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

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY AVA WAL­LACE

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.”

SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

New Citi Open tour­na­ment di­rec­tor Keely O’Brien said of build­ing a strong field, “You want to get who peo­ple are talk­ing about.”

SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Keely O’Brien, right, with event pro­ducer Meghan Hansen, is a rar­ity as a fe­male tour­na­ment di­rec­tor.

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