Behind the Scenes at the Citi Open

By Ana Mitrić

The final weekend of the Citi Open has had a little bit of everything in store for tennis fans. There’s the mouth-watering semifinal night match between one of the ATP’s most awe-inspiring athletes, Gael Monfils, and #NextGen heartthrob Sascha Zverev. Hipster-fave and drama-magnet Yulia Putintseva, who pushed Serena Williams in the Roland Garros quarterfinals, made a deep run. Ivo Karlović, fresh off his Newport title, and Daniel Nestor, on the verge of his sixth Olympic games, are competing for “oldest man to ever…” honors. Monica Niculescu did her thing in the women’s doubles final . And there’s been ample home-team interest with American semifinalists Steve Johnson, Lauren Davis, and Jessie Pegula. If we survive the heat, it should be a good time.

But even if the on-court offerings were lacking in narrative interest (it is an Olympic year, after all, when the North American hard-court swing suffers its share of player withdrawals), the Washington tournament has a compelling backstory. Before the tournament wraps up, we wanted to share what makes the Citi Open a perfect fit for what used to be called “Chocolate City.”

It’s one of a kind. Once one of 26 ATP tournaments in the United States, it is now the only ATP 500 event left in the country. What started as the Washington Star International and spent over 15 years as the Legg Mason Tennis Classic was reborn as the Citi Open in 2012, having merged with a WTA International event of that name held the previous year in College Park, MD.

The setting is special. The tournament is played not only in the nation’s capital but also within a national park. So, if fans or players need a break from the tennis, they can engage in all manner of tourist activity, from visiting the monuments and museums to taking a hike along nearby Rock Creek. Especially when compared to the three other joint ATP-WTA events in the US (Indian Wells, Cincinnati, and the US Open), the Citi Open is also an intimate experience: the stadium fits 7,200 spectators and there’s not a bad seat in the house. On the tree-circled outer courts, where most matches are played, fans are so close to the action that they could call the lines.

It has a storied past. Founded in 1969, it was one of the first Open Era professional tournaments in the United States. Perhaps more important than where or when it started is how it did so. From its very outset, the tournament has had a mission to provide more than entertainment. Before getting things off the ground, co-organizer Donald Dell knew it would be vital to have Arthur Ashe, winner of the 1968 US Open and one of the sport’s biggest draws, supporting the cause. Ashe, a budding activist who had given his first political address at a Washington church in March 1968, told his Davis Cup captain that he’d play the event if “black faces come out and watch the tennis”: that is, if the tournament were held in both a public facility and an integrated neighborhood, rather than at an exclusive private club. Ashe would make good on his promise: he played the tournament 11 times, making the inaugural final and winning the trophy in 1973. (For more on Ashe’s activism, see Eric Allen Hall’s book Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era.

It does good. Almost 50 years after its founding, the tournament remains committed to economic and racial justice.* From the beginning, it was sponsored by (and run with the help of volunteers from) a local non-profit organization—what would become the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation. Since 1972, the tournament has been owned by WTEF, which aims “to improve the life prospects of low-income, underserved children and youth in the District of Columbia through athletic and academic enrichment.” In addition to a year-round program headquartered at their Center for Excellence in Southeast Washington, WTEF offers after-school activities at some twenty D.C. public schools as part of the Arthur Ashe Children’s Program.

Not incidentally, Arthur Ashe’s junior doubles partner Willis Thomas, known to some area tennis buffs as the “Pied Piper of the playgrounds,” is WTEF’s program director. Since 2004, the organization has been run by a woman who was once one of Thomas’s pupils, former college standout and WTA player Eleni Rossides.

Ana Mitrić sat down with Rossides to find out how she made it from playing on local courts to heading up the behind the scenes operation at the Citi Open.

AM: How did you get started in the sport?

ER: Well, my dad was the athlete of the family. He was a football player—a great college football player who was drafted by the Giants. But it was my mom who got us into tennis. She started playing and I had two older brothers who played tennis as well as all the other sports. I basically followed them to the tennis courts.

I played a lot of sports, but the bottom line was that tennis was the sport that I could excel in—you know, that you could go the furthest with. So, while I loved playing soccer and basketball (and actually played soccer throughout high school), tennis was the one where I kept playing. First, you played local tournaments, then you got to national tournaments, and it just kept progressing.

AM: When you were making decisions about college, was there any thought at that point of going straight to the pros?

ER: You know, a number of coaches told me to consider the pros—and the USTA did as well. But my Greek background and family background was all about education, so it wasn’t even. . .   Actually, it’s very funny because my vice president of programs here [at WTEF] was ultimately my tennis coach on tour. At the time, I was playing all the junior US Open and junior Wimbledon tournaments, and even some pro tournaments when I was in high school, and he said, “Are you sure you want to go to college?” And both he and I will never forget when I said, “I have to go to college.” I mean, it wasn’t even a consideration.

AM: How was you college playing experience, in what was then the PAC-10?

ER: I wanted to go to Stanford, rather than the Ivy Leagues, because I felt like I wanted to be the best at the best [tennis] school. I did well at Stanford, but that is actually where I got all of my injuries. So, I would say it was hard to be away from home. You know, you’re on a team and they need you to play, and I had some very bad injuries that may or may not have happened if I had been closer to home.

AM: And had somebody to tell you to stop?

ER: Right. They finally got me to a doctor when I had shin splints and the shin splints were so bad that the doctor said, “This is the worst bone scan I’ve ever seen; your legs are almost broken—both of them.” But, you know, I did well there: I was #1 on the team, I was ranked #1 in the country, and we won four straight national championships; sometimes I was playing higher, sometimes I was playing lower, coming back from injuries. You know, it was not all positive.

AM: After graduating, you were on tour for how long—almost a decade?

ER: Yeah, and that’s where Willis, who also grew up in D.C., came in. I knew him when I was 12 and in different clinics. His was always the fun court—he wasn’t actually my coach then, but he was doing clinics and you always ran to his court because it was the fun court. Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t there any more. And the next thing I know, I’m at some pro tournaments and he’s coaching Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil and Rodney Harmon. I’m on court 50, you know, playing the junior US Open—and Zina’s playing the main courts—and he came to watch me play. He was always there.

Then, after college, when I started playing pro events, I always wanted to work with him. He just knew what I was like growing up. So, when he stopped coaching on the tour, they recruited him to come back here and run the programs at WTEF. When he moved back to D.C., I immediately moved back from California to work with him. So, for the latter half of my WTA career, we worked together. He was just a phenomenal coach—he was as great a coach as I thought he was, and I wish I’d had him when I was 12 years old.

AM: How was the transition from playing in college, being #1 and all that stuff, to being on tour? We now have these examples, like John Isner and Steve Johnson, where being former college players is always part of their storyline.

ER: I really don’t believe in not getting an education. It’s a great training ground, and you may not necessarily need to go four years, but you also have to plan for life after tennis. I have so many friends who never went back to finish their college careers—and you don’t have many options. I find it very sad. There are very few who make it, so what are we promoting? I find it very troubling, these days, to see so many college scholarships going to foreign students while a lot of Americans are turning pro—I just don’t get it, I really don’t.

You know, I was very well positioned, while I was on tour, to go to business school. If I hadn’t finished college, I would not have gone to business school. I also think it would have been hard to finish college later. . . . Maybe players don’t know [at 18] what they’re giving up. What do you do afterwards? I mean, it’s great to be a teaching pro, but you don’t have many other options other than coaching.

AM: What are the memories you cherish from your time on tour?

ER: You know, I won some of the lower-level, USTA events and things like that. Unfortunately, throughout my career, I never solved the injury “bug” or whatever you want to call it; so it was always coming back from injury, injury, coming back from injury, injury. It is true that once you get a major injury, it’s hard to recover. I had an incredible doctor, a chiropractor, in California who actually got me back and that’s when I reached my highest ranking, which was about 150.

But I think what I loved the most was the traveling. I loved training, I loved playing, I loved the competition, and I loved traveling. So, it really was a great lifestyle for me. You’d go to these tournaments in all these different countries, and I’d soak it all up.

AM: So, being ranked 150, you’re not making a lot of money.

ER: No—you’re breaking even. Then I did some team tennis, played in Holland for a couple of years, even the circuit in France. I really enjoyed it, but I also knew I had the education to fall back on. . . I knew my plan. When I was at Stanford, I majored in communications; so, at first, I thought I might do broadcasting, because a lot of people do that. But once my brother went to business school, I kind of recognized that was going to be my path, you know, when I decided to go.

Having an education enabled me to play as long as I wanted to and then I had a future—and that’s what I want to see for more of these younger players. They need a life after tennis. Even Novak. I’m pretty impressed with Serena and Venus, from what I know—they like fashion and they’re doing their designs. There is a life after tennis. Even if you’re set money-wise, you’re 30 years old, maybe 35—you’ve got another 60 years to live. What are you going to do?

AM: Can you tell me a bit more about the links between the tournament and the foundation’s mission?

ER: Arthur Ashe helped start the tournament, which was important for the community. Our VP of programs, Willis Thomas, was his doubles partner growing up; then, Arthur went the playing route and Willis went the coaching route. Willis’s father was an educator, so he understood very much about how tennis could be the hook. What’s important is to take all the lessons you learn—the focus, the determination, the goal-setting—and translate that into the classroom. For me, everything I did in tennis certainly helped me in the classroom, in my career.

I already knew about the organization, even before I moved back to D.C. [again, after business school].   When I was training with Willis and had different injuries—maybe things happen for a reason, now that I think about it—he had me coming out and volunteering in Southeast. So, there I was, this white girl, driving my beat-up car down to Southeast—and I was just in awe of what Willis was doing. And I think he was also impressed that I was doing it every day. Then, I understood very clearly that that’s what these kids need—they need the consistency every day or you just can’t do it. The kids were pretty open about what they were going through and I didn’t really know how to respond to things like parents being in jail, drug dealers, gunshots. . . But I would watch how Willis continued to give them hope and motivate them—and the tough love that you need to give.

Willis and I always stayed in touch, throughout business school. And when I was working for McKinsey [consulting] in Chicago, the D.C. office was doing a pro-bono study for the organization. So, I told Willis, “Just give them all your ideas, because your vision is tremendous”—it was always to build the site in Southeast [what eventually became WTEF’s Center for Excellence]. Though the stadium and everything connected with the tournament is for the kids, the executive director who hired Willis, a guy by the name of Dwight Mosley, said “We built this stadium, but our real goal is to build a center in Southeast.” This was about 1991. [Editor’s note: in 1987, the ATP “warned Washington that unless they upgraded their tennis facilities they were going to lose the tournament.” Later, when the position opened up and I was being interviewed, the search committee asked me, “How would you feel about investigating whether we should build a second site?” And my response was, “How serious are you about doing it? Because it’s really why I want to come here. You have a phenomenal staff and they’re doing great work, but you’ve got to have a center in the neighborhoods. We’ve just got to get this done because the impact could be that much more.” Obviously, they hired me. This was in August, 2004—my first week was during the tournament! In 2012, we opened the East Capitol campus. From the city process, to the capital campaign, to building the site—it took six years; but it was arguably a twenty-year dream.

AM: The Citi Open is one very busy week out of the year for WTEF. What does your work entail during the rest of the year?

ER: It’s actually very interesting because it’s not the same thing every day. My job includes setting the strategic vision for the organization. When I first came on, it was all about investigating whether we could and should build a second site—and then, of course, how to do it. I was quite motivated to take the position because I thought it was the right path: they really needed a center in the [community’s] backyard, and not to be bussing kids around. So, a lot of my job is also about the relationship with funders and donors—and the fundraising. We have a five-pronged attack with that, starting with events, like our major fundraiser every year called the “Tennis Ball.” The Citi Open, obviously, is huge—and the PR and marketing benefits we get from that. We have a strong foundation focus and there’s a lot that goes into not only the writing of the grants but also our positioning and the cultivation of those foundations. We also have fee-based tennis programs at the 16th Street site [where the tournament is held]. Then, we have an individual giving program, which is very important and something we need to improve—getting more and more donors for the foundation.

AM: Roughly what percentage of the foundation’s budget comes from the Citi Open?

ER: About 10%. The tournament used to actually fund all of our programs, but we got much bigger and added educational components. Professional tennis also doesn’t make as much as it used to, and players are asking for more [prize money and appearance fees]. As you know, there are a lot of expenses in professional tennis. But we obviously get many more benefits than the financial piece of it. So, it’s hard to gauge what the entire effect of the tournament week is.

AM: So, it’s safe to say that fundraising is a significant part of your job. What else?

ER: Right. And then it’s the whole board-governance piece. I’m responsible for the financials and for making sure the board is kept abreast of all the information they need to be monitoring the finances and the programming. We have a 50-member board, which is huge; so, a lot of my time is spent with the board, working with them on different initiatives that they can be helpful on. Obviously, I have Willis Thomas as vice president of programs, but I’m also making sure the programs are where they need to be. We’ve had huge growth in the programs, and we’re very, very focused on evaluating them—we’re tracking all the kids and we have metrics on attendance, retention, staffing, continuity, and all that stuff. We pre- and post-test kids on their [reading and math] skills, but we’re also working on the whole child—we have counselors and mentors. There are a lot of different issues that the kids are dealing with and we are truly there for them, whatever comes up. Either we have staff who have the background, or we find people.

AM: At what point prior to the tournament do you put all your other work on “pause” and turn 100% of your focus to what’s going to happen this week?

ER: We have one staff person focused on special events, so she goes from our Congressional charity event (which happens in September), to the Tennis Ball in May, to the Citi Open. Then, I would say our entire staff turns our attention in the final two weeks leading up to it. We do our best, actually, to try not to have staff overcome by the tournament. But it’s an important few weeks for us.

AM: During the week of the tournament, are you mostly spending time with dignitaries? I’m guessing you rarely watch a whole set of tennis.

ER: That’s exactly right. [I’m with] the VIPs—whether it’s meeting city officials and federal government officials, or thanking our donors. People who sponsor our Tennis Ball, for example, get benefits for the tournament, like tickets into the suites. It’s also wonderful for board cultivation: it’s an event where they’re thanked for all the work that they do and they also get to socialize with each other, which is important.

The board are actually the ones responsible for building the stadium. Donald Dell donated the tournament to the foundation in the early ‘70s; then, in the late ‘80s, the board took on the challenge of raising the money to build the new stadium.



Once that project was complete, the foundation could focus on what former executive director Mosley had called the “real goal”: moving the programs closer to the disadvantaged kids who are their focus. Two things set WTEF apart, says Rossides. First, they’re not just offering a bit of tutoring alongside a sports camp; their academic programming is “as intense as, if not more than, the tennis.” And second, they “start with kids when they’re very young—4, 5, and 6 years old—and take them through seniors in high school.” Through its association with WTEF, the Citi Open sets itself apart, too. By now, virtually every pro tournament hosts a “kids’ day”; at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, kids’ day is year-round.

Most of you will likely watch the tournament on tv. But know this: if you make a trip to the Citi Open, the money you put toward tickets is paying for more than world-class tennis.

* It would be remiss of us not to note that the tournament has a ways to go with regard to gender equity.