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Net Appeal

(page 1 of 3)

Call them impresarios.

It is difficult to know exactly how to label Raquel Giscafré and Jane Stratton, former touring tennis pros from Argentina and Salt Lake City, respectively, who have built the Acura Classic from modest beginnings two decades ago at Morley Field in Balboa Park into a world-class, and still ascending, showcase at La Costa Resort & Spa.

They are promoters, to be sure. Their company, which owns and operates the tournament, is called Promotion Sports. But “promoters” sounds too déclassé and speaks mostly to the marketing side of an enterprise that is equal parts muscle and hustle, sport and show biz.

They are entrepreneurs, unquestionably—the only equity partners in a risky business. In 1994, they guaranteed a million dollars in commercial time on network telecasts without a sponsor in hand, and had to sell the spots themselves. “That was pretty scary,” says Stratton.

Over the next five years, they are committed to investing an additional $14 million in incremental prize money, fees and a permanent stadium with a capacity of at least 7,000. That’s the price of upgrading their tournament to Tier I status in 2004, joining nine other women’s events around the world at the pinnacle of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour, just a notch below the traditional Grand Slam events: Wimbledon and the U.S., French and Australian Opens.

Giscafreé and Stratton understand the art as well as the business of the game that has defined their lives and livelihoods. They appreciate the competitive heart, the single-minded brain and the mercurial temperament of the professional athlete. They know how to handle the celebrity divas and the tennis equivalent of the chorus.

They annually enlist an elite field not only because of the prize purse—$1 million this year, up 29 percent from a year ago in a less than net-rushing economy—but also because of the reputation they have cultivated for hospitality, recognizing and bonding with good young players early and treating the talent well.

Eight of the top 10 players in the WTA rankings are slated to play at La Costa, July 26 through August 3, including three-time defending champion Venus Williams, 1998 winner Lindsay Davenport and 1991-92 champ Jennifer Capriati. Other marquee players will be there, too, including four-time runner-up Monica Seles and the beguiling Anna Kournikova, who lost in the semifinals last year to Williams and was in the doubles finals in 2000 and 2001.

I must confess I never quite understood the Kournikova phenomenon—magazine covers all over the world, paparazzi, more Web site hits than most global corporations, masses of adolescent lads and at least a couple of professional hockey stars proposing marriage—until

I watched her play from a courtside seat at

La Costa, near where she toweled off between points. My nephew—single and usually sensible—was mesmerized by the Russian Britney Spears of tennis. Her flawless tan actually seems to glisten when she perspires. But I digress.

Other tournaments get stellar fields, at least periodically, but Giscafré and Stratton have landed the game’s superstars year after year, even when the prize money was not so substantial. Their draw featured five of the top 10 in 1996; eight in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2002; and an amazing nine of the top 10 in 1999.

Steffi Graf, winner of the Grand Slam in 1988, won the San Diego tournament four times. Martina Hingis won twice. Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario was runner-up to Graf twice in singles and won twice in doubles. Other tennis legends of various vintages, from Billie Jean King to Chris Evert and Tracy Austin to Martina Navratilova, have come to La Costa as television commentators or special guests—and in Navratilova’s case last year, as a loser in the doubles qualifying. She decided to stay around, enjoying the sun, the scene and the spa.
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