Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation employee Matt Morrow, Manhattan Open director Bennet Slusarz, 2014 open champion Lester Cook and Recreation Manager Idris Al-Oboudi at last month’s tournament. Photo by Brad Jacobson
That was the question hanging like a too-short lob this week after Manhattan Beach Open Tournament Director Bennet Slusarz was notified his contract would not be renewed for next year’s tournament. Over the past three years Slusarz took the Open from moribund to marquee status as the South Bay’s premier tennis event.
His dismissal came just one week after the tournament reached a new peak with a full day of finals in all its divisions at the Manhattan Country Club on July 20. It was a glorious Sunday full of great tennis at a great facility that left players and fans alike commenting on what an outstanding tournament the Open has become.
Just days later, Slusarz received an email from Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation Supervisor Matthew Morrow informing him that the Manhattan Beach Parks and Recreation Department would run the event next year, using only city employees. Morrow thanked him for his past services, but offered no explanation for the sudden change in direction.
“I’m shocked and dismayed that the city has pulled the rug out from underneath me,” Slusarz said Thursday night. “Frankly, I’m flabbergasted. The million dollar question is why this happened. They didn’t tell me anything.”
Manhattan Beach Director of Parks and Recreation Mark Leyman said the decision to let Slusarz go was made by the recreation manager Idris Al-Oboudi.
Al-Oboudi declined to say why he dismissed Slusarz, a former men’s tour player who also works as a teaching pro on the city’s tennis courts.
“Bennet is a wonderful person and a fantastic tennis instructor, and we’re happy to have him teaching tennis for the city,” Al-Oboudi said. “But we have internal staff members who would like to take on the challenge of running a tennis tournament.”
Asked again why he had made the decision not to renew Slusarz’s contract, Al-Oboudi responded, “Bennet is a wonderful person and a fantastic tennis instructor.”
Sources said the decision was a combination of philosophical, financial and political factors.
In an email sent to friends and supporters, Slusarz himself hinted at one of the reasons when he said “I’m a bit shocked as we had a tremendously successful event this year. But I’m also relieved that I won’t have the stress of running the event with them… I know how much time and effort it takes and it’s very hard for me to imagine them having the same passion, time commitment and energy, as well as tennis knowledge I had in running this event.”
Slusarz is known as a perfectionist who wants the hundreds of minor details handled correctly and promptly, said one city source. He was frustrated with the city’s slow-moving response to issues that needed to be taken care of in the run-up to the tournament. For its part, city employees reportedly found Slusarz’s micro-managing heavy-handed. As an example, the source pointed to Slusarz’s insistence that employees make sure the signage listing advertisers be displayed exactly the same on all the Live Oak courts where the Open Division matches were held.
On the financial front, another City Hall source said, Slusarz’s contract called for him to receive approximately half the entry fees for the tournament. “The city had to write him a check for more than $5,000, and then you throw in all the overtime worked by city employees on the tournament and the city took a financial hit on the tournament this year,” the source said.
Another problem was the personal chemistry between Slusarz and Al-Oboudi, who has worked for the city for 28 years. “Al-Oboudi didn’t like all the credit Bennet was getting for the tournament’s new-found success,” one source said. “And Bennet thought Al-Oboudi talked too much and didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to running a tennis tournament. He didn’t want him involved at all.”
Asked about his personal relationship with Slusarz, Al-Oboudi replied: “Bennet is a wonderful person and a fantastic tennis instructor.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the sources said, there was a philosophical difference about the direction of the tournament. While Slusarz had expanded the prize money every year, with $15,000 being offered this year and $20,000 or even $25,000 set to be offered next year, the parks department was getting complaints from local players and fans that the tournament had lost its home-town flavor and was being built up into a professional event. Pro players in the open divisions overshadowed the local amateurs.
“It will be very interesting to see if the tournament is down-scaled next year or if the city tries to keep the momentum going and steal all the sponsors Bennet worked so hard to recruit,” one source said. “I hear a lot of the sponsors and even the people at the country club are shocked the city did this to Bennett and may not want to participate next year. Some of them may even complain to the City Council.”