A Shared Dream: 50 Years Of Tennis In Washington, D.C.
With exclusive insight, ATPWorldTour.com looks back at the history of Rock Creek Park tennis in Washington, D.C.
The Citi Open is celebrating its 50th edition this year with one of the best fields in the history of the ATP World Tour 500 tournament. While the muggy heat of Washington, D.C., which tests out every players’ physical conditioning, endures, back in 1969, in the infancy of Open tennis, when doors were — in some cases, reluctantly opened to amateur, contract and professional players — a small group of dedicated individuals took tennis out of the traditional country clubs to a racially integrated district of the city. The original tournament team was small in number and facilities at Rock Creek Park were far from world-class, as they are today.
Donald Dell, one of the sport’s leading powerbrokers for more than 50 years, relays the story of how his father would drive Arthur Ashe back home through the night from far-flung junior tournaments, knowing full well that the shameful reality of race in the 1950s meant that if they stopped, they would not be able to stay in the same hotel. A decade later, a lifelong friendship already cemented and months before the first US Open, which Ashe won in September 1968, the pair was driving around Washington, D.C. and an idea was floated. “Why don’t we run a tournament here?” Ashe asked. “I’d like to play in it, but it has to be in an integrated area so black faces come out and watch the tennis. If you do it at a public park, a public facility and not a country club, I’ll play the event."
Dell, and his childhood friend John Harris, had already run a number of exhibition matches for the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation [founded in 1955], which had helped Dell for expenses to get him into junior tournaments. Now named the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, the organisation helps to provide children with equipment, instruction, and financial means to play tennis. “In 1963 we ran the first exhibition and Chuck McKinley played, earning an extra $500 for help towards playing tournaments,” Harris told ATPWorldTour.com. “In 1966, the U.S. captain George MacCall rang up in May or June asking us for help to raise money for the Davis Cup team. He wondered if we could put together a preview to that year’s final, between American and Australian teams. We needed to guarantee $10,000, but the event raised $9,000-10,000 for the Foundation, its biggest cheque to date. It was after that point that we tried to work towards getting a sanction for a fully-fledged tournament.”
One year later, an exhibition match — a part of the ‘Summer in the Parks’ program — was held in the middle of a Washington, D.C. street near Lincoln Park, with Dell and Charlie Pasarell facing Ashe and Senator Bobby Kennedy. Dell, an advance man [looking after every public appearance] for Kennedy in 1966 and the presidential campaign of 1968, recalled to ATPWorldTour.com, “We had 4,000 people turn up, in the inner city. It was the final precursor to the inaugural tournament.” Harris adds, “We opted for Rock Creek Park, because it was a nice location and a huge park. Not many other clubs could host an event, for parking and the growth we foresaw. Buses took people to the park. We also wanted to help the Foundation in helping inner-city kids, so the tournament needed to be fully integrated.”
Early international calendars published for 1969, didn’t feature Washington, D.C., which would be held on green clay courts in the vast 2,000-acre park of a soon-to-be affluent African-American neighbourhood the week before the first grass-court tournament on U.S. soil at Merion Cricket Club, a private club in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Only the Swedish International Championships in Bastad [now named the SkiStar Swedish Open] and the Irish Championships in Dublin, held in the week immediately after the conclusion of The Championships at Wimbledon, are published for the week of 7 July 1969.
Raising funds and getting a title sponsor quickly in 1969 became a major concern for Dell, Harris and their three-man tournament team. “We needed to raise $25,000, which was an awful lot of money in 1968,” says Dell. “We managed to get four friends, Washington businessmen, to each guarantee $5,000. I put up $5,000, anonymously, myself. Incredibly, our long search for a title sponsor — The Washington Star newspaper — ended just six weeks before the event was due to begin." There had been only two prize-money tournaments — the Pacific Southwest in Los Angeles and the US Open — in the United States in 1968, when the sport went open to amateurs and professional players, with purses totalling $150,000. In 1969, there were five open events out of 14 on U.S. soil, and prize money had nearly trebled to $440,000.
Dell, in his final year as captain of the Unites States Davis Cup team, was largely responsible for such an influx of banknotes and made North America a profitable tennis circuit. Bud Collins, writing for The Boston Globe, noted, “Acting en bloc, with their captain behind them, the [10-player] team informed USLTA [now the United States Tennis Association] tournament officials that they would appear at no tournament, which did not put up substantial prize money. They also made it clear they would enter into none of the old-style expense deals, and that they would boycott tournaments that did so with other players.”
Cliff Richey, who stayed at the Washington Hilton for the inaugural tournament, told ATPWorldTour.com, “Washington, D.C. preceded Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Washington had a $25,000 prize money pot, with $5,000 to the titlist. Cincinnati had a $17,500 prize money pot and less for the champion. It was Donald Dell who organised the U.S. tournaments that summer to offer the winner $5,000 each, to standardise prize money and professionalise how tournaments were organised.”
First known as The Washington Star International (1969-1981) — then, subsequently, as the Sovran Bank Classic (1982-1992), the Newsweek Tennis Classic (1993), the Legg Mason Tennis Classic (1994-2011) and the Citi Open (since 2012) — the venue had little in the way of on-site facilities. Players arrived on-site already in their tennis attire. There were no showers, media and tournament officials set up their desks beside fans in tents, while wooden bleachers were erected around one of three clay courts.
“Wooden bleachers had to be erected each year, there were tents and trailers for ball boys, volunteers, linesmen, players and tournament officials,” Harold Solomon, the 1974 champion, told ATPWorldTour.com. “A changing facility was built in the early 70s with a locker room, but to say it was modest would be an understatement. There were wall-mounted air conditioners, which barely got the temperature down to 90 degrees on hot days, plastic matts on the shower floor, metal lockers, with only room for a very small number of players at a time and limited bathroom facilities. Towels were at a premium, escaping the heat was the trick.”
“We once had Colonel Powell [the statesman and four-star general of the U.S. Army] as the referee for a while and he made sure the tournament was run like the Army. In fact, one time, after a particularly long break from a severe thunderstorm, my doubles partner Zan Guerry and I were defaulted by the Colonel when Zan was a few seconds late following the deluge. He was in the parking lot running up to the courts and the Colonel had his stop watch out and he counted him out while being two seconds past the allocated time!”
Thomaz Koch, who beat Arthur Ashe 7-5, 9-7, 4-6, 2-6, 6-4 in the 1969 Washington, D.C. final, recalled to ATPWorldTour.com, “I remember talking to Donald Dell before the final, asking to play best of three sets otherwise I would miss my flight back to Brazil. Well, in those days most of the finals were played over the best-of-five sets and this match was no different. After being two sets up, I got very angry to have to play another three sets and I was sure, by that time, my flight would be long gone. I finished my match in a big hurry. Donald provided me to be escorted by the police to the airport and the flight was even delayed so that I could make my flight and later connection.”
Harris, who was the head of Potomac Ventures, Inc., a firm which managed office and commercial space, also remembers, “At the trophy presentation, after giving a brief speech, Thomaz put his hand on my shoulder saying, ‘$5,000 is too much for one player.’”
Washington, D.C.-born Solomon said, “There was a certain air of excitement and open tennis was in its infancy. It was more like a family atmosphere. Fans were there not necessarily to be seen, but to be a part of an emerging sport that many of them and their families were participating in. It soon became an annual event that the community had taken on as its own.”
The tournament soon grew in appeal among Senators, Congressmen, business leaders and the well-to-do, with family members of former U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton watching matches or presenting the trophy in the first 30 years of the tournament. "A sitting President has never attended, but the WTEF had two dinners at the house of George H. Bush, when he was the Vice President,” remembers Harris. "Tim Henman once visited the White House and dined with one-time Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice."
From 992 seats on the west side of the main court in the first year, Harris, the tournament co-chairman until 1994, says, “We added 1,500 seats on the south side and a further 1,500 the following year, when we also created a locker room with showers." In 1972, there was a major development when Dell and Harris donated the tournament sanction to the WTEF, making it the sole owner and charity benefactor. "In 1972, we gave them the sanction, so now they’re maybe the only charity in the United States that owns a professional event. " By 1977, when a pro shop was built, there were 5,700 seats around the main court.
For the first 10 years, attendance records were smashed year-on-year, but in 1978 there was the threat of a shift in tournament week from the U.S. Pro Championships, played in Boston, on clay courts one week prior to the start of the US Open, which was being held at its new site in Flushing Meadows, New York. Longwood Cricket Club in suburban Brookline favoured shifting the U.S Pro tournament week to early summer in 1979, but did not believe it ought to change the surface to hard, as the US Open had done after three years of clay competition. Dell and Harris held firm, arguing that Washington, D.C. had built up a tradition as being the first major tournament in the United States after Wimbledon.
The green clay courts made way for hard courts in 1987, the year of Ivan Lendl’s second title, when the whole U.S. circuit reverted to cement. Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, John McEnroe, Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Andy Roddick, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro have all walked through the park and tested their skills at the ATP World Tour 500-level tournament. Today, the Stadium court seats 7,500 spectators. From the original five-man team in 1969, there are now 500 volunteers all on hand in or around the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center, which has become a world-class venue and, since 2011, a WTA Tour stop.
WASHINGTON, D.C. TOURNAMENT ALL-TIME MATCH WINS LEADERS
|Player||Match Record||Finals Record||Tournament Appearances|
|1) Andre Agassi (USA)||44-12||5-1||17|
|2) Guillermo Vilas (ARG)||38-7||3-2||10|
|3) Andy Roddick (USA)||30-6||3-1||9|
|4) Harold Solomon (USA)||25-13||1-1||14|
|5) John Isner (USA)||25-9||0-3||9|
|6) Eddie Dibbs (USA)||25-12||0-1||12|
|7) Jose-Luis Clerc (ARG)||25-5||2-1||7|
|8) Michael Chang (USA)||25-5||2-0||8|
|9) Jimmy Connors (USA)||25-4||3-0||7|
|10) Arthur Ashe (USA)||24-7||0-2||8|
There has been one constant that no player has ever been able to avoid. The summer heat of Washington, D.C. has always played a contributing factor in how well any player will perform at Rock Creek Park. There are stories aplenty when order of play start times had to be adjusted as the conditions tested a player’s physical conditioning to the maximum.
Marty Riessen, runner-up in 1971 and 1972, told ATPWorldTour.com, “I’ve never played in any other place like it. Playing in D.C. in the summer was hot and humid, more of an endurance contest. I remember my match with Tony Roche [in the 1972 final] when I had match point. I served and came in for an easy volley, but I was perspiring so much that my hand slipped on my grip and I couldn’t make the volley.”
Solomon recalls, “I was playing the Australian Phil Dent in a hot and muggy night match [in 1977]. We had this long, long match and I started getting cramps badly all over my body in the third set and after almost three hours, somehow, I won the final point and walked up to shake Phil's hand and my hand cramped around his and I collapsed onto the court and had to be lifted off. The next day in the paper there was a picture of me victorious, but still shaking his hand while collapsed on the court in agony!”
Lendl, the 1982 and 1987 titlist, one of the fittest players of his era, told ATPWorldTour.com, “I still remember how hot it was! Both David Wheaton and I cramping in my three-set win over him in 1987.”Andre Agassi, who earned a record five trophies from six Washington, D.C. finals, in addition to 44 match wins from 17 tournament appearances, admitted, “I always loved playing in the heat, but it was a constant negotiation. It was the only tournament in the world where I went through two or three shirts a set.
“I have so many memories, such as playing Stefan Edberg [in the 1995 final] and winning 7-5 in the third set on one of the hottest days and literally being sick in the tree planter by the side of the court. We were so tired, I hit the ball high up in the air and was sick. It was one of the first times both of us sat down during the trophy ceremony. We were so spent. Another memory is playing Petr Korda in the 1991 final and when we got to the net to flip the coin, I realised I had played all night matches and he all day matches. He had sun blisters all over his head. He was burned to a crisp and thought it was slightly unfair.”
At this year's Citi Open, the focus of American attention will be on John Isner, who is looking to master the conditions and potentially become the 13th different American to lift the Washington, D.C. trophy - and the first since Andy Roddick in 2007. The 33-year-old arrives in the capital of the United States on the back of winning his fifth title at the BB&T Atlanta Open on Sunday. “I have made the Washington final three times, but I’ve never won it,” Isner told ATPWorldTour.com. “I’ve always played very well in D.C. I won five three-set tie-breaks in a row to reach the final out of no-where. No one knew who I was, I was fresh out of college. I certainly won’t forget my match against [Gael] Monfils in the semi-finals for a long time.” Isner, in the form of his life, will compete in one of the strongest fields for the 50th edition, boasting the likes of former World No. 1 Murray, Stan Wawrinka, defending champion Alexander Zverev and Kei Nishikori.
The Citi Open has always been a tournament dedicated to, and for the people, of Washington, D.C. Through the dedication of Dell, who acted as Ashe’s manager for 23 years and was a founding father of the ATP in 1972, and Harris, who stage-managed the tournament from his one-room office for the first 13 editions, the sport was brought to the masses — not just the privileged elite — in one of the biggest cities in the United States, a setting that combines history, beauty and a great atmosphere.