Earlier this week, I spent a day at the Citi Open in Washington. It was a terrific day—the sun was out, it was warm but not especially humid (a rare treat in Washington this time of year), and although none of the top seeds were playing that afternoon, the tennis was great. I’d never been to the Citi Open before, and while the facilities could use an upgrade, the intimacy of the venue was fantastic. At one point, I joined the small crowd pressed against the fence watching Gael Monfils, the tournament’s defending champion, practicing with Sascha Zverev. It was all very casual—several dozen fans standing under a couple of tall trees watching two superstars pounding serves and groundstrokes. The most gratifying moment? After Monfils was finished, Zverev stayed on court to work with his new coach, former world number one Juan Carlos Ferrero. At one point, Ferrrero told Zverev that he was lifting his head too soon while hitting cross court forehands from halfway between the service line and the baseline. I’m sure I wasn’t the only amateur player watching who smiled and thought, “Ah, so it happens to them, too.”
The best part of the day? Realizing that a tournament doesn’t need the Big Four or the Williams sisters to pull in an enthusiastic crowd and to be a great showcase for tennis. This isn’t to suggest that the sport is going to have an easy time moving on after they all retire. It won’t. The Williamses are the greatest sports story ever, Federer is the greatest and most beloved men’s champion of all time, and Nadal is not far behind him in achievements and popularity. Tennis is in for a very rough transition when they all retire. It’s hard to imagine the sport ever experiencing another era quite like this one—not in our lifetimes, anyway. (How’s that for a depressing thought?)
But as much as I’m dreading that future, I have to say that it was kind of nice to be at a tournament in which the focus was on people other than the Big Four and the Williamses. Had, say, Murray been entered in the tournament (he played it two years ago), the spotlight would have been trained almost exclusively on him. Pretty much everyone else would have been an afterthought. In the absence of the biggest names, fans in Washington were given the opportunity to appreciate the otherworldly talent of players like Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov and Simona Halep. Now, obviously, plenty of us already recognize and admire their skills. But let’s face it: they are usually not getting the attention they merit when Fed, Rafa, or Serena is in the draw. There’s nothing unfair or abnormal about that; it is just the way it is if you happen to be competing in this era. It was good to see the understudies enjoying starring roles for a change.
The other thing that made me happy: seeing another tournament prospering on American soil. If you haven’t noticed, the United States has been hemorrhaging professional tournaments for years now. In 1983, there were 26 ATP events in the United States. Now, there are just 11. One has to assume that the decrease is tied at least in part to the diminished fortunes of American players, and this much is certain: the greatly reduced number of tournaments is not helping the growth of the game in the United States. The Citi Open is one of the survivors: it was first held in 1969, and its past champions include Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, and Andre Agassi. It always pulls in a pretty strong field, and this year has been no exception. The ATP portion of the tournament is a 500-level event with a total purse of $2 million, so it stands to reason that big names will show up. But this year, the men’s draw was especially strong, with Nishikori, Zverev, Monfils, Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic, and Nick Kyrgios all playing. The women’s event has total prize money of just $227,000, yet Halep, the world number two, made the trip, ditto Kristina Mladenovic.
We spend so much time now fixated on the grand slams and on the record-setting exploits of tennis’s biggest stars. For one afternoon, it was a pleasure to bask in the charms of a non-slam and to see some adulation showered on players a rung or two below the Federers, Nadals, and Williamses. And here’s hoping Washington’s continued success encourages tennis folk in some other cities to try to launch tournaments. It would be great for fans and good for American tennis.