What is the Washington Open?

Late July or early August marks the time of the year when tennis’ leading 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 for the preparation of the US Open. So what is 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 a times he was rejected to play 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.

The first event and succeeding obstacles

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 Washington Post to be the sponsor but they declined. Washington Star seized this opportunity and became the sponsors. The first tournament was known as The Evening Star International Championships. The tournament had $25,000 and was owned by Washington Patrons, now known as The Washington Tennis and Education Foundation.

The first tournament was played on Har-Tru turf. It 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 was 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 after 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 was 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 neighbourhood had players staying with them, and there was 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 you 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 stating 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 not improved, thw tournament will be scrapped off.

The title aponsor during that time was D.C. United National Bank. Its chairman, John Safer knew that in order to thrive in the competition, larger stands, cleaner bathrooms, better locker rooms were needed. But there was no money. The amount needed to construct a stadium was $10 million.

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 Flame 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 to be paid. It was WTEF who sold 31 luxury suites and their right to name the tennis stadiums after people associated with tennis.

In 1989 the construction was finished and the turf was now changed to hard. There were 11 courts and this Washington tennis centre, aka William H.G. FirzGerald Tennis Centre, became the first of its type to be a recreational and professional centre.

Current Scenario

From 1983 to 2013, 15 US ATP events were cancelled. The Citi Open survived. In 2011, it began a woman’s tournament as well.
Keely O’Brien was appointed as the youngest tournament director of the Washington Open and also the youngest director in both ATP and WTA.

“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

Andre Agassi’s five titles in the men’s singles category is the most by any player in the tournament’s history. The women’s event has seen only Magdalena Rybarikova and Svetlana Kuznetsova win the title twice.

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