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The Emergence of a Tennis Mecca

The Western & Southern Open has grown into one of the biggest and most important tennis tournaments in the world

By Jason Gargano · August 10th, 2011 · Sports

“The tennis tourney Tuesday was marked with the brilliant and fast playing on the part of the contestants, awakening the greatest interest in what promises to be the most successful tournament ever held in Cincinnati, if not the entire West.”

— Sept. 19, 1899, edition of the Cincinnati Times Star

The tennis tournament now known as the Western & Southern Open has existed in Cincinnati in one form or another for 112 years, which (arguably) makes it the oldest in the United States still played in its original city. The tournament regularly features the best the players in the world — look for defending champion Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to continue their heated rivalry, and it looks as though the oft-injured Williams sisters will also play this year — and its past winners include a who’s who of tennis luminaries: Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jimmy Conners, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, Bobby Riggs, Ken Rosewall, Pete Sampras and Tony Trabert.

Backed by its rich history and its placement as the main hard-court warm-up for the U.S. Open, the Cincinnati tour stop has evolved into one the biggest and most important on the tennis landscape: 250,000 fans now attend each year, and it features $5.2 million in combined men’s and women’s prize money.

And now it’s getting even bigger — one can easily imagine the above epigraph being written in reference to this year’s “tourney.”

The 2011 edition, which runs Aug. 13-21, marks the first time the men’s and women’s tournaments will be held simultaneously, which makes Cincinnati one of only five cities in the world to host top-tier men’s and women’s events during the same week. To accommodate the shift, the event’s home at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason is expanding by 40 percent to include six new courts, a new ticket office and a revamped entry plaza, all of which arrive on the heels of last year’s shiny new press and players facilities.

Yes, it’s kind of a big deal. No longer should it be, “Oh, you mean that tennis thing up by Kings Island?” as it’s often been called by locals not in the know.

No one has been as instrumental in the tournament’s rise to prominence as Paul Flory, an executive with Proctor & Gamble who became the tournament’s director in 1975. Under his guidance, the event grew rapidly, moving from Coney Island, which hosted the festivities from 1975-1978, to its current home in Mason. (For those curious, the first tournament, then known simply as The Cincinnati Open, was held at the Avondale Athletic Club in 1899.)

Whether through good fortune, visionary insight or both, Flory’s taking of the tournament’s reins corresponded with the first wave of Open-era players — a band of charismatic characters led by Bjorn Borg, Conners, Vitas Gerulatis, McEnroe and Nastase — a “Golden Age” that changed tennis forever.

(For further reading on the subject, check out Stephen Tignor’s recently published High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry, which is a fascinating look at the tennis revolution that spurred the sport’s move from a culture of genteel “country-club amateurs” to players with diverse backgrounds who “translated their talents and professional success into international celebrity.”)

Though no longer the tournament’s director, the now nearly 90-year-old Flory remains an instrumental figure, helping to guide the current expansion and continuing his work with the various charities affiliated with the event. (Revealing side note: Flory has reportedly never accepted a salary for his tireless efforts.)

“Paul’s impact has been immeasurable, and I can say with absolute certainty that the tournament wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Paul,” says current tournament CEO Elaine Bruening, a P&G colleague of Flory’s who originally came on as a volunteer 35 years ago. “Other U.S. cities much larger than Cincinnati — such as Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia — have lost their tennis tournaments over the years, but Cincinnati just kept on growing, and that is because of Paul’s influence. Paul was never satisfied with status quo; he had a long-term vision of which he never lost sight. His leadership inspired all of us to keep on improving and looking for ways to do things better. He always put major emphasis on enhancing both the fan experience and the player experience.”

With that in mind, the tournament now offers a number of local food vendors (from Baba Budan’s to Skyline to Relish Modern Tapas), multiple special events (including a Ladies Night fashion show courtesy of Saks Fifth Avenue) and two music stages (one of which is curated by the MidPoint Music Festival).

Brad Gilbert — a former Cincinnati singles champion (1989) and onetime coach of two other winners (Agassi and Andy Roddick) — has always been a big fan of the Cincinnati tournament and the passionate, nearly unprecedented 1,400 volunteers it draws each year.

“I have fond memories of the Cincy tournament — I think when I first started playing there I had a mullet,” Gilbert says, laughing. “But the thing I like most about it is the warmth from all of the people who really were involved in the tournament, and it started from the director, Paul Flory, who was as passionate about his tournament as anyone I’ve ever seen. To see everybody there who was volunteering and giving their time, you could really feel a sense that out of nowhere at some place in Mason, Ohio, they had built a Mecca.”

The tournament’s newly anointed director, Vince Cicero, is well aware of the event’s place in the tennis universe; he jumped at the chance to guide its transition into the future.

“I’ve been a longtime attendee, so I’ve been very familiar with the event,” Cicero says. “I think because of the international perspective of where this fits in to the landscape and that we’ve got it right here in Cincinnati and it’s an event that is held in such high regard, it was just an intriguing opportunity.”

One of tournament’s unique aspects is its intimate nature: one can walk from one end of the tennis center to the other in less than 10 minutes, along the way taking in multiple matches — a fact that will multiply even further with the men and women playing simultaneously.

Cicero doesn’t see that intimacy changing as the tournament continues to evolve.

“Probably the common feeling of those that go to the event is the close proximity — whether you’re walking out to one of the practice courts and how close you can get to watch one of the players warm up, or just as their moving around the grounds themselves,” he says. “Outside of the Grand Slams, there are only five of these top-level combined events: Rome, Madrid, Miami, Indian Wells and then here in Cincinnati. Unlike some of the others, you have everything within close proximity. That intimate feeling is one of the signature elements of the event.”

Cicero, who’s only been on the job for a couple of months following 13 years as the Cincinnati Bengals director of corporate sales and marketing, is somewhat surprised by how many people aren’t aware of the tournament’s history and stature.

“I think for those who have just come out in the last handful of years, they might see the event for what it is and believe that it’s a recent development, but it would be the longtime supporters and those families that attended for a lot of years (who) would understand the growth from the time that it was at Coney Island to where it is right now,” Cicero says. “The leadership of Paul Flory and everybody else that was here have grown it from a very nice tennis event into one of the marquee jewels in international tennis.”

Gilbert, who counts his ’89 title as a professional high point, isn’t surprised the tournament has become what it is today.

“You kind of get the feeling every year you come back that you’re not surprised that they’ve done something (new),” he says. “I don’t think they’re satisfied with what they built. They want to add more and compete with the biggest tournaments in the world. There is a sense of that. You see it from all the people who work there. You see it from the Flory family — that guy really put his life and soul into it.”

The 2011 WESTERN & SOUTHERN OPEN runs Aug. 13-21 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason. For tickets, call 513-651-0303 or go to www.cincytennis.com.

Check out live acoustic music on the MIDPOINT STAGE each afternoon and evening Aug. 16-20 in the main plaza. See the lineup of Cincinnati-based artists here.



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