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On its 50th anniversary, the future of Washington’s sole professional tennis tournament looked murkey. But Citi Open, now under the operational management of entrepreneur and tennis enthusiast Mark Ein, returned to the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center last Saturday with an updated audience experience (think air-conditioned tents and food from Jose Andres), plus heavy hitters in the sport, like 15-year-old sensation Coco Gauff.
What sets Citi Open apart from other pro tennis tournaments in the U.S.? Partly its history: The Washington-based tournament was the brainchild of Arthur Ashe, the first black man to win the U.S. Open. And partly its mission: The tournament’s owner and beneficiary is the nonprofit Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, which provides after-school, P.E. and education resources for underserved students in D.C.
We check in on this year’s tournament, its legacy and the Washington tennis scene.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Have you attended the Citi Open or any other tennis tournaments this year? Tell us about your experience. In case you hadn't noticed, a professional tennis tournament has taken over the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. In fact, that same tennis tournament has been taking place at Rock Creek Park since 1969. But this year, Citi Open's under new management, and is drawing some of the largest crowds in recent memory. Joining us now by phone to discuss this is Ava Wallace. Ave Wallace is a staff reporter for the Washington Post, covering sports. Ava Wallace, thank you for joining us.
AVA WALLACEThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou grew up in this area, so before you covered this tournament as a reporter, you attended Citi Open as a fan. So, how does this year's tournament differ from the past ones you've attended?
WALLACEYeah, so, the tournament itself hasn’t changed that much. It's still a really good player field, and still really high quality tennis. But what has changed under the new management is the fan experience. So, this tournament, of course, being held in late July and early August in the D.C. area, you're going to have hot, humid conditions, and you're going to have a lot of rain in the afternoon.
WALLACESo, what's been added this year is kind of a new food hall. I guess they're calling it Market Square. And there's a lot of the area's food vendors that are in there. You can get Dolcezza. You can get a burger from Duke's Grocery on the grounds at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center with a roof over your head. So, if there's ever a rain delay in play, you can kind of hide out in there. And it looks out over the practice court, so you also get to watch professional tennis players do their thing while you kind of chill out.
NNAMDIAnd it's cool in there, right?
WALLACEIt's cool in there, most importantly. (laugh)
NNAMDIIt's cool in more ways than one. Who have been the players to watch this year? Who have you been looking at?
WALLACEWe've been looking at a lot of young tennis players, especially, coming into the Citi Open, one of the biggest draws was Coco Gauff. She lost yesterday in the singles, and that's, of course, the 15-year-old phenom who had that really excellent run at Wimbledon. She beat Venus Williams, and made it to the third round there. She was here in D.C. over the weekend. She played, qualifying. She played a singles match yesterday in front of a huge crowd on one of the grandstand courts. And she'll have a doubles match scheduled today, as well.
WALLACESo, you've got her. You've got a teenage Canadian sensation, Felix Auger-Aliassime, who's there. You've got a ton of young Americans. Sofia Kenin, the 20-year-old who beat Serena at the French Open, is playing today. There's a lot of good players. A lot of players that a lot of tennis fans are kind of getting introduced to. And it's always fun to see those guys up close and in person. You get to see their personality a little bit more But, definitely, the young kids have been the ones to watch.
NNAMDID.C. in August isn't the best in terms of playing conditions. As you mentioned, there's a lot of heat and a lot of rain. So far, thank goodness, no rain. How have this year's players been faring in the heat?
WALLACEThey've been doing pretty well. And while the heat and the humidity are probably not ideal for fans, it actually is really good for tennis players this time of year, because they're getting ready to go play the U.S. Open in late August and early September in New York, where it's kind of the same deal. So, a lot of these players like coming to D.C., because it lets them get used to the conditions. It kind of conditions their body to survive at 2:00 p.m. matches under a hot sun, or late-night matches in extreme humidity.
WALLACESo, even though it's kind of a weird thing for a lot of fans in the stands -- although it doesn't necessarily drive people away, from what I've seen -- that's what the players like. A lot of them like coming out to the Mid-Atlantic and the East Coast. They can go up to Canada, which has two tournaments after this. So, it's really well located, and it's really great to get them kind of tuned up before the U.S. Open.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Mark Ein. He is the chairman of MDE Tennis, which started managing the Citi Open this year. He's also the owner of the Washington Kastles. Mark Ein, thank you for joining us.
MARK EINThank you, Kojo. It's great to be on your show.
NNAMDIMark, your name is becoming synonymous with tennis in this area, first the Washington Kastles, and now the Citi Open. Why tennis? What is your relationship with the sport?
EINYeah, so my relationship with tennis started as a young boy growing up in Chevy Chase. I was a ball kid at this event when I was in my formative years. And it just solidified a love of the sport that stayed with me through my whole life. And when I was part of the event as a ball kid, I definitely dreamed about being a player in the event. That didn't even come close to happening, but (laugh) fortunately, I found another way to be involved in the game through bringing the Kastles here and now leading the Citi Open. Truly, it's a real, I feel, a huge honor and responsibility to continue to make tennis a really special part of our community.
NNAMDIYou took up the opportunity to manage this tournament, so you're now in charge of running the operations for Citi Open. What changes did you make to this year's tournament?
EINSo, we looked at -- I've loved this tournament. As I said, it's been part of my life since I was a young boy. And as Ava said, we've always had great action on the court. I long felt that the fan experience could be meaningfully elevated. And so from the minute we got involved, we looked at every single element of the experience for fans, and frankly, also player perspectives, and tried to think how we could do every single bit of it better. Our tagline is “Washington Summer Tennis Tradition Reimagined,” because this is a great tradition here. But we really wanted to re-imagine what it could be.
EINAnd so Ava mentioned this new indoor air conditioned food hall with D.C.'s best chefs...
NNAMDII can't wait.
EIN...Jose Andres, Duke's Grocery, Dolcezza, pizza. And fans have just packed the place from the day we opened the doors. We weren't sure. It's on the other side of the stadium, where people ate before, but it's been packed. And we bring programming in there, too. So, every day at 6:00, we bring a player in to be interviewed. We had Andy Murray in there. Today, we have Marin Cilic. We did the draws in there. So, we try to really make it the hub of the fan experience.
EINBut then there's other things around the grounds. We build an Amstel Beer Garden with a grill with great food on the other side, where food was before. We built the terrace overlooking the grandstand courts serving frose, which, as I understand, is a popular summer drink. And it's tented and covered, so people can watch the action from there. And then we have all kinds of really great carts all over the grounds from Ice Cream Jubilee and OakBerry from Brazil.
EINYou know, the thing about tennis for a fan is you can come, and people want to spend five, six, seven hours, watch some tennis, go get some food, some drinks, go watch more tennis. And we just felt like the fan experience needed to be elevated. And we're really pleased by how it's turned out.
NNAMDIYou've also made doubles tennis more prominent in this tournament. In my view, I tend to think players really enjoy or have more fun playing doubles than they do playing singles. But why did you decide to do that?
EINYeah, because like you, I love playing doubles, but I love watching doubles. I find it really compelling. I find the points really entertaining. And when you get great teams together, it's some of the most compelling tennis on tour. And if you said that's not the norm in pro tennis, there's a real focus on singles. And so, from the beginning, we really said we were going to try to elevate it. And part of that was recruiting some really fascinating teams. So, we got Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios to play together, which got a lot of worldwide tennis attention.
NNAMDIIt got mine.
EINFor that, we had (word?) brothers -- yeah, we got Leander Paes playing with Jack Sock, which we sort of orchestrated. And then we were so happy when Andy Murray called us a week-and-a-half ago and said he wanted to come back to Wash and play with his brother. They’re playing today. And so people in the tennis world have said they truly have never seen a doubles draw as stacked from top to bottom as this one. Every team I just mentioned is unseated, and so it's really quite an incredible draw of doubles talent.
EINAnd, as part of that, we've also put it on stadium court. We put the Nick and Stefanos match on -- the feature match on Monday night and fans loved it. Today, Andy and Jamie will be on Stadium Court, and I think that's part of it. Take these great teams and these great matches, take them off the side court, and put them on the Stadium Court. And, so far, their action has also been terrific.
NNAMDIAva Wallace, the Citi Open tournament has been around for 51 years, although it has had different names. How did a pro tennis tournament get its start in the District?
WALLACEYeah. So, the story goes that -- the story of this tennis tournament really starts with Arthur Ashe and a cofounder by the name of Donald Dell. And Arthur Ashe wanted a place where tennis could be played in an integrated neighborhood. And he wanted it to be on public grounds, and not necessarily in a private club or in a country club, where most tennis tournaments in the U.S. were at the time.
WALLACESo, he kind of dreamed up this tournament and said, you know, if you make it happen, I'll come and play it. And he did. He played 11 years. He won in 1973. So, the Citi Open, though it's gone through many different names, has always been a bastion of diversity and an inclusion in the sport. And, really, it's unique in that in the U.S. And it is the only ATP 500-level tournament, which is one tier below the Masters Events. That's your Miami, your Indian Wells, but it's still a really challenging field.
WALLACEIt's the only tournament like that left in the U.S. and it's really great to see tennis fans of all strips out. And they always have a really diverse field, a really strong field. A women's event was added in 2012, but it was kind of dreamed up with this image of being a place where everybody can come and watch tennis and play.
NNAMDIIt's the only tournament like it in the U.S., and several countries are trying to steal it, but that's a whole other story. Joining me in studio is Rebecca Crouch-Pellham. Rebecca Crouch-Pellham is the president and CEO of the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation. Thank you so much for joining us.
REBECCA CROUCH-PELLHAMThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThe Washington Tennis and Education Foundation owns Washington's pro tournaments. First, what is the WTEF?
CROUCH-PELLHAMSo, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides a rare combination of tennis and education programming to children living across D.C., but mostly in Wards 7 and 8. Because our goal is to provide access to kids living in underserved communities that wouldn't necessarily have access to a great sport like tennis and quality academic interventions.
NNAMDII have to say, it's pretty unusual for a nonprofit organization to own a pro tournament. How did this relationship between the tournament and your organization begin?
CROUCH-PELLHAMIt's actually very unusual, because we're the only one. Fifty-one years ago, John Harris, Donald Dell actually gave WTEF a tournament, and we've been the owner and beneficiary ever since. And it's really just an honor, because our programming is very aligned to why our Arthur Ashe wanted this tournament to be in D.C. in the first place.
CROUCH-PELLHAMSo, we take the proceeds from the tournament, and we pour it into underserved communities in D.C., so children living in those communities are exposed to tennis and great education opportunities.
NNAMDIWTEF is not only the owner, but also the beneficiary of Citi Open. What does that mean?
CROUCH-PELLHAMThat means that we get all these amazing perks, first of all. But we also use the proceeds from the tournament to support our programming. And that has been the case for the last 51 years.
NNAMDIWhen the tournament was looking for new management last year, as I mentioned earlier, there was a chance to move it outside of D.C., maybe even outside of the U.S. And WTEF could've made a lot more money, but you decided to keep the tournament here. Why?
CROUCH-PELLHAMSo, the decision to partner with Mark Ein was probably the best decision we made last year. It was very important to both Mark and WTEF that we kept the tournament in D.C. And it's very important to our organization. It's important to our children and families. So, while other offers might've been financially kind of more appealing, nothing really beats kind of partnering with Mark and keeping the tournament in D.C. and keeping the tennis tradition here.
NNAMDITell us about the education component of your program. How important is that?
CROUCH-PELLHAMWell, that actually is the most important part. We use tennis as a hook. I actually used to be an elementary school principal, so education is my thing. We make sure that all of our kids who come to our program are reading on or above grade level, because, you know, reading just gives them access and gives them just more power in language. We also kind of prepare them academically, so that when they get these tennis scholarships to go to college, that they can compete.
CROUCH-PELLHAMA lot of our kids do receive tennis scholarships to go to college because they play every day with us completely free of charge. So, we want to make sure that once they get there, they are on par with their classmates academically.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Marcus in Washington, D.C. Marcus, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARCUSHow are you all today?
MARCUSI'm calling with two parts. One, a Washington D.C. tennis product named Hailey Baptiste just beat the number two seated women's player in the tournament, Madison Keys, and is a product of everything that the WTEF and everything that we're doing. And I'm not hearing anything about her great win yesterday and the fact that she's playing at this local event. I was wondering how maybe people have seen her rising as having won the tournament recently, how she's doing at the Citi Open, which I'm going to try to get out there tonight at 9:00 and watch her play.
MARCUSAnd also, to talk about when I was younger and it was the (unintelligible) Classic, how there was a lot of outreach with youth to come up to the tournament. I want to know if that's still something -- you know, I didn't know if that was something that was still prominent. Because a lot of us who were nontraditional tennis fans and were tennis participants to see what a professional player looks like and how a tournament (unintelligible).
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, you can get answers from all of our guests. First you, Ava Wallace, about what happened yesterday.
WALLACEYeah, what a match that Hailey Baptiste played. She's 17 years old. She's a D.C. native. Not just a D.C. native, but she grew up on Kennedy Street. So, we're talking right where Citi Open actually happened. She beat Madison Keys, who, like the caller said, was the number two seated player in the women's draw. She was a U.S. Open finalist in 2017. And this girl served the match of her life. I was out there.
WALLACEShe had, I would say, as many supporters in the crowd easily as Coco Gauff did earlier. And she told us afterwards in her press conference that she knew every other person in there. It was a lot of her people who she trained with in College Park at a program called The Junior Tennis Champion Center. A lot of her friends from the WTEF, since Hailey did participate in their programs coming up, and said, you know, she was coming to this tournament since she was five, and sometimes sneaking in just to get a glimpse of the tennis.
WALLACEBut Madison had a little back spasm in the second set yesterday, and Hailey totally took advantage and won her first career WTA match and kind of took it in stride. It was really cool to see everybody in the crowd cheering for her. And that's one of the things I really love about this tennis tournament. It's not very often when you go to tennis tournaments in the U.S. that you see such diverse spectators, black and brown faces in the crowd. The immigrant population from D.C. really comes out, and that's something that Hailey really brought to her match yesterday.
NNAMDIIndeed, Mark Ein, one of the goals is to make tennis accessible to people from different backgrounds. How much do you think that's changed in the past 10 or 15 years, or even from when Arthur Ashe first came up with the idea for the tournament in 1969?
EINYeah, well, I appreciate the caller's comments because the phenomenon he described and Ava just described is the reason that I do this. I think having -- there's nothing like having a pro event in your backyard to both inspire young kids and give them something to aspire to, and let them get close to the action, let them see the players up close. Let them see amazing feats like what Hailey Baptiste did yesterday, and like Coco Gauff did over the weekend and Frances Tiafoe did last night. And even Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, who qualified and played Nick Kyrgios last night.
EINThese are -- I mean, Coco's not local, but the other ones I mentioned are all local kids who got a big break at the Citi Open. Actually, Hailey got a wildcard this year and took advantage of it, and it launched their careers. So, from a pro perspective, that's really one of the great things about the event.
EINBut then as Ava said, when you walk the grounds, the thing that makes me feel the best of anything is people saying that our tennis events are the best melting pot of our community. You see everyone coming together to go and -- everyone from all parts of the city from all backgrounds coming together to enjoy the tennis. And that has been a hallmark of the Kastles for the last 12 years and continues to be at the Citi Open where we actually give tickets every session to local kids' groups for free, even when the matches are selling out, which they are, to be able to come and make sure that this is accessible for everyone. So, that commitment that's been part of WTF since its very founding is going to be continued long into the future.
NNAMDIRebecca Crouch-Pellham, you took kids from WTEF to the Citi Open on Monday. Which players did they see? What was their experience like? I know that a lot of the big players to watch in this tournament are people of color. Mark mentioned Frances Tiafoe. There's Sloane Stephens, and Coco Gauff was mentioned earlier. Talk about that.
CROUCH-PELLHAMSo, yeah, Monday, we took quite a few kids up to the Citi Open. And the best part was after Coco finished her match, one of our 10-year-olds gave her his phone and she took a selfie with him. And we posted it on our Instagram. But I think players like Hailey are truly kind of representative of why programs like WTEF are absolutely necessary. Growing up in the program, falling in love with tennis, attending the Citi Open and completely free of charge, I think it just speaks to the volumes and the impact that local kind of programs can have when you focus on children and kind of what they can achieve.
NNAMDIMark, I'm almost out of time but the tournament got a one-year extension with Citi Bank to sponsor it this year. Does that mean you'll be looking for a new sponsor next year?
EINWell, we hope that Citi will stay with us. They really value the partnership and supporting WTEF in this event. We hope to continue it. We're talking to them. If they don't, there's a lot of other people who would love to put their name on the event, but Citi's been a wonderful partner, and we hope it continues.
NNAMDIWe'll have to see what happens. Mark Ein is the chairman of MDE Tennis, which started managing the Citi Open this year. He's also the owner of the Washington Kastles. Rebecca Crouch-Pellham is the president and CEO of the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation. And Ava Wallace is a staff reporter for the Washington Post, covering sports. Thank you all for joining us.
NNAMDIThis conversation about tennis was produced by Cydney Grannan, and our segment about Prince Georges County adopting Vision Zero was produced by Kayla Hewitt. Coming up tomorrow, we'll share highlights from last night's Kojo in Your Community event on the landscape of local businesses, jobs and entrepreneurship east of the river. Elected officials, community leaders and residents weighed in on what it takes to succeed as a small business in one of the city's most underserved neighborhoods, and why a new approach is needed to fight the highest unemployment rate in the city. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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