BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The family that gave Winnetka a global rating continues that tradition with the high-speed Nielsen Men’s Pro Tennis Championship July 8th through the 14th in Winnetka, featuring players battling up the charts.
Part of the ATP Challenger Tour and played almost every year since 1984, the championship features 48 singles players and 16 pairs of doubles players. Legends like Pete Sampras, Todd Martin, and John McEnroe, along with current top-ten stars Kevin Anderson and John Isner, got their start at the tournament named for Arthur Charles Nielsen, Sr., founder of the international market research firm ACNielsen in 1923 and who, though the Nielsen TV, radio, and newspaper ratings, changed the world of communications.
In addition to launching the new field of electronic research, he had a gland slam of a love for tennis. Captain of the varsity tennis team at the University of Wisconsin in 1918, Nielsen and his wife, Gertrude, donated the Nielsen Tennis Center at the university in Madison, along with a full-time MBA program there specializing in market research.
With his son, Arthur Nielsen, Jr., he won the U.S. Father and Son Doubles Tennis titles in 1946 and 1948. He was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 for his contributions to the sport.
The Nielsen Company is today the tournament’s lead sponsor and his grandsons, Chris and Art III, are among the many other sponsors for this internationally-streamed event.
Chris, an avid daily tennis player who won the Illinois Tennis Championship in 1967, told us with gusto about the tournament and his family’s involvement: “Tennis was the ideal sport for my grandfather. It provided a balance to all his desk work, and he thought it was one source of his legendary stamina. As he put it: ‘Nothing is more important than good health, which is a good excuse for staying fit while having fun playing tennis.”
He continued, “Tennis may have kept him fit, but it also stimulated his extraordinary brain power. He developed an unusually wide assortment of shots and part of the fun for him was unleashing these shots and outwitting his opponents. He maintained his interest in the game by having so many tricks up his sleeve.
“Another aspect of the game that he loved was the social side. He made friends all over the world playing tennis; and when he was starting his company in England, he became a member of the Queen’s Club in London. He played on the club’s tennis team, and he was surprised when a match ground to a halt before it was over so that everyone could be served tea! When he was at home on his backyard tennis court in Winnetka, he would wait, American-style, until the end of the match, before treating his companions. Offering them ginger ale and Coca-Cola and lingering over the conversation, he relished this part of the game. He truly valued convivial times with these friends.
“I think he would be thrilled that a tennis tournament named for the company he founded is being played at the Nielsen Tennis Center, which he and his wife, Gertrude, donated in appreciation for years of family life in Winnetka. He, unfortunately, was no longer living when the tournament started, so he was never able to see it on TV; but if he had seen it, he would have given it a Top Nielsen Rating!”
Chris told us about the world-class tennis to expect at the Championship: “Strokes are thrilling more to watch and are now moving even faster. Serves hit even harder. Our players are ranked 100-200 in the world and quite a few of them are on the way up, possibly to number one. All hit the ball beautifully. Many are very young players. Pete Sampras turned 18 during our tournament, which was his first big pro tournament.”
“We haven’t been given our lineup of this year’s players but it seems certain that last’s champion, Evgeny Karlovshiy, will be playing again this year,” he added. The 6’3” Russian player received a recent career-high ATP ranking of 214 for singles and 236 for doubles.
Wild cards have had great power in the tournament. Todd Martin, who was born in Hinsdale and graduated from Northwestern, got two wild cards—1990 and 1991—from the Nielsen Tournament that launched his pro tennis career. Once ranked number four in the world, Martin reached the finals of both the Australia Open and the US Open in the 1990s.
In past years, Championship Director Linda Goodman has had two wildcards for admission to the draw. One of the most memorable events in tournament history occurred in 1989 when Goodman answered the phone and was surprised to hear a voice claiming to be Stan Smith, the two-time Grand Slam singles champion and former World’s number one American player.
Goodman recalled: “The man asked if a young player he was coaching could have one of the wildcards. Not convinced that the voice really was the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, I said that if he really was Stan Smith, the answer of course would be ‘yes.’ The young player turned out to be none other that Pete Sampras! He went on, of course, to be regarded as one of the most powerful players in tennis history.”
Chris shared a Todd Martin memory from the tournament: “A peak moment for our family at the Nielsen Championship occurred one year at the Pro-Am, which takes place the day before the tournament begins. My father was thrilled to have Todd Martin as his doubles partner. With strong play by both of them, they reached the finals. It was a dream come true for my father to be playing in the finals of a tournament with Todd Martin!
“My father was giving it his all and playing his heart out. Todd as always was playing brilliantly and twice they got to match point. Unfortunately, Todd, on both match points, fired non-percentage return of serves right up the line, which the netman volleyed away for winners. My father then made a tremendous shot bringing them once again to match point.
“This time my father got up the courage to ask Todd politely, ‘Any chance of you returning crosscourt this time?’ Todd, seeing how much victory mattered to my father, replied, ‘Of course, I hardly ever get a chance to return straight up the line, so I just wanted to practice the shot!’ Todd then unleashed a punishing crosscourt, bringing my father his longed for triumph!”
Art Jr. was holding a tennis racquet by the time he could walk. By the time he was 15, he was thought to be one of the best young players in the country. At the University of Wisconsin, he was a star player and twice captained the men’s tennis team.
Subsequently, he won many tennis tournaments, including those U.S. Father and Son Doubles Championships in the 1940s with Art Sr., with Art Jr. later representing America at the international seniors competition in Canada and Mexico.
There are currently six Nielsen families in Winnetka: Chris and Laurie Nielsen, Art and Sheila Nielsen, Phil and Marianne Nielsen, Sonja and Curtis Smith, Lisa and Maurizio Cocciarelli, and John and Jaime Cocciarelli. Almost everyone in the family plays tennis: Art Sr. and daughter Peggy won the national Father and Daughter Championship.
When we asked Chris, who once headed the rock band The Del Crustaceans, which were the hit of many of Chicago’s most legendary parties for the twenties set, about his Illinois state tennis victory, he told us: “Jimmy Connor also played in that tournament but lost before I had to play him. But he was phenomenal to watch, even back in high school.”
Goodman has been director of the tournament almost since the beginning. Originally a Winnetka resident and avid tennis player, she now lives in Washington, DC, to be close to her daughter and grandchildren, and shares the co-directorship of the tournament with her son, Scott, and Beth Robitaille.
“The tournament is really a community effort,” she says. “Residents frequently invite the players to stay in their homes and so many sign up to volunteer. We have lots of local ball kids and many also come out from the city. CBS Sports anchor Megan Mawicke was once one of our ball kids and comes out some years to cover the tournament.
She shares that one of the most important days at the tournament is when kids come out from inner city Chicago and get to meet the players and learn about the sport.
Net proceeds from the tournament support the North Suburban Special Recreation Association, a partnership of 10 park districts, two cities, and one village on the North Shore that provides and facilitates year-round recreation programs and services for children and adults with disabilities who live in the partner communities.
Chris shared, “The town’s outpouring of support means a lot. Whether it’s volunteers—ticket sellers, ball kids, private housing for the players, or Edwards Florist, which always gives us pots of flowers or the Briedemann Auto Group,which furnishes drivers for the players free of charge—the whole community gets involved.”
The A.C. Nielsen Tennis Center is located at 530 Hibbard Road in Winnetka. For information about ticket sales, visit nielsenprotennis.org.