The Fitzgerald Tennis Center
Home of the City Open and a Local Fan Favorite
Fans who play tennis there know it as the FitzGerald Tennis Center or the Rock Creek Tennis Center or 16th & Kennedy. And they’re all correct.
The name on the tennis stadium is William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center. William Henry Gerald FitzGerald, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1992 – 1993 and local Washington, DC philanthropist, and John Safer, a local banker and sculptor, provided the initial $2 million funding to begin construction of the tennis center. FitzGerald later contributed another $1 million to help cover additional construction costs. To honor his generosity, the stadium and surrounding hard and clay courts were named after FitzGerald. He was also a tennis player and played the game until he was 93 years old. Serve, Safer's 20 x 6 x 6 feet patinated bronze on granite sculpture, stands in a prominent spot just outside the stadium building.
Because of its location on the eastern edge of Rock Creek Park, the Washington, DC region’s largest and one of the oldest national parks, the tennis center is also called The Rock Creek Tennis Center or The Rock Creek Park Tennis Center.
The third name by which tennis players call the tennis center is also derived from its location. The tennis courts are located just off Morrow Drive, NW. However, the closest major intersection to the tennis center that most people will recognize is 16th & Kennedy Streets.
Regardless of what local tennis players call it, we all know it as the home of the City Open (formerly the Legg Mason Tennis Classic), a place where, for about ten days each year, tennis fans can watch professional tennis players execute points with amazing artistry then on the very next point make the same boneheaded errors that we make on a regular basis. When this happens, many of us shake our heads and say “and they get paid to do that”.
Even though FitzGerald and Safer provided initial funding for the tennis center, Donald Dell, a 2009 inductee into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, was the driving force behind the tournament and development of the center. Dell, a Washington, DC native and captain of the winning 1968 Davis Cup team, took the extraordinary step to bring a world-class tennis tournament to his home town.
Dell drew on his friends and Davis Cup team members to work through numerous issues including choosing the playing surface, finding a tournament sponsor, and selecting a site for the tennis center. Despite objections from tournament organizers who wanted a grass surface, the surface used at the time for the U. S. Open in Forest Hills, Dell persisted and selected a clay surface. He pursued the Washington Star, the Washington, DC evening newspaper at the time, and was successful in getting their commitment for the $25,000 purse.
Although two previous local tennis exhibitions featuring the Australian and U.S. Davis Cup teams had been well attended, Dell knew that obtaining support from top level talent was absolutely needed if the new tournament was to be successful.
Arthur Ashe, Dell’s Davis Cup team member and one of the most visible and socially-conscious athletes during that period, agreed to play in the tournament. However, Ashe had one major stipulation. The tournament site had to be in the District of Columbia and in a naturally integrated neighborhood, so that everyone could have the opportunity to enjoy it. The site at 16th & Kennedy Streets, NW in the heart of Washington, D.C., on Federal park land and accessible to everyone met that requirement.
The inaugural Washington Star International Tennis Tournament was held in July of 1969. It was the first open professional tennis tournament held in the United States outside of the U. S. Open.
That 1969 event was held on a few clay courts surrounded by temporary bleachers that accommodated about 2,400 fans. Lodging for players was provided by local families who also transported the players to and from the tournament site. The player dressing rooms were in tents. Water for the players and support staff was carried by volunteers from outdoor water spigots across the street.
Arthur Ashe was a finalist in the first tournament and won it four years later. Other notable champions include Ken Rosewall, Harold Solomon, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Yanick Noah, Andre Agassi, James Blake, and Andy Roddick.
Feature tournament matches are played in an intimate permanent tennis facility that offers an excellent view of the court from any of the 7,500 permanent seats. Tennis fans enjoy permanent, multilevel seating and 31 air-conditioned courtside suites around the stadium court, instant replay/video boards, concession services, and other conveniences expected at an ATP circuit stadium. Players are provided with dressing rooms, first class hotels, airport greeters, and chauffer driven transportation.
In past years Washington,
DC area tennis fans delighted in watching some of the ATP's top
players. After a successful 2011 WTA tournament at the nearby College
Park tennis courts, the ATP and WTA teamed up for a joint tournament in
2012. To accommodate the need for additional hard courts, the tennis
center paved over five of the fifteen clay courts to use as player
practice courts. Three of the former practice courts were transformed
into a show court with seating on both sides.
After 2012 improvements to accommodate the ladies, there are 15 hard and 10 clay courts on the surrounding grounds. A tennis bubble covers five of the hard courts during the winter season to provide an indoor heated tennis venue.
As the site for one of the top 20 men’s tournaments in the world and now an international-level WTA tournament , the FitzGerald tennis center continues to attract world-class talent and thousands of fans all supported by scores of loyal volunteers. Now with the same hard court playing surface as the U. S. Open, the Citi Open has become one the nine tournaments in the US Open Series and a major tune-up event for the last tennis major of the season.
During the Citi Open, the FitzGerald Tennis Center becomes a social meeting place for local tennis fans. They can dine on convenience food and refreshments offered by local vendors, watch ongoing tennis matches inside the main stadium or on the three side courts, stroll around the grounds to see who else is there, watch the pros practice, get their serve speed measured during one of several ongoing special events, purchase tennis clothing and gear, get sunscreen samples and free foam visors, or just sit under the large, shady umbrellas and people watch.
Citi, a global investment
management firm, took over sponsorship of the tournament in 2012
providing just over $1M in ATP prize money and more than $220,000 in WTA
The Citi Open is owned by and benefits the Washington Tennis
& Education Foundation (WTEF), which seeks to improve life prospects
for DC area youth, particularly those from lower-income communities.
Except during the three weeks or so needed to erect and deconstruct the food, apparel, hospitality, media and other temporary facilities and to play the tournament matches, the courts are available to the public. The facility is open year round and used by Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia tennis players who participate in tennis clinics, play amateur United States Tennis Association and World Team Tennis league matches and those who just enjoy playing the sport.
Although there is no end of match awards ceremony or big check awaiting the amateurs who play at the center, we experience the same on court highs and lows as the pros. We're determined to play well, rejoice when we win and feel disappointed when we loose. But in the end, most of us play the game we love for the best possible reason – to have fun.
If you go
The Rock Creek Tennis Center is located at 16th & Kennedy Streets, NW, Washington, DC. The center is open from 7:00 AM – 11:00 PM. Hard courts are lighted and are available until closing. Clay courts are not lighted and are available until 8:00 PM. Except during the Citi Open, parking is plentiful and free. Call the Pro Shop on 202-722-5949 for lessons, clinics and court reservations.