By: Will Fairfax
1968 was a year of change for professional tennis. It was the first year in which professionals were allowed to play at the Grand Slams. Arthur Ashe won the 1968 U.S. Open becoming the first African-American man to win a Grand Slam (only Yannick Noah has done it since).
That same year Donald Dell, a member of the United States Davis Cup team at the time, and two of his friends Steve Potts and John Harris were talking about how crazy it was that there were major tennis tournaments throughout the country in places like California, Chicago and New Orleans, but not in the nation’s capital. Their vision was to organize a professional tennis tournament in Washington D.C., but they knew the key was Ashe.
Growing up as an African-American Ashe was discriminated against his whole life. He was repeatedly denied the opportunity to play at white-only clubs. Ashe wanted to help end segregation in tennis. Dell said that Ashe would only play if the tournament was held in a naturally integrated community, so that he could see African-Americans in the stands. The decision was made that the tournament would be held at 16th and Kennedy Streets, N.W. in Washington, D.C. at Rock Creek Park, which was in a very naturally integrated neighborhood.
Harris had been the tournament director for local tournaments and new how to organize a tennis tournament. Dell had the players. Now all they needed was a sponsor.
The Washington Post was given the opportunity to host the new event, but they declined. The Washington Star jumped at the opportunity and The Evening Star International Championships was born. The first event was held from July 7-13 1969 with a $25,000 purse and was owned by Washington Patrons, which is now The Washington Tennis & Education Foundation (WTEF). The tournament was held on Har-Tru, a green, claylike surface that wouldn’t affect the player’s preparations for the U.S. Open, held later in the summer. Dell and Harris’s decision to hold the tournament on clay turned out to be a foreshadowing of the U.S. Open who changed their playing surface to clay in 1975.
The tournament in its early years was nothing like it is today. The stadium held 2400 people the first year and 5000 people a year later. The event was run from a tent and the player’s lounge was a doublewide trailer. There were no locker rooms, shower facilities or drinking fountains. The only available water was from a spigot and hose in a picnic area across the parking lot. Volunteers had to constantly haul water to the players, ball kids, officials and administrators.
The heat was so intense the first year that Brazilian Thomaz Koch, “picked leaves from trees in the picnic area, soaked them with water, and stuck them inside his headband. After his matches, he went over to the picnic area and hosed himself off.”
Another challenge in addition to the hot summer heat was finding hundreds of volunteers. For some of the volunteers this included housing the players in “private homes, chauffeuring them back and forth to the tournament, feeding them, and in many cases, having them watch cartoons with the kids.”
Virginia Newmyer and Betty Schulman were in charge of finding houses for the players to stay at. Conveniently the Newymers owned a Har-Tru court with their neighbors the Browns, so the players could practice there rather than having to go back and forth to the tournament site.
Don Brown, Newmyer’s neighbor and former president of the WTEF board, said, “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 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.”
Harvey Applebaum, who is on the board of the WTEF who were formerly the Washington Patrons, talked about the old days saying, “Today’s tennis player, even those who don’t make that much, wouldn’t come close to staying in a private home. But it was very charming back then. Kind of folksy and very laid-back.”
In the early days there were no lights so the tennis matches were only played until dusk, which left the evenings open for players, fans, and volunteers to socialize. Everyone involved in the tournament enjoyed cookouts, cocktail parties, and other soirees.
Koch won the tournament in 1969 (it’s inaugural year) 7-5, 9-7, 4-6, 2-6, 6-4 over Ashe. President Richard Nixon’s oldest daughter Tricia presented Koch with the trophy. Koch responded by giving one of the two dozen roses in the cup to her.
The tournament grew tremendously over the next few years and the tournament’s budget grew from $6000 in 1969 to $50,000 in 1973.
In addition to playing tournaments Ashe attended a number of WTEF clinics for kids teaching them how to play tennis. At one of the clinics a youngster asked Ashe how much money he made. Ashe replied that he wouldn’t say the exact amount, but that he made more than Willie Mays.
Potts, the Washington Patrons president from 1969-1973, said, “That was a big deal to the kids. They didn’t know how much Willie Mays made, but they knew it was a lot.”
In 1975 lights were added to the stadium allowing matches to be played at night. The lights allowed players to avoid the blazing sun, but it was also the end of the evening socializing and the connection between the volunteers and players faded.
The addition of the lights also brought about the end of the traditional white flannel clothing that most players wore. The change was apparent in the 1980s when Vice-President George H.W. Bush played with Potts and a few senators at the White House and decided not to wear traditional tennis whites in favor of a neon pink hat and a blue polo shirt.
As players started to receive more money they started staying in hotels rather than private homes and arrived in new cars rather than in volunteers’ station wagons.
As the tournament reached the 1980s a big challenge was that players became increasingly dissatisfied with the rickety grandstand and the lack of a nice stadium. Paul Ignatius, currently on the board of WTEF said that it was kind of a “porta-potty tournament.”
The tournament needed to generate more money so that they could pay the players more money. A stadium was necessary.
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) warned Washington that unless they upgraded their tennis facilities that they were going to loose the tournament.
John Safer, chairman of D.C. United National Bank (the title sponsor at the time), knew that his tournament needed cleaner restrooms, better locker rooms, and larger stands if the tournament was to stay in D.C.
Safer said it was a true dilemma: “No money, no stadium. No stadium, no tournament. No tournament, no funds to help kids around the city.”
The stadium was going to cost $10 million. Safer needed one person to donate a million dollars because it would create a cascading effect that would lead other to donate. William H.G. FitzGerald was an affluent businessman and philanthropist who was the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland from 1992-1993. He was an avid tennis player until he was 93 years old and was a director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport Rhode Island. FitzGerald made a matching gift of a million dollars.
Architectural firm Browning Day & Mullins of Indianapolis, specializers in designing tennis stadiums were hired to draw up plans for a new stadium.
Problems immediately arose. The stadium’s neighbors were against a stadium being built, which meant that additional events at the stadium like concerts would not happen.
Groundbreaking started in late April 1988 with Ashe as one of the guests. More problems arose shortly after.
Jim Clark of Clark Construction Company who agreed to do the project continually escalated the price until it reached a final cost of $11.5 million. Without the use of additional events at the stadium and with a higher price than expected the WTEF faced a huge financial barrier. How were they going to raise the money?
The WTEF raised a lot of the money by selling the 31 luxury suites, which can accommodate 20 people each. The suites are just above court level, so it’s gives people a fantastic view of the stadium. They are also air-conditioned, which was not common until the mid 1990s. The WTEF also sold the right to name all the courts in honor of people who had been associated with tennis and the foundation.
The first tournament at the new stadium was held in July of 1988. Although the stadium was not completely finished it was far enough along to host the tournament. The stadium was completely finished in 1989 due to delays caused by the National Park Service.
The court playing surface was changed to hard court to help with the preparation for the U.S. Open, which had switched its playing surface to hard court in 1978. The tennis center included 11 all-new hard courts.
The Washington tennis center was the first urban park center in the world that was designed for both professional and recreational use.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s the Citi Open continued to thrive despite other U.S. ATP events faltering. In 1983 there were 26 ATP men’s tournaments in the U.S. In 1993 there were 18 and in 2013 there were 11.
In 2011 the Citi Open created a women’s tournament through the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).
A number of high profile women have competed at the Citi Open in the past including Eugenie Bouchard, Angelique Kerber, Ekaterina Makarova and Madison Keys.
The Citi Open is entering its 49th year in 2017 and can attribute a lot of its longstanding success to its unique ownership, a nonprofit the WTEF.
Other notable facts:
- The tournament name history:
- The Washington Star International: 1969-1981
- D.C. National Bank Tennis Classic: 1982-1986
- Sovran Bank Classic: 1987- 1992
- Newsweek Tennis Classic: 1993
- Legg Mason Tennis Classic: 1994-2011
- Citi Open: 2012-present
- Notable Past Champions:
- Arthur Ashe (3-time Grand Slam winner and one of only two African-American men to ever win a major (Yannick Noah))
- Ken Rosewall (8-time Grand Slam winner)
- Guillermo Villas (4-time Grand Slam winner)
- Jimmy Connors (8-time Grand Slam winner)
- Ivan Lendl (8-time Grand Slam winner)
- Andre Agassi (8-time Grand Slam winner, one of only two men to complete a career Golden slam along with Rafael Nadal, 5-time Citi Open winner)
- Andy Roddick (4- time Grand Slam finalist, 1 Grand Slam title)
- Juan Martin Del Potro (2009 U.S. Open Champion and 3 time Citi Open Champion- 2008, 2009, and 2013)
- Milos Raonic (2014)
- Kei Nishikori (2015)