STANFORD, Calif. -- The final rounds of the Farmers Classic tournament were shaping up at the Los Angeles Tennis Center this past weekend while, elsewhere on the grounds, Novak Djokovic was hitting quietly on the practice courts. The newly minted world No. 1, who is gearing up to start his summer hard-court campaign at the Rogers Cup in Montreal next week, used the site by invitation for three days ahead of his appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in nearby Burbank on Tuesday.
"He was noticed by very few people," said Bob Kramer, longtime Los Angeles tournament director and son of tennis legend Jack Kramer. "But he was noticed by us, and we hope he comes back and plays the tournament in the future."
Given that Djokovic was already making the trip, why not this year? Part of the answer dates back to last year, when a last-minute pullout by the Serb left the tournament scrambling to find another headliner to replace its top star. Andy Murray eventually filled in, but with Juan Martin del Potro also missing the tournament because of injury, Kramer decided to sit out the usual dance for big names this time around. In an unusual move, Los Angeles did not offer appearance fees usually given to the marquee names at smaller ATP events. Playing Grand Slams and Masters-level events such as Montreal is mandatory for ATP pros, but the rules allow 500- and 250-level events (the number is the ranking points earned by the winner) to compete for headliners by offering what are typically six-figure sums to take part.
"Last year, on multiple factors, we didn't see a return on investment," Kramer said. "You're spending a dollar, and you're trying to get a dollar back. That didn't happen. So the logical thing was to stop investing in the same way.
"We saw this year that it made sense. We didn't invest that money -- the return was, in some cases, actually higher in the sponsor segment; it was a little higher in daily ticket sales."
The tournament didn't go completely lily white. Del Potro, the tournament's No. 2 seed, was fulfilling the second half of a two-year contract he began in 2008 before missing the event in 2009 and 2010. But other than that, it was pay for play. That meant only two top-20 players, and certainly no one like Djokovic, Murray, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
Pay for play
Going in, it wasn't clear how things would turn out, particularly with a couple of locals also missing. Sam Querrey, is out after elbow surgery, and top-ranked doubles duo Bob and Mike Bryan reluctantly missed the event in their crowded schedules. But it all went relatively well, helped by a little luck with the draw. Top-ranked American Mardy Fish, who has settled down in Beverly Hills about five minutes from the grounds at UCLA, opted to play and became the tournament's No. 1 seed. The field also benefited from the returns of two aging but still well-known names, James Blake and Tommy Haas, as well as runs by two emerging names, American prospect Ryan Harrison and temperamental but compelling Ernests Gulbis, who ended up winning the event. An early-round night match between Blake and del Potro was a sellout, and there also were attractive matchups such as Fish-Harrison and Gulbis-del Potro in the latter stages.
Still, Kramer emphasizes that the no-guarantees policy was "just for this year" -- a decision about whether to go the same route next year will be made in the fall after the final financial numbers come in. The situation is complicated by the fact that the tournament is scheduled to take place alongside the Olympics next year. But Kramer does feel the current economic climate makes a large payout a riskier proposition: "Until the economic downturn, it made a lot of sense. I think the economics right now, at least in the United States, probably doesn't make as much sense as it did back in 1990 or even five years ago."
Typically, he says, about half the cash needed to secure a big name comes from sponsors being willing to raise their commitment to the tournament because of the extra exposure the stars provide. The other half is budgeted through an anticipated increase in ticket sales.
Few are splurging these days. "I think people are having to choose where to spend their money," Kramer said. "People are consuming tennis; more people are playing tennis, but they're doing it in different ways. So, for example, you don't have to go an event to watch it because it's on the Internet, it's on cable TV, it's on over-the-air television."
In response, the tournament increased ticket value for fans by offering various discount packages and, instead of charging separately for day and night sessions, it offered single sessions for the first three days of the event.
Appearance fee economics
What would it have taken to get Djokovic playing instead of practicing at the UCLA facility? Appearance fees for the likes of Federer, Nadal and now Djokovic have seen a spike in recent years, thanks to their dominance and resulting fame. "My understanding is that Nadal and Federer, their numbers are like Tiger Woods kind of numbers," said Kramer, referencing the seven-figure sums commanded by Woods at golf events.
After titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon as part of a 44-1 record this season, Djokovic appears to have joined the club. Speaking to Thai media, officials in Bangkok indicated that almost a million dollars was being offered to Djokovic to play the fall event.
That tops the total prize money on offer in Los Angeles, which is $619,500. It's a major ask for tournaments that don't have significant institutional backing, and organizers of the ATP event in Brisbane have even talked about trying to get government funding to lure Federer or Nadal when the stars' three-year contracts with Doha expire next year. Does that mean Los Angeles will never see the big three taking part? Not necessarily, but a lot of things have to fall into place.
"I think it's worth it, but I think it has to be done carefully," Kramer said. "I think you really have to have a comprehensive understanding with the player and with your sponsors, what their commitment is going to be.
"What you would want to do is make sure the relationship you crafted would return at least the amount of money that you were investing, and believe me, there's nothing automatic about it. There has to be additional levels of commitments for appearances, media, things like that. And long leads -- you'd want to have these things in place a year in advance, many months in advance, to have the opportunity to take advantage of their presence, to be able to sell more things during and before the event."
But even if a tournament is willing to pay the asking price, the timing must also be right. With as many as 12 mandatory events on the calendar, the opportunities to play smaller events are limited, and top players are becoming increasingly selective in their schedule. It has been years since Nadal and Federer played any U.S. Open Series events before the Masters tournaments begin in early August, and Djokovic and Murray have begun following suit.
And although the L.A. event historically has had a large pool of homegrown players to draw from -- Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang all lived nearby -- the tour is increasingly populated by Europeans, who need a bit more incentive to come there all the way from home.
That's why the success of this year's guarantee-free experiment has been so encouraging. "We've been around for 85 years in Los Angeles," Kramer said. "And we plan to be around for another 85."
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.