But the Citi Open represents an equally significant steppingstone for 17-year-old Xxavier Boone, a rising senior at Bell Multicultural High in the District whose aspiration isn’t winning another major title but earning a college scholarship.
Unique among tennis tournaments, the Citi Open is owned by the nonprofit Washington Tennis & Education Foundation and devotes a portion of its proceeds to funding its mission of breaking the cycle of poverty in the city’s historically underserved communities through free tennis and educational programs for children.
Boone credits the lessons he has learned from coaches and tutors at the WTEF’s East Capitol Campus, just a few blocks from his home in Ward 7, with raising his grade-point average (from 2.0 in middle school to 3.5 today) and his college-going ambitions.
“It never really saved me from a lifestyle that might lead to trouble; it made me so I didn’t need to be saved from that lifestyle,” Boone explained. Enrolled in the program since fifth grade, he comes to the tennis center directly after school each day to spend 90 minutes on homework, followed by 90 minutes on the court.
“You’re not always going to win. Even if you give it your best, you can still end up on the short end,” Boone said. “But it’s not about giving up and telling yourself, ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s about seeing what went wrong and trying to fix that problem, so if that problem arises again you’ll be ready for it.”
As the Citi Open is played for the 50th time this week, there are two significant achievements worth celebrating:
Its staying power
The tournament debuted on a shoestring budget in July 1969 — the summer the Washington Redskins hired Vince Lombardi to reverse a string of 13 seasons without a winning record, three years before the Washington Senators headed south to become the Texas Rangers and five years before the NHL’s expansion Washington Capitals were founded.
It was the second U.S. tournament to offer prize money, after the U.S. Open did so in 1968, but it offered little in the way of amenities.
With no showers or changing rooms on-site, players stayed with families near the Rock Creek Park courts and raced home in borrowed cars to shower between matches.
“I used to call it the Porta-Potty Tournament, quite literally, because there was no running water!” recalls Paul Ignatius, a former secretary of the Navy who served two terms as president of the WTEF and shepherded the organization through some precarious financial times. “If you wanted a drink, you had to get a hose. It was pretty spartan in the beginning.”
It relied on private philanthropy to stake the initial purse of $25,000 (a cost that was ultimately borne by its first sponsor, the Washington Star newspaper) and, years later, to construct the $10 million William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, named for the benefactor who staked the first $1 million.
Nonetheless, the tournament survived Washington’s shifting sports landscape to become a staple of late-summer entertainment, drawing such marquee players as Arthur Ashe (who was instrumental in its founding), Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro. And it has raised its international stature by increasing its purse with help from corporate backing and TV revenue. Today, it’s the only U.S.-based event at the ATP 500 level — a tier of 13 tournaments that top men’s players are required to play at least four of to help maintain their ranking — following a steady exodus of domestic tournaments to countries willing to invest more in tennis. In 1982, the United States hosted 54 men’s and women’s tournaments; today, little more than a dozen remain.
That’s a regret of former pro James Blake, now tournament director of the Miami Open, who won the first of his 10 ATP titles at the Washington event in 2002, with his mother and father in the stands.
“The field was always one of the strongest,” Blake, 38, recalled of the tournament he played many years. “The weather was usually extreme, so it prepared you for the hot days at the U.S. Open. And many of the matches were at night, so you could get a little bit used to that night atmosphere and schedule for the Open.
“. . . It pains me every time to see an event leave the States and go overseas. The more events we have, the better the chances we will continue to have top players from this country. It just gives the players more opportunities and the fans more chances to see those stars.”
Its civic contribution
From its inception, the tournament was founded on a vision of inclusiveness and opportunity.
It was the summer of 1968, and Bethesda’s Donald Dell, then captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team as well as a lawyer and budding tennis promoter and agent, had started arranging tennis clinics for children in inner cities as the squad traveled the country. As Dell recounts, after one clinic at Washington’s Banneker High, Ashe, his good friend, client and world’s No. 1 player, suggested starting a tournament in Washington. Ashe insisted, though, that the tournament be held in an integrated neighborhood and in a public park.
A native of Richmond, Ashe hadn’t been allowed as a young African American to compete in tournaments in the city’s segregated city parks.
“We drove around and saw Rock Creek Park, which was a naturally integrated area,” Dell recalled, “and Arthur said, ‘If you’ll put it here, in a public area, I’ll play the tournament.’ ”
Ashe honored the commitment, playing 11 times and winning the tournament in 1973.
To get the tournament launched after securing the ATP sanction, Dell and co-founder Johnny Harris enlisted help from the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation, a small group of well-heeled tennis enthusiasts who since 1955 had helped finance the travel expenses of promising junior players. Dell had himself been a beneficiary of the group as a young junior but didn’t realize it until his father told him when he was 25.
With Dell in charge of convincing top players to enter and the foundation providing volunteers and financial backing, the Evening Star International Championships debuted July 7, 1969 — with proceeds to benefit the foundation.
As the tournament grew, the foundation’s mission shifted from grooming future tennis champions to using the sport to reach a far broader population of underserved youngsters in Washington. Ignatius credits the shift to the late Dwight A. Mosley, the foundation’s former executive director.
“He was a visionary young man” Ignatius recalls, “and he got us started on using tennis as a means to an end. The ‘end’ was to stay in school and eventually, as the program has expanded, gain through scholarships access to colleges around the country.”
In keeping with the new focus, the foundation changed its name to the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation.
And its reach has grown considerably, as has the tournament, which added a well-received women’s event in 2012.
For years, Jeff Thomas, the WTEF’s tennis director, drove the foundation’s van to Southeast Washington to pick up children and bring them to the Rock Creek Park tennis complex for lessons.
In 2012, the foundation opened its $10.2 million, state-of-the-art East Capitol Campus in the heart of Ward 7. It includes indoor and outdoor courts, classrooms, computer labs, a cafeteria, a playground and a community center.
Roughly 160 children are enrolled in summer programs there, while another 30 take lessons and get help with schoolwork at Rock Creek Park. During the school year, WTEF coaches and tutors bring their programs to roughly 900 students at more than 20 D.C. public and charter schools. There are classes for adults in the evenings; during the day, it hosts 3- and 4-year-olds from preschools for one-hour sessions of games that introduce them to the sport.
Last week, it was a hive of activity, with youngsters playing doubles indoors, others braving light rain to play outside and still others getting tutoring in the computer lab, while Rebecca Crouch-Pelham, the foundation’s president and chief executive, made final arrangements for youngsters heading to this weekend’s American Tennis Association national tournament in Orlando.
“The Citi Open isn’t just a tennis tournament; it’s a tennis tournament that is designed to provide resources for kids in underserved communities,” said Crouch-Pelham, a former high school math teacher and founding principal of D.C. Scholars Public Charter School. “When you’re at the Citi Open, it’s so vibrant, and there is so much great tennis and so many things happening. But to walk through there knowing that every person, through the proceeds, will support kids who are underserved, that’s a combination you can’t beat.”