Rome and Paris are lovely cities, to be sure. But with a tennis title at stake, Mardy Fish would gladly trade them for Mason, Ohio.
Cincinnati’s airport is easy to reach from his Los Angeles home. There’s no language barrier once he arrives for the Western & Southern Open, held each August in nearby Mason. He’s familiar with the menu at the local Macaroni Grill. And the hotel rooms are nice and roomy for a 6-foot-2 pro athlete and self-described creature of habit.
“You play well at places you’re comfortable at,” explained Fish, 31, a native of Minnesota.
That sort of familiarity is among the reasons Fish looks forward to Washington’s Citi Open, which kicks off Monday at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park. It’s a key stop on many top players’ road to the season’s final major, the U.S. Open, as well as a staple on the calendar of most American contenders.
But opportunities to compete in the United States are dwindling as tennis tournaments are relocating to Europe, South America and Asia at breathtaking speed.
In 1983, there were 26 ATP men’s tournaments in the United States, not counting the U.S. Open. In 1993, there were 18. This season, there are only 11, with Washington’s Citi Open the longest running among them.
In men’s and women’s tennis alike, tournaments are disappearing from the landscape of U.S. cities much like orchestras, nonprofit theater and independent movie houses. Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Richmond and Tampa are among those that have lost established tournaments over the last 30 years.
Multiple factors account for the exodus.
“It is complicated, but it’s all economics,” said Donald Dell, the veteran agent, promoter and former Davis Cup captain who co-founded the Citi Open with the late Arthur Ashe in 1969.
For starters, American players don’t dominate the game as they did in the era of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
In 1993, three American men ended the year ranked among the top 10: Sampras (No. 1), Jim Courier (third) and Michael Chang (eighth).
In the absence of front-running Americans, apart from top-ranked Serena Williams, TV ratings for tennis in the United States lag well behind those in Europe and much of Asia, where the sport is second only to soccer. In China, it is third behind basketball.
“It’s pretty simple in my mind,” said Andy Roddick, 30, who carried men’s tennis in the United States for most of his career. “Tennis is second worldwide as far as popularity. Frankly, it’s just in the U.S. that it’s not. Americans like watching sports that they know, but the sports that get covered mainstream have heavy American participation, like NFL — 99 percent of the guys are American, and the rest are place kickers.”
Without a robust TV audience, it’s more difficult for tournament promoters to attract the corporate sponsors that make an event profitable.
Three of the eight North American hard-court tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open lack a title sponsor: the ATP’s Winston-Salem Open and two women’s events, the Southern California Open and the New Haven Open at Yale.
Yet in countries where tennis is more prominent, it’s easier to come by public and private money to buy and relocate tournaments, pay appearance fees or underwrite existing events. Throughout much of Asia, South America and Europe, staging a tournament that draws Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is regarded as a shrewd way of developing tourism and raising a city’s international profile.
“There are three things you do for a successful tournament,” Dell explained. “Once you get players, players get you sponsorship. And sponsorship and players get you television. If you’re the second-most popular sport in Great Britain or Germany and you’re 10th or 11th in America, it’s a little easier in Europe to get big-name sponsors.”
Nonetheless, Washington’s Citi Open has endured, largely because of its unique ownership.
It’s owned by a nonprofit, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, which funds much of its operating budget from the event’s profits. As such, the tournament isn’t for sale despite overtures from bidders interested in relocating it elsewhere.
Now in its 45th year, the tournament has a long history of community support.
And officials took a major step to safeguard its place in 2009 by more than doubling its prize money (currently $1.3 million) in order to be classified as a so-called “500-level” event on the ATP calendar. There are only 11 such tournaments in the world, and the top 30 players are required to compete in at least four each season.
That alone should protect the Citi Open for years to come, said Roddick, who claimed three titles in Washington before retiring last fall.
“As long as it maintains its 500 status, it’s going to be fine,” Roddick said. “That was always one I was going to play. One, I enjoyed it. Two, I knew I had to play so many 500 events, and it was a no-brainer as a lead-up to the U.S. Open. It was either that or travel to Dubai.”
This year’s Citi Open draw is considerably stronger than last year’s, when virtually all of the sport’s stars competed in the 2012 London Olympics instead. Six of the current top 20 players will compete this week, including 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro. Five past champions, including Lleyton Hewitt and James Blake, are entered, as well as the top two American men, Querrey and Isner. Fish, who reached a career-high No. 7 in 2011, has just returned to competition after addressing a heart ailment.
“There are places I play well, and Washington, D.C, is one of them,” said Fish, a semifinalist last year. “I stay in Georgetown at a great hotel. We can walk around there; I know the restaurants. I feel very comfortable there. And that helps when you get into a situation in a match and have to dig deep. I want to stay as long as I can because I love this place.”
Through Sunday at FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park. For tickets, go to citiopentennis.com or call 800-745-3000.
■ Today’s draw. D5