Top-five players Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori will step onto Stadium Court this week at the Citi Open, surrounded by a parking-lot-turned-festival, public-use soccer fields and the third-oldest national park in the United States. It’s a unique setting on the ATP Tour, and the story of how Washington’s pro tennis tournament came to be played at 16th and Kennedy streets also is one of a kind, dating back to something the late Arthur Ashe said to tournament organizer Donald Dell.
Ashe was driving around Washington with Dell, his Davis Cup captain and future agent, in 1968 when he said he wanted the tournament to be played in a public park in an integrated neighborhood. He would play the event every year, he told Dell, if “black faces come out and watch the tennis.”
The story behind that comment, Ashe’s friend Harold Freeman said, is the tale of a time and a place, a nation and a game.
Ashe was not yet a teenager when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, when Emmett Till’s body was thrown in the Tallahatchie River and when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.
Fifteen years later, he became the first black man to win a U.S. Open during the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed and Resurrection City went up near the Reflecting Pool.
Freeman, who played tennis at Catholic University in the 1950s, said the civil rights movement played out on tennis courts over those years, too, with similar undulations of progress and setbacks.
Freeman first stepped onto the courts at 16th and Kennedy to play a white player in 1955, well after the inability to face top players ruined his chances of rising up the junior ranks.
A few years later, Ashe left his home town of Richmond for St. Louis, where he felt he could advance his career more easily.
As Ashe raced toward a more accepting future in the 1960s, winning an NCAA title, appearing in Sports Illustrated and becoming the first black man to represent the United States on the Davis Cup team, he never forgot the past.
Freeman said Ashe always had an appreciation for the struggles he and his black predecessors endured, and he was motivated by the gains they made.
Ashe continuously applied for visas to play in apartheid South Africa despite repeated denials. He advocated for Haitian refugees and worked to expose underprivileged children to tennis.
“I know I could never forgive myself if I elected to live without human purpose,” he once said, “without trying to help the poor and unfortunate, without recognizing that perhaps the purest joy in life comes with trying to help others.”
Knowing Ashe well, Dell was not surprised by his request in 1968, and he was receptive to it.
Dell and tournament co-founder John Harris were hoping to find a public host site after playing at so many country clubs on the Davis Cup circuit. Harris, who is Jewish, recognized that he might not have been allowed to join many of the clubs at which he competed.
In the first tournament in 1969, Ashe made the final but lost to Thomaz Koch. The Brazilian with shoulder-length hair won the only five-set final in tournament history and was awarded a green jacket by President Nixon’s daughter Tricia.
Ashe entered the tournament 11 times, winning in 1973. Over the years, the event has been called the Washington Star International, the Sovran Bank Classic, the Washington Open, the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and the Citi Open as its central stadium has grown.
But Dell and Harris have made sure the event has stayed true to its roots.
In 1972, they gave the sanction to hold the tournament to what is now the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, which has its offices at the 16th and Kennedy location and runs the Arthur Ashe Children’s Program in Northeast and Southeast D.C.
The vice president of programs at WTEF is Willis Thomas, Ashe’s childhood doubles partner.
Thomas said he does not remember a time when 16th and Kennedy was segregated. Instead he remembers playing baseball on the fields that are now in the shadow of Stadium Court. And he remembers Ashe, who died in 1993.
Thomas recalled Ashe saying he wanted to go to UCLA because Jackie Robinson went there, saying he wanted to follow Robinson’s footsteps and then doing exactly that years later.
Thomas was there in 1969, on that 91-degree day when Koch beat Ashe before fading into obscurity. Thirty percent of the crowd was African American, Thomas said, maybe more. Almost everybody was cheering for Ashe.