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Fish Foundation hoping tourney will raise $50K

Photo: Mardy Fish

Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation chairman Tom Fish said he hopes to raise at least $50,000 during the USTA Pro Circuit’s men’s tennis tournament this spring in Vero Beach.

“This is our first year running it, so we don’t know exactly how much we’ll take in,” said Fish, the Windsor tennis director who oversees the foundation created by his son, Mardy, a now-retired former top-10 player. “But based on the success of the tournament in the past, we think that’s a realistic goal.”

The foundation, which funds programs that provide after-school exercise, nutritional education and instruction in healthy living for more than 2,100 elementary- and middle-school children in Indian River County, announced Feb. 22 that it was taking over the tournament’s management from longtime local tennis pro Mike Rahaley, who founded the event 24 years ago.

The $10,000 Futures tournament, which Rahaley said is among the longest-running and best-attended events on the USTA circuit, has been renamed the Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships.

All proceeds from the tournament, which this year will be held from April 22 through May 1 at The Boulevard Tennis Club on Indian River Boulevard, will benefit the foundation.

“Mike has done a tremendous job in making this tournament the best tournament at its level in the world, and we want to build on that” Fish said. “We’re excited to keep the tournament in Vero Beach.”

Rahaley, who overcame a bout with prostate cancer before last year’s tournament, said he approached Fish last fall about the possibility of the foundation taking over the event. Together, they brought in Randy Walker, a former USTA marketing and communications executive who lives part-time at The Moorings.

Then they went to the USTA, which needed to approve the transaction – something that was more than a mere formality, despite the success the tournament had enjoyed here.

“There’s always competition when dates open up on our calendar, so it wasn’t a shoo-in,” said Danielle Gooding, the USTA Pro Circuit’s senior manager. “If somebody was ready to go with the right funding and in the right location, it was possible Vero Beach could’ve lost the tournament.

“Fortunately, we know Randy, and the Fishes have been part of our fabric for a long time,” she added. “Those relationships are important, and we had long conversations with Tom and Randy, but it wasn’t automatic.”

“We had to kind of beg for it,” Fish said. “We wrote a long email explaining what the foundation does and our plans for the tournament, then we got Mardy to give them a call. It wasn’t a matter of just stepping in for Mike.”

After reviewing the foundation’s application, the USTA was impressed enough to keep the date in Vero Beach, notifying Walker and Fish – they will serve as the tournament’s co-directors – shortly before Christmas.

Fish said the foundation did not pay Rahaley for the rights to the tournament.

“You can’t buy it,” Fish said of the tournament. “The date belongs to the USTA. Mike ran the tournament, but he didn’t own the date.”

So why did Rahaley decide last summer that 23 years of chasing sponsors, enlisting volunteers, preparing courts and coordinating with the USTA was enough?

Rahaley, 73, said it wasn’t easy to let go of the tournament, which he founded in 1993 at Grand Harbor and nurtured into one of the most popular sports events in town.

“It was a tough decision,” said Rahaley, who served as the tournament director every year. “It’s like raising your kid, then sending him off to college. I’m sure there are things I’ll miss. But it was time.

“Last year, the cancer got in the way, and I found myself feeling more pressure and putting in more time,” he added. “There’s a lot more to running a tournament than what you see those two weeks, and I just don’t need that, anymore.

“I’ll be hanging around and available to help out if they need something, but I’m passing it on.”

He also passed on some of the equipment needed for the tournament: Fish said Rahaley has donated to the foundation cabanas, chairs, line-sweepers, screens and signage.

Walker said Dale Sorensen Real Estate, the event’s title sponsor the past three years, will continue to support the tournament, which Fish said has an economic impact of $500,000 annually on the local community.

The list of players who’ve competed in the Vero Beach event on their way to the ATP World Tour includes Andy Roddick, Thomas Johansson, Magnus Norman, Tim Henman and Milos Roanic – and, of course, Fish’s son, who played in the tournament twice.

The younger Fish, who retired at last year’s U.S. Open, said he is “honored” to have his name on the local tournament, adding, “Vero Beach is one of the most enthusiastic and sophisticated tennis communities in the country, and we’re looking forward to seeing this event continue to grow in the years to come.”

However, Fish said his son, who lives in Los Angeles, will not attend this year’s tournament.

“He’d love to be here, but it’s so far for him to come and he already has commitments for that week,” Fish said. “He’s helping out as a coach for the USTA now, and he’ll be in California working with some of the top young Americans on the tour.”

The younger Fish said he’ll work on a part-time basis with young U.S. players in the top 100 in the world rankings.

As for the tournament here, Fish said he will team with Walker to do most of the hands-on work required to manage the event.

“There are a lot of moving parts to a tennis tournament,” Rahaley said. “It’s a big job, and I did it for a long time. I think we did pretty well, too, looking at how far we’ve come.

“Now, it’s someone else’s turn.”