MANKATO — Matt Bulger has won the Riverbend Tennis Classic men’s open singles championship three times, including last summer, but he’s not sure if he’s even considered a favorite this year.
That’s a good thing, he insists, though.
“The talent is really growing,” said Bulger, who is also the tournament director. “Looking at who’s signed up this year and playing, I’d probably seed myself fourth or fifth, definitely not the top two.”
The event, which will take place Friday-Sunday on the Mankato East and Mankato West high school courts, is continuing to grow with more than 100 players expected to participate at various levels. Last year, the event offered prize money for the open divisions, and this year there will be some for the 4.0-division winners, too.
“The 4.0 division (for players rated 2.5-4.0 by the National Tennis Ratings Program) is our largest group of participants, so we felt it was good business to send some prize money their way,” said Derek Brown, the president of the Greater Mankato Community Tennis Association.
The organizers hope the cash will help the the Riverbend Tennis Classic continue to expand.
Another attractive aspect of the tournament, though, Bulger said, is that it’s an event for all players.
Besides the ECS Tennis Classic for the higher-rated players, there is The Design Element Junior Open with 18U and 14U divisions and the Kohlmeyer Hagen Masters Classic for 50-and-over doubles players.
There also will be a Saturday-night party for participants at the Wow Zone.
“We’re trying to make it more of a players tournament,” said Bulger, who played collegiately at Wisconsin-La Crosse. “That’s the feedback we get from players who have played in other tournaments.
“Some of those tournaments are all about juniors or about clubs filling court times and not about what the players are getting out of the tournament. … So it’s worth their time to make the drive to Mankato and have an experience at the tournament.”
Although registration is still open, Brown said there are already several players set to come from out of town, including as far away as California, to compete against several talented local players.
“A lot of community players like playing against new players and against new styles,” Bulger said.
Brown added that this year’s open doubles field appears to be more competitive than previous years.
“Some of the top singles players are playing doubles,” he said. “Before, it wasn’t taken as seriously as a doubles event, and (Bulger) had done a good job of bringing in some high-caliber players who were focused on singles. And with the prize money there’s an opportunity to bring some really good doubles players in.”
The Greater Mankato Community Tennis Association is also announcing a scholarship for a local student who is planning to continue playing tennis at Minnesota State University or Bethany Lutheran College, Brown said.
“We’ll have that ready to apply for for the next school year,” Brown said. “We’re pretty excited about that. It keeps us tied to the youth and youth tennis.”
Follow Shane Frederick on Twitter @puckato