Cincinnati: 100 years of tennis

By Benjamin Snyder, special to
CINCINNATI -The Western & Southern Open is now an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 for the men and a Premier-level tournament for the women, but that wasn’t always the case. Looking over the over 100-year old tournament’s past 30 years offers insight into the changes leading to the tournament we know today.
By beginning in 1899 at the Avondale Athletic Club as "The Cincinnati Open," the tournament boasts the distinction of being considered the oldest "in the United States still played in its original city," according to the Cincinnati tennis tome From Club Court to Center Court, penned by recent Cincinnati Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Phillip S. Smith.
"The best players in tennis are still finding their way to Cincinnati more than 100 years after their arrival," he wrote. "The names have changed. The games have changed. But one thing remains: they still come to Cincinnati."
Notable nuggets from the event’s storied past: the tournament’s original surface wasn’t on hardcourt. Also, it didn’t include men and women playing together over the same week, an innovation implemented for the 2011 event.
In fact, after 1973, the women’s tournament wouldn’t be held at all. It would later be reinstated in 1988.
"In our early days, when I first became involved, we were a very small tournament," explained Western & Southern Open CEO Elaine Bruening, who has had a helping hand in the tournament’s management for the last three decades. "We were actually played on Old Coney on clay and we played the week after Wimbledon."
That, however, wasn’t the best time to be played during the tennis season. "That’s not a good date on the calendar because none of the players want to play the week after Wimbledon," explained Bruening. "They want to take that week off."
Held at the Sunlite Swim and Tennis Club at Old Coney starting in 1975, some of the biggest changes in the ATP tournament’s history were about to come to fruition.
Although it proved difficult to attract players at its previous venue, the guidance of tournament chairman Paul Flory, whose Cincinnati career began as a volunteer in 1965, promoted development.
"[Flory] had the philosophy that we build the event," said Bruening. "His favorite line always was to say, ‘No one cares who’s running in the Kentucky Derby. They go anyway. It just doesn’t matter.’"
In a pivotal process for the tournament’s growth, the ATP Tour pitched the idea that the event could become the ATP Championship, assuming certain alterations were realized. "What that meant was we had to change our court surface from clay to hardcourt," said Bruening.
Previously played in Boston, the ATP Championship was held two weeks before the US Open and held on the same surface as the major. That, however, would be revised numerous times over the years. "When the US Open was on grass surface, the ATP championship in Boston was on grass. The US Open switched to clay, so Boston switched to clay," said Bruening.
But eventually, enough was enough. "When the US Open switched to hardcourt, Boston said we’re done. No more."
That’s when the opportunity for Cincinnati to take the title presented itself. "The ATP came to us and said, ‘If you are willing to build a stadium and have a hard court tournament, we will move you to two weeks before the US Open,’" she said. "That’s we did and that’s when we moved out here to Mason."
"Ever since then, it’s always been about building the event, making it bigger and better," she Bruening. The rest, as they say, is history.