Late July/early August marks the time of the year when some leading tennis players get matched up in a competitive draw at the Citi Open. Held in the capital city of the United States, the Citi Open is an important event in the US Open series. So what’s the intriguing tale behind United States’ longest running ATP tour event?
The visionaries & Ashe’s struggle
When the Open era started in 1968, it was Arthur Ashe who first won the US Open title. He became the first African-American man to win a grand slam.
Donald Dell, former Davis Cup captain of the United States, an attorney and widely hailed as one of the fathers of sports marketing, came up with the idea of organizing a tournament in the nation’s capital. He shared this vision of his with two of his friends, Steve Potts and John Harris. It was 1968.
John Harris was the tournament director for many local tournaments and so he had the experience of managing an event. Donald Dell decided to bring in the players. He knew Ashe had gained popularity after his famous win at the US Open and so approached him with an invitation.
Arthur Ashe had faced a lot of discrimination in his entire career. Many times he was denied entry to tournaments, just because it was an “all-whites” club. When Dell contacted him, Ashe made it clear that he would participate, only if the venue was such that an integrated community was present.
As an attempt to end the racial discrimination in tennis, Ashe made it loud and clear that he wished to see African-Americans in the stands. Dell considered Ashe’s condition and it was Rock Creek Park at Kennedy Streets that was selected as the first venue of the Washington Open.
It was from July 7-13, 1969 when the first event was scheduled to be played on. But before it started, Dell faced with the difficulty of getting a sponsor. He asked the Washington Post to be the sponsor but they declined. The Washington Star seized this opportunity and became the sponsors.
The first tournament, owned by Washington Patrons, now known as The Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, was known as The Evening Star International Championships was worth $25,000.
Played on Har-Tru turf, the court surface was green and resembled clay. 2400 people attended the event and it was Thomaz Koch who defeated Arthur Ashe in the finals.
The first tournament was run from a tent and there were no measures taken to counter the intense heat. In fact, it was so hot that Koch had to pluck leaves, wet them in water and put them in his headband to keep himself cool. There were no locker rooms for players, shower facilities or drinking water fountains. There were only a spigot and a hose across the parking lot, which were the means of water supply.
In addition to these problems, another one was finding volunteers. Even after the volunteers were selected, their task was a tiresome one, which involved chauffeuring them back and forth, making sure of their eating schedule, taking care of the players’ kids and housing them in private homes.
In the initial days, the players didn’t stay in hotels, but in private houses, which were mainly owned by Virginia Newmeyer and Don Brown. There was a Har-Tru court and so the players could practice there.
“There was a spirit and a friendship that existed between the tennis pros and the community. Everybody in the neighborhood had players staying with them, and there were a real friendship and camaraderie that developed. I still have friendships with tennis professionals that I got to know because they stayed in my house. It also made the tournament so much more interesting when you watched the guys play who were staying at your house.”– Don Brown, former WTEF President
The tournament’s budget rose to $50,000 in 1973. In 1975, lights were installed in the stadium and thus, the matches were continued even after dusk. The players earned more over the period of time and started staying in hotels and arrived in new cars in place of the station wagons of the volunteers.
The Stadium Saga
The players got richer, but the overall administration and maintenance of the tournament was still not up to the mark. The need for a stadium was evident. It was in the 1980s when the ATP declared that unless the facilities at the Washington Open were improved, the tournament would be scrapped off.
The title sponsor during that time was D.C. United National Bank. Its chairman, John Safer knew that in order to attract the attention of fans, larger stands, cleaner bathrooms and better locker rooms were needed. But the amount needed to construct the stadium, $10 million, seemed a monumental ask.
FitzGerald, WTEF to the rescue
A wealthy businessman, philanthropist and the US ambassador to Ireland in 1992-93, William H.W. FitzGerald decided to donate the required money for construction of the new stadium. He had been the director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, at Newport Rhode Island.
In April 1988, the construction began. During the process, the cost of making the stadium rose and an additional $1.5 million was needed. It was WTEF, who sold 31 luxury suites and their right to name tennis stadiums after tennis icons.
In 1989 the construction was finished and the turf was now changed to hard. There were 11 courts and this Washington tennis center, aka William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Centre, became the first of its type to be a recreational and professional center.
From 1983 to 2013, 15 US ATP events were canceled. The Citi Open survived. In 2011, it began a women’s tournament as well.
Earlier, this year, Keely O’Brien was appointed as the youngest tournament director of the Washington Open and also the youngest director in both ATP and WTA. She is aged 34.
“I am truly grateful for this opportunity, this Tournament has been a huge part of my life for over a decade. I look forward to continuing to grow this event, which that has evolved into a must-see global sports destination that showcases the best of DC and benefits an incredible non-profit foundation for underserved children in our community.”– Keely O’Brien