Advantage, D.C.: Citi Open field is strongest in years
Organizers use assets of tournament, relationships with agents and eye for talent to attract big names
Less than two weeks before the Citi Open was set to kick off at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Stadium in Rock Creek Park, tournament director Keely O’Brien was fretting about scheduling. “The problem with having all these big names,” she said, glancing down at her phone and shaking her head, “is they’re all going to want to play on stadium court.”
For O’Brien, this was a good problem. The New Jersey native replaced Jeff Newman as director after 16 years this winter, and in her debut tournament, Washington’s longtime tennis staple has taken a leap forward in one significant way — the player field.
This year’s tournament, which begins Monday, has the strongest field since the days when Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi would descend upon the District each summer. Both the men’s and women’s draws feature rankings heavyweights, to be sure, with four top 10 ATP players and No. 11 Alexander Zverev set to play and second-ranked Simona Halep headlining the women’s field.
A handful of American stars, including John Isner, Jack Sock, Sloane Stephens and Steve Johnson, also highlight the draw alongside popular names such as 2016 Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig, Eugenie Bouchard and former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic.
Securing the field took a concerted effort on the part of tournament co-founder and chairman Donald Dell, O’Brien and Newman, who left his role at the end of February but stayed on for a few months to ease the transition.
The Citi Open has a few assets that make it attractive for players: It’s long enough after Wimbledon to allow players to recover but early enough in the summer that they can get acclimated to the heat and humidity for the rest of the U.S. Open series. The men’s tournament is also classified as a 500-level event, one of just 13 tournaments on the ATP tour (the women’s tournament is an International-level event, of which there are 32 on the WTA tour).
Still, Dell and Newman have come a long way in convincing well-known international players to choose Washington as tournaments relocated to Europe, South America and Asia in the past decade. They leaned on their long-established relationships with player agents and their knowledge of the tours to woo this year’s big names.
“I want to say it’s cyclical, but that’s not quite true,” Dell said. “You have to work at it. But you’ve still got to pay some appearance fees; you’ve got to pick and choose. Jeff spent time on the phone and in meetings calling and calling and calling scores of agents who he’s known for years and who Keely is getting to know.”
O’Brien, who had served as the tournament manager since 2010 and worked in sponsorship for the tournament before then, is notable in tennis for her gender. O’Brien is the only female tournament director who runs a combined event, men’s and women’s, at the 500-level.
She views the note as an addendum to her title, but she does feel the weight of carrying on a legacy at the Citi Open. Getting a good draw in place was a big part of that, so she made a push to secure both returning champions and rising stars.
Getting athletes — creatures of habit who return to tournaments where they play well — to commit while they’re young is huge for establishing a long-term relationship.
“It comes down to knowing the tours and knowing what players are doing well and just having an eye for talent,” O’Brien said. “It’s kind of like following your instincts, watching, knowing and then making a bet on it. You have that, and you always want to get your past champions back; that’s always a good sell.
“And you want to get who people are talking about. That’s Zverev; everyone wants him to be the next best thing. He beat [Novak] Djokovic in a Masters 1000 this year. And he’s young, and you want to get these players when they’re up and coming. You want them to come to Washington because they’re creatures of habit, so if they come here and do well, they’ll come back.”
This year’s Citi Open features five former champions: Gael Monfils, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Stephens and Juan Martin del Potro. Bouchard returns because Washington gave her her first wild card as a young up-andcomer.
Dell and his team also have worked to polish the tournament’s reputation over the years. Getting players tours at the White House or meetings with their country’s ambassador is a perk Dell flaunts, as is putting players up in places such as the Watergate Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton.
“It’s always good to have some matches going into a Masters Series,” said Zverev, the 20-yearold German who is playing the tournament for a third time. “But I just enjoyed Washington the past two years. It was a tournament I wanted to play. I got to the quarterfinals, semifinals, but also it’s a different city than most U.S. cities. Different than New York and Miami. I just like the experience.”
New Citi Open tournament director Keely O’Brien said of building a strong field, “You want to get who people are talking about.”
Keely O’Brien, right, with event producer Meghan Hansen, is a rarity as a female tournament director.