The Western & Southern Open, which has taken place in one form or another in the Greater Cincinnati area since 1899, begins Saturday. For the arithmetically challenged, that’s 114 years, which makes it the oldest tennis tournament in the United States still in its original city.
And it’s not like it’s just hanging on as a stodgy piece of nostalgia — the Western & Southern Open has become one of the biggest and best events of its kind in the world, the result of years of hard work from a host of dedicated people, none more important than the late Paul Flory, who passed at age 90 earlier this year.
Flory, who took over as the tournament’s director in 1975 and remained its chairman until his death, is the man most responsible for what the Open has become: an internationally admired endeavor that draws the best players in the world and more than 175,000 fans to the ever-evolving Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, Ohio, which is just a short drive north of Cincinnati.
“Paul was a true visionary and never gave up on his dream, which was to have both a top level men’s tournament and a top level women’s tournament played in the same week, with the city he loved as the setting,” Western & Southern Open CEO Elaine Bruening said at the time of Flory’s passing.
Top level is right — the 16 seeds for the tournament, announced earlier this week, mirror the current men’s and women’s tour rankings, which means that everyone from defending champions Roger Federer and Li Na to highly ranked favorites Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are currently slated to appear.
Vince Cicero took over as the tournament’s director in 2011, the first year that the men’s and women’s tournaments were played simultaneously. He’s also quick to cite Flory’s tireless efforts and unique vision in expanding the event.
“I think the reason it’s taken a big jump over the last few years was all about the vision from a decade ago to what it could be,” Cicero says. “There’s the buzz factor. We now have people coming in from 50 states and 20 countries because they can see all these top players and come to a site that’s very easy to navigate.
You can go from one end of the site to the other end in 10 minutes. You can actually go up to a practice court and be able to see them play.”
Tennis analyst, coach and former player Brad Gilbert is impressed with the tournament’s evolution, which has included more courts and new players’ facilities, among other additions.
“I’m amazed the last few years with the expansion and bringing in the ladies to a combined event and how much the event has grown,” Gilbert says. “Building the new facility — the new locker room and the players’ restaurant — it’s nice to see that they’re continuing to upgrade and make the event bigger.”
Gilbert should know how much things have changed over the years — he won the tournament as a player in 1989, when he had to beat three of the top five players in the world on successive days to win the title.
“From the round of 16 on — Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday — to potentially play four matches in four days is a tough, physical grind,” Gilbert says. “Basically, when it ends on Sunday you’re eight days away from starting the U.S. Open, so it’s the ideal preparation. You’re playing essentially on the same surface with unbelievable competition.”
Juan Martin del Potro — who lost to Djokovic in the semifinals last year and who enters this year’s tournament as the No. 7 seed on the men’s side — confirms that playing well in Cincinnati is vital.
“It’s the last tournament before the U.S. Open, so doing well in Cincinnati is important for confidence,” del Potro says with a heavy Spanish accent. “But that’s not the only thing — it’s a Masters 1000 (ATP event), and it’s a really nice tournament to play. Many, many fans come to watch us play there, and that’s really nice for the players. I will try to defend and better my semifinals run (from) last year, but it’s going to be a really difficult tournament.”
Players and attendees have long noted the hospitality and passion of the tournament’s organizers and some 1,400 volunteers, a number that’s almost unheard of at other tournaments.
“The reputation — and I’ve gathered this observation from being here but also from feedback from a variety of people globally — is that it’s always been viewed as player friendly and fan friendly,” Cicero says. “Even as the facility has changed, I think the players have always felt that warmth, the Midwest hospitality. I think that was true 20 years ago, and we hope that’s true 20 years from now.”
It all goes back to Flory, whose twin loves of tennis and Cincinnati will endure if Cicero has any say in the matter.
“He set the standard, he set the tone, he’s the one who laid out the vision,” Cicero says. “As a tribute to his passing we’re going to have a Paul Flory logo that’s going to be on the shirt of all the volunteers that are out there. We’re going to keep that image and that vision alive. I think everybody on our staff views Paul’s input as being critical to the fact the tournament’s here, because if it wasn’t for him, it’s likely the tournament wouldn’t be here.”
Gilbert agrees that Flory was the guiding force in making the tournament what it is today.
“The guy was a rock in making that place a destination and an event,” Gilbert says. “One of the coolest things is that every year I have someone tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘We’re here from Washington,’ or, ‘We’re here from this place.’ They come from all over the country. And the volunteer base that he set up; so many people give time to the event. It’s amazing what they’ve done. Boy, that guy was just a pillar in making things happen, a beautiful person for what he did there.”
THE WESTERN & SOUTHERN OPEN begins Saturday and runs through Aug. 18. Tickets, schedules and more info: cincytennis.com.