Peter Lebedevs, a highly regarded university player from Australia, remembers his first job in professional tennis. It was an assignment, unfortunately for him, for which he had no racket in his hands.
Instead, he carried dozens of car keys to give to top tennis professionals for vehicles they would drive while in Memphis for the US National Indoor, a longtime ATP World Tour event played annually at The Racquet Club in East Memphis. from the mid-seventies to 2017.
“It was in 1987 or 1988,” said Lebedevs, who played tennis at the University of Memphis. “I had started working at The Racquet Club. That first year, I bought (purchased) 72 cars for the pros at three auto dealerships in Memphis. My job was to coordinate their (use) and pick them up at the end of the tournament. We picked them up and took them to the Mr. Pride car wash around the corner and then back to the dealer.’
The assignment started what has become a long drive through the sport, from arranging tournament cars and managing ball children to running one of the few professional tennis events in the United States.
Lebedevs was promoted several times during the ensuing 25 years with The Racquet Club, eventually becoming the tournament director of the event in 2009. He left after the 2014 tournament, three years before the Indoor moved to New York and four years before The Racquet Club was sold . and demolished, to make way for an unspecified commercial development.
Early next month, Lebedevs will take the next step in his tennis career and become tournament director of the ATP Tour event in Dallas. Protennis returns to Dallas to serve as the final home of the former Memphis event that spent four years in New York (2018-21) before finding a solid footing in the Big D.
Lebedevs said the 104 boxes at the Dallas Open tennis court at SMU’s indoor tennis facility sold out in three weeks. The field includes former Memphis regular John Isner, who has been among the US’s top stars for the past decade, along with up-and-coming Americans Reilly Opelka and Taylor Fritz. It runs from February 6-13.
Before Dallas – and after Memphis – Lebedevs teamed up with the ATP World Tour event in New York after it moved from The Racquet Club. Also, he remains affiliated with another tournament in Atlanta, assisting toward the summer event.
But it was Memphis where his training began.
“(Former Memphis Tournament Director) Tommy Buford was my mentor,” Lebedevs said of the late longtime director who was the epitome of a Southern lord. “He treated everyone like family.
“I’ve learned how to deal with people, the people you work with, the people you work for, and those who support you: the fans, the sponsors, and those you’re in the trenches with. I learned that through Tommy. You always treat people with respect. Tommy has influenced so many of us in that regard.”
Lebedevs, 56, said he was also influenced by Phil Chamberlain, his predecessor as Memphis tournament director and his former college tennis coach. Chamberlain is a tennis coach at Memphis University School and Hutchison, in addition to running the Dunavant-Wellford Tennis Center.
“Tommy accompanied Phil too,” Lebedevs said. “Tommy is the (connection) between us. After he left as tournament director, we always asked, “What would Tommy do?” “
Chamberlain was in Memphis in the mid-1970s teaching tennis after his college career. He was, in one capacity, involved with the US Indoor – which went by several names over the years, depending on title sponsorship – for much of its 40-year run.
“We had such a unique plan to make the tournament a success,” said Chamberlain. “It wasn’t just dependent on ticket sales. Our plan (for sponsors) was linked to the benefits of the club and the tournament for their sponsorship.”
For example, he said a $20,000 sponsorship included a year’s membership to the club, in addition to gold box tickets for the week-long run of the event. Over the years, strong relationships have developed. Chamberlain stepped down after the tournament was sold by Mac Winker to Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment and Golden Set Holdings in 2008.
“I remember being a tournament director and being in New York for the US Open,” Chamberlain said. “I walked into the player area and Tommy Haas (former World No. 2 and frequent Memphis participant) was in a press conference. He was asked, ‘What is your favorite Grand Slam event?’
“Tommy said, ‘I can’t tell you, but I can tell you what my favorite tournament in the world is. It’s playing Memphis, Tennessee.” I was back in the room. He didn’t see me. But I remember thinking, ‘How great is that.’ ”
Protennis in Memphis paved the way
The Indoor, which moved to Memphis from Salisbury, Maryland, in 1977, was an important addition to the sports landscape in an era before the NBA’s Grizzlies. It was, along with the PGA Tour event in town, the only professional sports offering.
In the early decades, the pro tournament at The Racquet Club regularly featured American stars including Stan Smith, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang and Andy Roddick. International stars such as Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl and Bjorn Borg also played here.
When Erin Mazurek Stone, now the tournament director of the PGA’s FedEx St. Jude Championship at TPC Southwind, arrived in 2014 to begin her three-year career (2015-17) as director of the Memphis tennis tournament, her challenges awaited. Americans were few in the Top 20, the tournament was without a title sponsor, and the sport’s biggest stars — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer — didn’t play smaller ATP World Tour events in the US like Memphis. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer never appeared in Memphis.
“In the tournament’s heyday, it was about American superstars leading the (sports) arrival to Memphis,” said Mazurek Stone. “It created beautiful memories of big names who came through here in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Then the game became more global, which is good for the sport and other countries. But when it became more global and (produced) fewer American stars, it had an effect.”
Mazurek Stone said that during her three years as tournament director of the Memphis Open, the next crop of American stars was emerging. Now they have arrived. Fritz is in the Top 25 in the world and the highest ranked American. Opelka is a few spots behind, as is Frances Tiafoe. Tommy Paul has entered the Top 50.
“Those guys are doing really well,” she says. “They were teenagers when they played Memphis and they didn’t really have a following. We had to (market the tournament) as one to see the rising stars of the sport. Fans in Memphis were used to looking at the famous names.”
She said the lack of a title sponsor in recent years also made it difficult for the tournament to stay in Memphis. As for the future of tennis in Memphis, she believes the new Leftwich Tennis Center—a 36-court, $24 million joint project between the city and the University of Memphis under construction in Southern near Goodlett—could usher in a new era. usher in and a renewed energy for the sport.
“It’s going to be first-class and it’s going to open up a wealth of opportunities for tennis in this city,” she said. “Besides playing recreationally, it opens things like (US) Davis Cup matches and Challenger (development tour) events and exhibitions (between former stars). It only offers opportunities.”
As he enters this phase of his tennis career, Lebedevs will have fond memories of his experiences in Memphis, from hitting with former World Champion Stefan Edberg and serving as a practice partner for former Memphis Champion Brad Gilbert to riding John McEnroe to the Gibson Guitar. Factory in downtown Memphis for an overnight tour.
Kevin Kane, president of Memphis Tourism, pulled some strings to get the factory keys, so to speak.
“We went to the center after John played an exhibition double,” said Lebedevs. “John picked up a guitar, sat down and started playing. He just played away. John is a very good guitarist. I actually have that (video) on my phone. It was a really cool moment in the middle of the night.”
Freelancer Phil Stukenborg is a former staff writer and deputy sports editor for The Commercial Appeal. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org