Uptown on 16th Street, the WTEF stays with the mission.
The kids who benefit from the Washington Open Tennis Tournament, called (money talks) the Citi Open, after many years as the Legg Mason and before that the Washington Star, are not much in evidence at the William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center where the event takes place, though there may be a few ball boys — or girls — whom I have not seen yet.
Good kids, too. Though are there any bad ones? Personally, my reflex is to blame the parents when things go off the rails, but I remind myself this does not preclude a belief in innate evil. Life is weird, but society is, too.
Anyway, the reason they are not much in evidence is that they are in Baltimore this week, competing in the ATA Nationals. 2017 is the centenary of the tennis equivalent of the Negro Leagues, and though it is neither as wealthy nor as well-known as the USTA, which owns the U.S. Open, it sponsors a circuit that draws audiences and players from many walks of life. I was going to write “all,” but it does not draw pros, unless they are retired and in no special need of the moolah. The ATA, American Tennis Assn., is one of the last bastions of amateurism in sports. The purse at the Nationals is a pittance, scarcely moving around money for the winners.
At the Washington, aka Citi, the winner gets more than $300,000 and you pocket six of them if you play and lose in the first round, which is nothing to sneeze at even if you have in mind the Wimbledon millions. Someone mentioned that the money is wired out to accounts in Switzerland and Monte Carlo due to the IRS agents lurking on the grounds, but I think he was kidding. I did not see any IRS agents, though there are plenty Park Police (the FitzGerald Center is on National Parks territory), D.C. police, and private security. You never know. This is Washington and what if a crazed leaker went postal? A vicious slur, note, on the USPS, but you know what I mean.
The tennis center is named for the man most responsible for building the great stadium, one of the best designed for all points visibility in the world, Fitzgerald was a successful banker and investor who took time off to serve his country — naval officer, ambassador, philanthropist — and who gave entirely of his own to build this idyllic place — which functions also in the winter time under bubbles, for modest fees. It was the continuation of a project some of his friends conceived, again entirely out of their own pockets, to “keep kids on the courts to keep them out of court.”
This was in the early 1950s, and American history being mildly obsessed (if you grasp the oxymoron) with race, it must be recorded that the kids in question were as often as not boys of the white working class, which still existed in a city now overwhelmingly upper-crust. Times have changed and the crimes committed in this town are not the kinds the Washington Tennis Foundation (as it was then) had in mind.
The mission remains urgent, however. It is carried forth, at present, by Willis Thomas, Jr., the Athletic Director of the WTEF, who works with WTEF president Eleni Rossides to perpetuate the project of a small band of tennis-playing, civic-minded Washingtonians, over half a century ago. Willis Thomas was Arthur Ashe’s juniors doubles partner and the two agreed there must be a constant emphasis on keeping kids in class — when not on the courts — to make them champions in life and sports, both. Donald Dell, Ashe’s great friend and Davis Cup teammate, has successfully managed the tournament since the late 1960s, to the benefit of the WTEF programs.
So much for background. The tournament got underway yesterday and there was a great match, point for point all the way down to the third-set tiebreak, between a teenager from the heartland, Reilly Opelka, who had the edge most of the way as he moved his opponent, Russian Daniil Medvedev, not much older, from side to side and set up great plays at the net while hitting aces, it seemed, whenever he needed them.
Daniil hung tough, and finally Reilly let his attention wander for just a moment. He had match point in the third set tiebreak, lost it, then Daniil had it, and Reilly sent a routine baseline backhand long. The Washington tournament, Gael Monfils defending the trophy held up in days of yore by the likes of Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors and Andy Roddick, is once again in progress.
Arthur Ashe in 1975 (Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo/Creative Commons)