By Jane Voigt
Washington, D. C. — When people think Washington D.C. it probably has something to do with politics. Congress is a mess. What difference does my vote make? But the nation’s capitol extends beyond media bites scripted exclusively for 24/7 news. Come to find out, D. C. is a mecca for tennis.
This week, just a couple blocks north of the White House, the Citi Open tennis tournament, formerly Legg Mason Tennis Classic, hosts premier men’s and women’s pro tennis for the political masses and those that have absolutely nothing to do with votes and majorities.
“I’ve come here for over 10 years,“ one fan said, as she looked over the schedule of matches. “Couldn’t care less about what goes on down there.”
Citi Open’s comes by its fan base legitimately. The District of Columbia, northern Virginia, and surrounding communities in Maryland, seeded the game with big visions over 45 years ago. Roots took hold through business ventures, a desire for equality in a game strictly designed for white elitism, and just heart-felt love.
Names such as Maryland native Donald Dell — pro player turned lawyer — whipped business interests in line and initiated the idea of an area tournament in 1968, the same year The Open Era began when players, both amateur and professional, could enter tournaments and be compensated. Dell recruited Davis Cup champion Arthur Ashe for the first D.C. tournament in 1969. Ashe, though, would not stand behind the endeavor unless the site was located in Washington D.C. He was adamant that any tournament here be available for all area communities to enjoy, especially those where the color of skin had barred economic and sport opportunities.
Other notable tennis players living and working inside the Capitol Beltway include retired Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice Antonin Scalia. President George H. W. Bush was an avid player and for many years held celebrity pro-am tournaments where big names such as Chrissie Evert jumped in for the sake of charity. David Gregory, MSNBC broadcast journalist, also carries a heavy stick on to area courts. Gregory’s six-five frame can intimidate at the net as much as his deep voice commands attention on television.
Citi Open splits its revenues with the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation. The WTEF echoes the moral and social directions initiated by Ashe at the event’s conception. “The mission of WTEF is to improve the life prospects of low-income, underserved children and youth in the District of Columbia through athletic and academic enrichment,” explains the organization’s web site.
While the WTEF motivates and develops champions for on- and off-court lives, Donald Dell’s other contribution to pro tennis — he began the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) — organizes and directs the hundreds of annual tournaments, plus the players that populate them.
With a men’s draw here this week that stars three top-10 ATP players — Tomas Berdych, Milos Raonic, and Grigor Dimitrov — and a women’s draw that welcomes veteran number-one seed Lucie Safarova, plus American starlets Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, and two-time defending champion Magdalena Rybarikova, the local tennis hounds are sure to get their share of top-notch action.
And for the doubles’ lovers, which most are, the men’s doubles competition features the best of the best in American twins Bob and Mike Bryan, Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, plus Leander Paes, a proud team member of the 3-time Mylan World Team Tennis champion Washington Kastles. Paes has partnered with big Aussie Samuel Groth, who lost today in the last round of qualifications to American come-back hopeful, Robby Ginepri.
Tomorrow night at 8 p.m. on Stadium Court, visitors will witness the main draw debut of local teen phenom Francis Tiafoe on Tennis Channel. Tiafoe is sixteen and ranked number two by the International Tennis Federation, the ITF. He grew up in Maryland and trained at the JTCC in College Park, where his father worked in exchange for training privileges. All eyes will be on this teen, as American tennis eyes someone who could follow in the big footsteps left by Arthur Ashe.
No matter the match you pick to watch, visitors to Citi Open will get a visceral sense of what these players face as the American hard-court season gets underway in earnest. The Rock Creek courts are fast. The humidity can be oppressive. The combination demands high levels of concentration and performance while most are honing games that have been measured by the red clay of Europe and the grass of Wimbledon and Newport.
That’s why they come here. To be tested. And, to prepare for the weeks ahead as they approach and anticipate the last Grand Slam of the year … the U. S. Open.