When Philly was an incubator for tennis talent

Photos – user-contributed – 1990+Ebel+U.S.+Pro+Indoor+Tennis+Tournament+Poster60
The U.S. Pro Indoor tennis tournament poster from 1990.

Pete Sampras — who turns 46 this month — possesses one of the most dominant records in tennis history.

He won 14 Grand Slam titles during his 14-year professional career, a record since broken by only two contemporary tennis greats, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He held the year-end No. 1 world ranking for six consecutive years from 1993 through 1998.

To this day, he remains at the top of the all-time rankings, second only to Federer for most weeks spent at No. 1.

In 2002, Sampras’ career came to a celebratory end when he defeated Andre Agassi in the 2002 U.S. Open. His last title at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City bookended 64 career singles titles, the first of which he won in Philadelphia.

The U.S. Pro Indoor — a now-defunct Philly-based ATP tournament — provided Sampras with his first singles tournament victory (though, for sponsorship reasons, the tournament was known as the Ebel U.S. Pro Indoor at the time). On Feb. 25, 1990, he defeated Andrés Gómez in three sets.

The following year, Sampras fell to Czech tennis legend Ivan Lendl in the tournament’s final, but he would go on to secure two more championship titles in Philadelphia in 1997 and 1998, the final two years of the U.S. Pro Indoor’s existence.

Emerging from the Philadelphia Invitational Indoor — an eight-person, two-day event first held at St. Joseph’s Memorial Field House in 1962 — the U.S. Pro Indoor would become one of the most significant indoor tennis tournaments in the world, thanks largely to the efforts of two area residents whose passion and enthusiasm for the sport earned them legendary status in tennis history.

Marilyn and Edward Fernberger cochaired the U.S Pro Indoor from its inaugural tournament in 1968 until 1992. Under their leadership, the event’s growth was spectacular, making Philadelphia an essential stop for up-and-coming talent from around the world.

Writing for Sports Illustrated in 1969, Frank Deford described the atmosphere at the Spectrum, which hosted the U.S. Pro Indoor throughout most of its history: “The crowds that showed up … were the kind that simply do not exist short of Wimbledon and Forest Hills.”

Thousands attended that year to watch the likes of Arthur Ashe and Tom Okker battle it out on indoor carpet courts (which have since fallen out of use at professional events). The finals featured two Australian greats, Rod Laver and Tony Roche. Laver won, earning a $7,000 prize.

The Fernbergers — who spent innumerable hours organizing the tournament each year — were also involved on a deeply personal level.

Marilyn regularly sat between players’ wives during the finals. Edward doubled as an amateur sports photographer, producing tens of thousands of photos of the world’s best players.

During the U.S. Pro Indoor’s early years, the couple opened up their home in Huntingdon Valley as a tennis hostel of sorts, providing housing and paternal support for players passing through Philadelphia.

Marilyn consulted with visiting players’ parents to find out how to prepare their favorite dishes. The couple kept Spanish-language records on hand to create a welcoming environment for Latin American and Spanish players.

The Fernbergers went above and beyond because they wanted to see the sport flourish. 
“Everything that we might have done for these kids, we’ve been paid back in kind,” Edward once said, “We love all of them. And they’ve never disappointed us.”

Marilyn and Edward contributed about as much to the growth of tennis as two individuals could. In addition to the U.S. Pro Indoor, Marilyn chaired Virginia Slims tournaments from 1970 to 1979, introducing professional women’s tennis to Philadelphia. The couple utilized their fund-raising acumen to start a variety of philanthropic programs that provided underserved youth access to tennis.

Many felt their impact personally. Sampras — who began his ascent as a tennis powerhouse just as the Fernbergers were finishing their tenure as tournament chairs — asked Marilyn for a wild-card slot at the 1988 U.S. Pro Indoor. He had never played a professional tournament at that point.

Seeing his potential, Marilyn gave it to him.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org