Topnotch believes the Cleveland Championships could be a tournament that’s comparable in quality to the Citi Open, a WTA event that takes place in Washington, D.C., each summer. The 2019 Citi Open field included 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, along with up-and-comers Iga Swiatek and Sofia Kenin, each of whom went on to win major championships in 2020, and teenage phenom Cori “Coco” Gauff.
In men’s tennis, the Truist Atlanta Open is an example Duvall cited of a high-profile tournament located in a downtown setting. In addition to courts, the ATP event constructs a temporary stadium at Atlantic Station in Atlanta.
If Topnotch proceeds with its plan, the WTA tournament would be a worthy addition to a rich Cleveland tennis history that features 10 Davis Cup tournaments that were held in the area in a 19-year span that ended in 1979. Six years later, Brad Gilbert won the Society Bank Tennis Classic — the last big-time tour to compete in the area prior to Topnotch launching the Cleveland Open.
In a statement provided to Crain’s, Steve Simon, the WTA’s chairman and CEO, said, “Cleveland is an exciting market for athletes to compete in and would be a great addition to our worldwide Tour calendar.”
Duvall is eager to bring a WTA event to a Northeast Ohio tennis community he describes as “really vibrant.”
“We’ve been able to prove that on a smaller level,” he added, “and think the timing is right to take this next big step for our company.”
Duvall moved to Northeast Ohio with his wife, Kathryn, a Shaker Heights native, when he launched Topnotch. Two years earlier, in 2014, he attempted to bring a WTA tournament to Vermont, where a tennis tourism business in which he has a stake operates, but, after a lot of work, the plans were thwarted because of an issue with a venue.
He’s more optimistic about Cleveland’s chances, though he admits now is a difficult time to try to convince companies to spend money on sponsorships.
Topnotch hopes to land title and presenting sponsors, each of which would pay a fee that is well above six figures. The firm also wants to land a premier partner, and sell lower-level sponsorships that would exceed five figures.
The sports commission has assisted in lining up potential partners, as has Gallagher Sports, a Cleveland agency that specializes in sponsorship marketing and activation.
“This is our tournament, so we are taking the risk, 100%,” Duvall said. “It’s just kind of getting some soft commitments in the next 30 days. That’s kind of where we’re at.”
That would have been a heck of a lot easier prior to last March, when the COVID-19 crisis brought the events industry to a near-standstill.
“After a year of cancellations,” the Nautica Entertainment Complex is excited about the possibility of holding an annual tennis showcase that could have global appeal, said Samantha Fryberger, the director of marketing at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.
The outdoor courts, coupled with the Jacobs Pavilion and the complex’s proximity to entertainment venues and tourist attractions, should make for quite a downtown scene, the tournament’s proponents say.
“The action, summer in Cleveland, being right on the water — it’s going to be really cool,” Duvall said. “We just gotta get it off the ground.”