When San Diego County residents talk about Opening Day, it’s usually in reference to Del Mar or Petco Park. It’s time to add San Diego Aviators World TeamTennis at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad to that list.
The Aviators, in its third year as a Mylan World TeamTennis franchise, will open the season with a bang on July 31 with the Pillars of Hope Tennis Smash. While the 7 p.m. match with the Orange County Breakers is the main attraction — San Diego’s roster that night will feature tennis superstar James Blake, once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world — the event runs from 4 to 9 p.m. and includes dinner, live music, and silent and live auctions benefiting the Mitchell Thorpe Foundation.
But the excitement of Opening Day is just the beginning for tennis fans, sports fans or San Diegans just looking for a great night out. The Aviators roster is stocked with exciting players, and the rules of play make for up-tempo, drama-filled matches.
Blake, San Diego’s “Marquee Player” who will suit up on July 31 only, is an American who has won 10 ATP World Tour singles titles and is perhaps best known for his 2005 run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals. That run included a win over Rafael Nadal and a memorable five-set loss to Andre Agassi, who had to come back from a 2-0 deficit.
Blake is living in Encinitas while he builds a home in Solana Beach.
With the Aviators for all 12 matches — six of which are on their home court at the Omni La Costa — are Americans Ryan Harrison and Shelby Rogers, along with South African standout Raven Klaasen and Croatian crusher Darija Jurak. Head coach John Lloyd, a former captain of the British Davis Cup team from 2006-2010 and the 1990 World TeamTennis Coach of the Year, will guide the squad for the second straight season.
Harrison, 24, was signed July 15 after British player Dan Evans was drafted by San Diego, then pulled out of his contract at the last minute.
The newest Aviator has been ranked as high as No. 43 in the world and has won matches at all four Grand Slam events. Harrison, who lives in Austin, Texas, has played for the United States in the Davis Cup, facing Switzerland and France in 2012, so he will be familiar with the team tennis format when he makes his league debut on July 31.
“He is a great addition, a great team player who is really good at doubles,” said San Diego General Manager and Assistant Head Coach Jim Ault. “It will be a lot of fun to have him on the team.”
Rogers, just 23 but a professional since 2009, is No. 59 in the WTA singles rankings, reached the third round of the 2015 U.S. Open and gained acclaim this summer with an impressive French Open run. On the way to the quarterfinals, the Charleston, South Carolina resident eliminated No. 17 Karolina Pliskova (Czech Republic), took out Russian Elena Vesnina in straight sets, defeated 10th seed and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, then topped No. 25 Irina-Camelia Begu (Romania) in straight sets.
Klaasen, meanwhile, is a three-year veteran of the San Diego squad who has won nine career ATP World Tour doubles titles and is No. 6 in the ATP doubles rankings. Klaasen, 33, reached the doubles final at the 2014 Australian Open and recently played in the Wimbledon semifinals.
Jurak is a 31-year-old who is in her fourth World TeamTennis campaign, including playing a key role for the Aviators last season. She’s been ranked as high as 32nd in doubles and has a third-round Wimbledon appearance under her belt.
But it isn’t just watching the best players in the world compete that makes World TeamTennis matches so exciting. First of all, unlike most tennis events, cheering is encouraged.
“You don’t have to be too quiet. Fans can act the same way they would at a Padres or Chargers game as far as cheering,” Ault explained.
Additionally, the scoring is in total games, not just sets, so every point counts in the five matches contested. Strategy comes into play as the home team can choose what order to play men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles.
“The big difference is, it is a team so every game counts and every player contributes to the score,” Ault continued. “It is very heavy on doubles, which is super exciting and so fun to watch.”
Another rule that adds to the fan experience is the overtime possibility. No matter how many points a team is behind, if it can win the final set the match goes on until the leading squad wins a game, or the losing teams wins enough games to overtake its opponent. In short, this means there is never a reason to leave early.
The Aviators — who have home matches on Aug. 2 (Orange County Breakers), Aug. 5 (New York Empire), Aug. 6 (Washington Kastles), Aug. 7 (Springfield Lazers) and Aug. 8 (Philadelphia Freedom) — are owned by local residents Fred Luddy and Jack McGrory, and took third place in the Western Conference last season.
Ault, Luddy and McGrory are proud to work with the Mitchell Thorp Foundation for the July 31 Pillars of Hope event. The Foundation’s mission is to help families in the region who have children suffering from life-threatening illnesses by providing financial and emotional support and resources.
Packages cost $125 per person and include dinner, entertainment and the auctions until 7 p.m. A $250 VIP package includes those perks plus VIP seats to the Aviators match. To purchase tickets, visit www.mitchellthorp.org/events.
Also at the event, the foundation will give out its Pillars of Hope award, which honors top doctors, educators, therapists and practitioners who go above and beyond the call of duty.
For more information on the Aviators, or to purchase tickets, visit www.sandiegoaviators.com.
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