the heels of the recent announcement that the tournament would be upgraded in 2025 from an ATP 250 tournament to an ATP 500 event, one of only a handful held throughout the year. Since 2022, the Dallas Open has taken place at the Styslinger/Altec Tennis Complex on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
We spoke with Peter Lebedevs, longtime coach and organizer of US professional tournaments and Dallas Open tournament director, about about the event, its origins and what changes Texas tennis fans can expect from the Dallas Open in the future.
USTA Texas: Tell us a little about your tennis background.
Peter Lebedevs: Like many International tennis players, I came here to play college tennis. I played at the University of Memphis and after my four years there very quickly realized I was not going to make money playing tennis. At the time, Memphis had a professional event and they also ran the USTA National Girls 18s, so I was in an environment of live sporting events. I eventually became the tournament director of our professional event in Memphis which was a 500-level men’s and women's event. Then I moved to Atlanta working on the ATP 250 tournament, then to New York to work on that 250 event, and then came down here to Dallas to do this one.
At the same time I've been involved with the USTA for over 30 years. I was chairman of junior competition for the Southern Section and chairman of the National Junior Competition for a couple of years. So [I have been] very intimately involved with the USTA and its mission. I have also coached many, many junior players through the years that were very successful. I’ve been on both sides of tennis: on the coaching of it and the administration and the promotion of it. So it's taking a lot of years to get here.
Q: How did the Dallas Open get started?
PL: We were looking for a venue to move our event from in New York after COVID and we ended up connecting with [SMU Men’s Tennis Head Coach] Grant Chen, John Isner and Sam Duval, [Isner’s] agent. They said, ‘Look, come and have a look at this site down here at SMU’ and so we went down there and within 20 minutes, based on my history, I could see exactly how it could work. I said, ‘this is gonna be a great place.’
Texas [has a strong] history of tennis, you know modern professional tennis really started at Moody Coliseum with the WCT many, many years ago. It made perfect sense to come to Dallas. Our company and our Chairman and CEO. Gary [Fuhrman,] has always wanted to help collegiate tennis and so being able to be on a college campus and provide wild cards to the SMU players fit our plan as a company for tennis. That's how we ended up doing our first event at SMU. The Dallas Open has been a tremendous success with all of the help from the team and SMU.
Q: What’s it been like having this tournament in Texas?
PL: We always heard that Texas was a great section of tennis. The fans here are very good fans, they’re intelligent and they know good tennis. They know those things that are happening. It was great to see the fans come out [to the Dallas Open] and support as much as they did. We sold out about VIP boxes within 30 days before we'd run the event and they were trusting that we would create a great atmosphere.
We're a small, small venue [at SMU] where the walls dictate how big we can go but the atmosphere in there when the crowd is packed (which it is almost every day) is tremendous to the players. One player said to me after the first year, ‘Peter, I'm playing a match Thursday at noon and normally there's nobody in the stands, but here it’s three quarters full!’ He said that it was so much fun to play in, and he appreciated the fans’ [excitement] and having the fans being that close, [it’s like] they're right on top of the players there, sitting next to them where you can almost touch them.
We had a tremendous first year when President [George W.] Bush came out and did our coin toss for the final. He had a little fun with Riley Opelka and tapped him in the stomach, you know, because obviously Riley is seven-feet tall. It was terrific.
And then last year, in our final, Wu Yibing won the event. He's the first Chinese player ever to win an ATP event. So that was a massive global hit.
Our local host of the event is John Isner, who lives maybe a mile from the SMU campus, and had a tough, tough match in this year’s final. It was six in the third - a typical John long match – and I was sitting there with a couple of members of my team and at 9-9 in the third set tiebreaker the crowd started stomping on the stands. And that's one of those things you can't create. They weren't cheering for John, they were really just cheering for great tennis. I said to my operation guys: ‘Well, let's find out if these stands are strong enough.’ That’s an atmosphere that’s very hard to create and it's there because the venue has been so intimate so the fans have a terrific time.
Q: When did the opportunity to upgrade from a 250 to a 500-level event happen?
PL: We were selling out, so we had an opportunity where we were saying ‘wow, can we grow this event?’ The ATP said [it was] looking to upgrade some 250s to a 500 level because their vision is to create more high-end events and tournaments. So we said ‘well, okay, let's see if we can raise that standard ourselves.’ It goes back to our commitment of trying to help out American tennis. Having another ATP 500 in the country helps these young players come up.
It's a very long process and [the tournament] has had a lot of help from everybody putting it together. We got chosen out of 17 applicants to be upgraded to a 500 and with that there are certain requirements: obviously, on the size of the venue and the seating capacity and those things and Ford Center at The Star absolutely fit that billing. The Dallas Cowboys and Jones family were very interested and wanted to have tennis up at The Star, so we connected and that's where we are right now. So in 2025, the Dallas Open will be an ATP 500 event.
Q: With a new level and new venue, how will the 2025 Dallas Open be different?
PL: So firstly, for the players, the hotel is connected to the site so they never have to walk outside. The entertainment district has so many restaurants there that the players are gonna love. The medical rooms that come with the Ford Center at The Star are really just amazing. So from the player standpoint, they're gonna be really impressed and love the atmosphere.
From the fan standpoint, we're creating some really unique seating designs. We're creating a triple-decker. We'll have box seats around the courts as usual and then people will be able to go right underneath the triple decker for their food and beverage, on the second floor sort of a restaurant-style seating and on the third floor similarly. On the second and third floors, you’ll actually actually be able to see the grandstand court as well. All the practice courts will be in the building as well, so all the fans can see the players out there practicing and really get to see that part.
We’re building out what our fan experience is going to be like, but we have a lot of room there that we can fill up and do some really amazing things with the fans. We're excited about what we can do there. Those plans will be being built out as we go forward. It should really be an exciting time for people to come out there.
Q: Do you expect the level players and competition to change?
PL: Obviously as a 500 level event, players are chasing the points. Our player field, although it's already been very, very strong, will only improve [when we become a] 500 because there's going to be one other event at the same time as us. So there are going to be 64 playing opportunities for professional tennis players the week of our event and that just means the top players are going to be coming.
Our player field will get stronger with the Americans, but also with some European players that'll be there as well. It's going to be like everything we've done before and more so we look forward to.
Q: What’s been the response you’ve heard following the announcement?
PL: Everybody's been very positive about it! They see it as improving the opportunities for the American players. They're excited for the 500 level and they see that as a great opportunity. Even though [SMU] would love to have it stay there, they see the opportunity for the event and also for them because we provide a wild card for their number-one player or a player they designate, and so they still see it. They're very positive because of the upgraded player field and amenities and things like that.
[It’s great to] have a partnership with the Cowboys. For instance, we had Charlotte Jones out at the announcement and her enthusiasm is tremendous. The Cowboys do things very well, as we all know, and so together we're gonna make it great.
They're all excited to see what we can do. So there’s pressure on our team now to make sure that we deliver exactly what we are saying and we know we can.