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Cranbrook's award-winning eight-court complex, designed by GMB Architecture + Engineering. Photo courtesy of GMB.

Featured Article

A Smashing Success

Catching up with David DeMuth, founder of the Cranbrook Tennis Classic.

Last year, at the close of the first-annual Cranbrook Tennis Classic, founder and chairman David DeMuth asked the 3,000-plus crowd if the tournament should return the next year.

The response was a standing ovation.

So DeMuth (with quite a lot of help) has delivered — the second-annual Cranbrook Tennis Classic runs June 30-July 7. The tournament is part of the ATP Challenger Tour, the world’s men’s professional tour, featuring pro men’s tennis veterans battling against future stars for coveted ranking points and a wildcard to the US Open. In addition, DeMuth says, “it’s a celebration of sport, culture and the community.” This year, projected spectators are projected at 5,000 or more. (For details and tickets, visit cranbrooktennisclassic.com.)

DeMuth, the CEO of Doner, an advertising agency based in Southfield is “super-passionate about tennis,” he says. The Bloomfield Hills resident is part of a group of people who envisioned and funded a new tennis complex at the city’s Cranbrook-Kingswood Schools. Completed in 2021 by GMB Architecture + Engineering, who won the ASBA’s top award for outdoor tennis facility of 2022, the complex has eight outdoor courts with a 10-foot-high elevated viewing concourse between the rows of courts and a terrace area, plus a 450-square-foot team room, all nestled amid Cranbrook’s historic and lush 319-acre grounds — critical to Cranbrook’s identity, it serves to reinforce harmony between architecture and landscape. Envisioned for student athletes, the world-class complex’s completion inspired a lightbulb moment for DeMuth. “Detroit and the surrounding areas have a pretty thriving tennis community, but no professional tennis here. I’d had in the back of my mind for some time that I wanted to try to bring professional tennis to the area,” he says. Once the ATP visited and signed off, DeMuth and his partners were ready to go and last year was the first pro tennis in the area in more than three decades.

“The vision for the tournament was to bring world-class tennis to Detroit, have it played in a really intimate and beautiful setting and make it highly accessible for families and kids,” DeMuth says. The complex’s elevated seating allows for an up-close-and-personal experience, which thrilled DeMuth, who intended this to be an inspirational opportunity for kids. “A lot of kids don’t get the opportunity to see professional tennis at this level, up close, so that was really cool.”

Similarly, DeMuth had another goal. “In the process, we would be able to do something good for the community, in terms of giving back,” he says. While planning the tournament, he founded Tennis Forward, a 501c3 that ensures all proceeds benefit the People for Palmer Park Tennis Academy in Detroit and Cranbrook Athletics. Last year’s event generated $25,000 for those organizations.

“It’s creating opportunities for people through tennis,” DeMuth says. “Tennis Forward runs and operates the tournament and any monies and profits go back to the community. Palmer Park Tennis Academy is a really outstanding program, run by Leonora King. It gives kids a lot of opportunities they might not otherwise have, including mentoring and tutoring. 

“I like finding the intersection between things I really love and giving back,” DeMuth says. “This is one of those intersections. For me, this is an opportunity to do something.”

Last year, he says, “we pulled it off. I’d never run any kind of tournament before, and it was a pretty amazing learning experience for me. The best and brightest young players coming up on the pro tour will be here playing. It’s exciting and the competition is really intense.”

DeMuth says that players rank anywhere between 100 to 250 in the world. Among last year’s players, however, were Kei Nishikori, a Japanese player who has a career-high ranking of No. 4 and was a US Open finalist; Steve Johnson, ranked as high as 20 in the world, was last year’s champion; and finalist Mikhail Kukushkin, a Russian-Kazakhstani player who has been ranked as high as 30 in the world. 

“It’s world-class tennis,” he says. “Many people who played last year competed in this year’s French Open. We had 60 players from 16 different countries, plus officials and ATP staff from London.

“Tennis is at once an incredibly global sport, but a very local sport, too, and I think that interplay is something really cool about our tournament. We have players coming from all corners of the world to play, but we’ve also had really amazing support from the local community, which has been really gratifying,” DeMuth says. More than 3,000 people came out, 70 volunteers, 50 ball kids, and high-profile sponsors include Feldman Automotive, JP Morgan, Meijer, Taft Law, Core Power and 30 others. “Whether it is the business community, tennis enthusiasts or just people that you meet who say, ‘Hey, I’d love to help you, I’ll do whatever.’ That’s pretty cool.

“It’s also really great for Cranbrook,” he says. “It opens up the campus to other people who might not know to go back there and check out the grounds, the art museum and the science center. Cranbrook has been an amazing partner and super supportive.”

At this point, he says, now that they’ve got the logistics down, “We’re just trying to make the whole experience better for players and the fans.” Between the official tournament hotel, the Kingsley in Bloomfield Hills, catering by Chartwells, shuttles back-and-forth all day, a world-class facility and gym and “good-old Midwest hospitality,” DeMuth says they aim to please. “There are more than 200 ATP Challenger Tour tournaments played around the world every year, from Kazakhstan to Lake Como to Bloomfield Hills, and we were rated No. 3 by the players for player experience. That was pretty cool. So now we’re trying to get to No. 1. That’s the goal.”

Also gratifying for DeMuth is that his oldest son, Alex, 30, who also works at Doner, has been his partner in the whole process. “He’s been an amazing help,” he says. “He played college tennis and he loves it as much as I do.” 

Why tennis? It’s a passion he shares with his family: Wife, Kristen, and their four children — including Alex and a 19-year-old son, Owen, who was named Mr. Michigan Tennis as a senior at Cranbrook and now plays at Georgia Tech. “Like many people my age, I fell in love with the game during the ‘tennis boom’ of the 1970s — Connors, Borg, McEnroe and all the colorful characters that seemed so athletic, so competitive, so different, and so cool,” DeMuth says. Playing consistently since his 20s, he says he’s made “so many friends from all sorts of backgrounds and places playing tennis, so it’s very special to me and I want to share my passion with others.” Plus, he says, “I just saw a study that says tennis players live 10 years longer than people who live sedentary lives. That’s more than any sport, so I’m banking on that.”

  • David DeMuth. Photo by Lisa Spindler.
  • Cranbrook's award-winning eight-court complex, designed by GMB Architecture + Engineering. Photo courtesy of GMB.
  • Cranbrook's award-winning eight-court complex, designed by GMB Architecture + Engineering. Photo courtesy of GMB.
  • 2023 champion Steve Johnson reacts to his tiebreaker against Mikhail Kukushkin.
  • Steve Johnson with David DeMuth
  • Kasia Bennett, Henry DeMuth, Alex DeMuth, Julia David, Trevor Illitch and David DeMuth watch the action.

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