Pro tennis stop in New Haven could be the city's last unless a sponsor steps forward

along with representatives of about a half-dozen companies being wooed in an effort to keep the event alive.

Pilot Pen is dropping its $2 million sponsorship — and name — from the New Haven tournament after 14 years, citing the poor economy. Leaders of the tournament, which begins Sunday, are now anxiously courting replacements and hoping this year won't be its last.

"We've gotten a lot of excitement and a lot of good feedback, but in this economy companies are just not expanding their sports portfolio," tournament director Anne Worcester said. "We've gotten so close with some big international brands. But it's got to be the right time, right place, and it's got to fit in with their strategy."

Pilot Pen is one of just four tournaments sanctioned by both the men's ATP Tour and the women's WTA Tour. The tournament must let the owners, the United States Tennis Association, know whether it will continue leasing both sanctions or "hand back the keys by the end of September," Worcester said.

Worcester won't cite the companies showing interest, only that they are involved in insurance, financial services and consumer goods. Each will get an individually tailored tour next week.

Some will come to see where their logos would be. Others want to know how many mentions they would get on television or in the newspaper; Pilot Pen received more than 300 million media mentions during last year's tournament, Worcester said.

Others are interested in what the tournament could do to help them entertain clients, she said.

Worcester said her ideal candidate would be an international company based in Connecticut. She said that she is confident someone will step up in the next month, but that she's also working on a couple of backup plans.

If New Haven can't get a full commitment, it might settle for a sponsorship that will allow it to keep just a men's or a woman's tournament, she said.

It's also possible that Yale and local corporations could put together a "bridge" sponsorship that would give the tournament another year or two to find a single title sponsor.

That's something the state's PGA Tour stop did in 2003 after Canon stopped sponsoring what was then the Greater Hartford Open golf tournament. That led to a sponsorship from Buick, and eventually the Travelers.

"I think we're going to be looking at every conceivable scenario," said USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier. "But our ultimate goal is to get a title sponsor, and we want to keep this as a combined event in New Haven."

New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said it's important for the city and the state to keep the tournament, and not just because of the revenue it brings to hotels, restaurants and retailers.

"The tournament is a significant part of the city's marketing effort," he said. "It presents us in a market that we typically do not have access to, and helps our image."

Worcester said the USTA and the city have been doing everything they can to help her. The state, however, has not been a partner, she said.

"I'm not sure they completely understand this tournament's $26 million impact not only on the city, but on the region," she said. "At some point, we have to do a better job explaining that."

David Treadwell, a spokesman for the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said the state could help the tournament make some business contacts, but has not been asked.

Widmaier offered hope for the New Haven tournament by noting that tennis has not had a major problem with sponsors, even with the poor economy.

Mercedez-Benz recently stepped in to take on the title sponsorship of the men's tournament in Los Angeles, and the USTA had to step in and move a struggling tournament in Indianapolis to Atlanta, where it is looking for a title sponsor.

"You see some pockets of this," he said. "On the other hand, you see some tremendous longtime sponsors out there."

New Haven has a lot of things to offer a sponsor, he said. The tournament is nationally televised on two networks. It appeals to fans of both men's and women's tennis and is played just as interest is peaking for the U.S. Open.

But the tournament's draw has traditionally suffered from its spot on the schedule. Many top players choose to take the week before a major tournament off. Others ask for a wildcard entry just before it begins because they feel they need more matches to prepare for the major.

This year, players including local favorite James Blake, Samantha Stoser and Ana Ivanovic all received wildcards in the two weeks leading up to the event.

Ivanovic, who withdrew Friday because of an ankle injury, said she would like to see the players become more involved in helping tournaments get and retain sponsors.

"I don't know how much it does concern (players), but I think it should," she said during a promotional appearance Thursday. "I think it's a great thing if players can take a little more time and help the tournament out and do sponsor visits and do clinics, because it means a lot to the tournaments."

Worcester said that the past six months have been the toughest of her career, but that she's confident the work will pay off and the tournament will be in New Haven for good.

"Now me," she said, "I may keel over after next week."