Friends and family describe Paul Flory, the former Chairman of the Western & Southern Open, as an average club player in his day. But running a tennis tournament Paul Flory had few peers.
Flory died Thursday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 90.
Largely credited with saving the tournament from collapsing when he took over as tournament director in 1975, Flory helped turn the Western & Southern Open into an event watched by more than 60 million viewers in 160 countries. The 2012 tournament drew a record crowd of 175,963 during its nine days hosting the ATP World Tour and the WTA.
“His philosophy was build it as an event, make it a social thing people really want to do,” said Elaine Bruening, Chief Executive Officer of the Cincinnati Tennis LLC. “His famous line was, ‘Nobody ever asks who is running in the Kentucky Derby, you just go.’ That was how he approached the tournament and because of that it grew in popularity despite the top name players not being there (in the mid-70s).”
The tournament, held at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, brings about $62.5 million to the area. It also brings the sport’s top names like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Serena Williams, Li Na, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki.
Flory, who was a Proctor & Gamble Co. executive from 1947-86, served as tournament director as a full-time volunteer from 1975 to 1997. He told tournament officials he’d do it for one year. He stayed 38 overall, including as the tournament chairman from 1998 until his death.
“It was never a big plan. It’s a great lesson in life, just do the best you can and sometimes it works out,” said his son Bruce, who worked alongside his dad and took over as tournament director from 1998 to 2010. “He knew there were a zillion things out of his control that could have stopped this tournament along the way. He knew he had an impact, but he also knew fortunate things happened along the way. He was very appreciative.”
As are Midwest tennis fans. The tournament that started as the Cincinnati Open in 1899 moved to Old Coney near the Ohio River in 1975. Held one week after Wimbledon made attracting top talent after a Grand Slam difficult. Flory, who first volunteered in 1965 with player recruiting and housing, started making a name for himself when he landed future tennis Hall of Famer Ken Rosewall for a pro exhibition match. As many as 100 tennis hall of fame members have played in Cincinnati.
“He was probably the single most charming man I ever met in my life,” said Warren County Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO Phil Smith, who worked the tournament with Flory for 22 years. “It is not a stretch at all for me to say every single day in this job, ‘What would Paul do?’ I do it every day. He was persuasive in such a charming way that you wanted to go along with him. He wanted everyone to have the credit, not him. He was really good at pointing at other people and saying how great they are.”
Flory helped the tournament move to its current location in Mason in 1979, where the Lindner Family Tennis Center now hosts the event. It also earned a more desirable spot on the calendar two weeks before the U.S. Open. In 2010, the $10 million Paul Flory Player Center opened featuring a women’s locker room, expanded player lounge, training facilities, player dining, six luxury suites and an expanded media center.
“Everybody talks about his love for the tournament,” Smith said. “But really what it was, was a faith in the tournament. If you went one time you’d be hooked. That’s how much faith Paul had in the tournament to entertain people and be a great sports event on the Cincinnati landscape. He loved what it could be and worked every day to make it better.”
Flory was born in Stanfordville, N.Y., on May 31, 1922, and grew up in Dayton where he attended Colonel White Junior High School. His family moved to a farm in Georgetown when he was in high school. He graduated from Higgensport High School, attended Ohio University and graduated from Yale University. He also served in the Navy.
His love of tennis came from his older brother Bruce. Flory’s son, also named Bruce, said his dad first picked up a racquet around age 30 and played until he was about 88.
“If he were here he’d probably say he was a hack and I’ve heard him say that. He was a decent club player,” Smith said.
Instead, Flory — the 1996 Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year winner — left his mark on the sport in other ways. Among the tournament’s innovative ideas was contributing to the players’ pension fund and player comforts during the tournament like courtesy cars, access to Kings Island across the road and golf courses. To hear Ken Barry, President of Tennis for Charity, tell it Flory’s vision wasn’t limited when it came to the tournament.
“The one thing Paul wanted in addition to achieving a Grand Slam event was a domed stadium,” said Barry, who has been involved with the tournament 40 years. “You go to Australia, you to France or anyplace in Europe and talk about the Masters Tournaments, everybody knows who we are because of what Paul has done.”
“He touched so many careers in so many decades,” added Smith. “He had a lot of favorite players and a lot of players thought the world of Paul. He’s going to be missed by everybody who ever met him. He never met a stranger.”
Funeral services are 11 a.m. today at the Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church on 1345 Grace Ave. in Cincinnati.