Founding of the Tournament
By Carter Bohn
1968 marked the beginning of men's professional tennis, when a handful of tournaments around the world adopted the "open" format, allowing both amateurs and professionals to participate for prize money. This select group of tournaments included both Wimbledon and the French Open. Previously, only amateurs were able to compete in tournaments, and were compensated with just enough in appearance fees to cover their travel and playing expenses. That same year, the United States Davis Cup team defeated the dominant Australian team 4-1, to win tennis' most prestigious competition. Winning the Davis Cup was a huge international accomplishment, and the top American players such as Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith were looking to capitalize on their success and abilities. It was at this point that then-Davis Cup captain and Washington native Donald Dell decided that he should bring an open tournament to the Nation's Capital.
Having successfully hosted two exhibition events featuring the Australian and U.S. Davis Cup teams at an indoor club in Rockville in 1967 and 1968, Dell knew that the Washington area would support a world-class tennis tournament. Bringing a professional tennis tournament to Washington proved to be no small feat. The first hurdle that stood in the way was choosing the tournament's surface. Dell's idea was to hold this new summer event on clay, an ordinary choice except that the current summer tennis circuit in the United States was held on grass, up to and including the U.S. Open in Forest Hills. But the tournament organizers persisted, arguing that a clay court event in July would not be detrimental to the training and preparation for the Open in late August.
The second major obstacle was finding the funding for the tournament. By definition, an open professional event should have a prize money purse which is dispensed to the participants depending on how far each advances, with the winner taking home the most money. But where would this money come from? Dell and his childhood friend and tennis partner John Harris solicited Washington area businesses to pledge $5,000 each towards this purse, with the promise that their donations would be returned if a title sponsor could be secured. In the end Dell and Harris were able to lock in four donors to pledge $5,000 each, plus another anonymous donor who pledged another $5,000, for a total of $25,000. Soon after, the Washington Star, then Washington's evening newspaper, committed to sponsor the tournament, the donations were returned, and Dell and Harris, the tournament's co-chairmen, had their prize money and their title sponsor.
Since Dell was the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, he was able to persuade the game's top American stars, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, to participate in this new professional event in Washington in the summer of 1969. However, a third question emerged: where would this new tournament be held? The answer would come not from the tournament organizers, but instead from one of the players. Arthur Ashe, one of the most visible and socially-conscious athletes of his day, said to Dell that he would participate in and support this new tournament if it were held in the city of Washington, in a naturally integrated neighborhood, so that everyone could have the opportunity to enjoy it. The National Park Service land at the corner of 16th and Kennedy Streets, NW seemed like an ideal spot: on federal parkland accessible to everyone and right in the middle of one of D.C.'s most inclusive districts. And so in July of 1969, the inaugural Washington Star International became the first open professional tennis tournament held in the United States outside of the U.S. Open, on a couple of clay courts surrounded by temporary bleachers in the middle of Washington, D.C.
While the current stadium at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center is a top-flight professional facility, with permanent seating for 7,500 spectators, the tournament's facilities in the early days were not as grand. For the first few years of the event, temporary bleachers were erected around the clay courts to handle crowds of 2,400 fans. Each year, more rows of bleachers were added, until eventually the stadium court held over 5,000 spectators. However, player accommodations remained rather humble. Player lodging was provided by local families, who also transported the players to and from the tournament site. Players changed in tents that were set up just behind the stadium court, and there were no on-site locker room facilities until 1973, when the National Park Service built a small public locker room building in the park. Water for players and ballkids came from outdoor spigots and was brought over from across the street by volunteers. Nevertheless, the Washington Star International continued to attract the world's best players to Washington, as players annually prepped their games for the U.S. Open (which had switched surfaces from grass to clay in 1975). The list of past champions reads like a Who's Who of pro tennis in the 1970s: Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, and Guillermo Vilas, just to name a few.
By the late 1980s, the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation (now the Washington Tennis & Foundation) and tournament organizers at ProServ (the sports marketing and management firm founded by Dell which manages the tournament and is now part of SFX) knew that a permanent stadium was needed in Washington to elevate the event to the next level. In fact, according to Foundation board member Jack Sloat, the ATP all but mandated that a new stadium be built in order to continue holding a tournament in Washington. But as was the case when the mere idea of a tournament was introduced, there were many questions to be answered. What surface should the tennis stadium have? Who will build it? And most importantly, who will pay for it?
The answer to the first question was easy. In order to keep the tournament as a must-play event in preparation for the U.S. Open (which had in turn switched to a hard court surface in 1978), the new stadium in Washington should be a hard-court facility. The new courts were installed in 1987, using the same surface as the Open. The construction of the stadium and tennis center would be overseen by Sloat, who temporarily stepped down a sa Foundation board member to take a full-time position coordinating the project.
As for the third question of who would pay for the new tennis stadium, that problem was conveniently averted by the generosity of two local businessmen, William H.G. FitzGerald and John Safer. FitzGerald, the former U.S. ambassador to Ireland in 1992-1993 and the honorary chairman of the Tennis Center Committee, made the initial contribution of $1 million to the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation to get the project off the ground, and later contributed another $1 million to help cover additional construction costs. Tennis fans are sure to notice that the tennis center (including the surrounding clay and hard courts) was in turn named in the Ambassador's honor. Additional funding also came as a result of the support of John Safer, who at the time was the chairman of D.C. National Bank (now BB&T). Safer personally saw to the approval of a $6 million loan to the Tennis Patrons to ensure the completion of the stadium. Both men are still strong tennis supporters and regularly can be found courtside during the tournament. The remainder of the funding for the new stadium came from individual and corporate donors who purchased the future rights to the use of box seats and suites in the stadium, an innovation that was a forerunner to the "personalized seat license," or "PSL," which is now a popular form of sports facility financing.
As mentioned, the all-new 11 hard courts were installed in 1987 in time for that year's tournament. However, due to permit approval delays with the National Park Service, the construction was spread across the following two years, with a portion of the stadium completed in 1988 and the entire project completed in June of 1989.
By 1989, when construction had finished, the end result of this planning and fundraising was an $11 million stadium that was instantly comparable in construction and design with other premier facilities in professional sports. The "new" Washington tennis center was the first urban park center in the world designed for both high-level tournament play and public use. The stadium contains 31 courtside air-conditioned suites, a feature that was not standard in most sports arenas until the mid- to early-1990s. It can also be said that there truly "isn't a bad seat in the house," as the permanent seating combines the comforts of a larger stadium, such as several different levels of seating options, with the intimacy of a smaller venue. What's more, in keeping the stadium and tennis center on National Park Service land at 16th and Kennedy Streets, tournament organizers could continue to honor Arthur Ashe's request to make world-class tennis available to all.