Legg Mason Tennis Classic
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Legg Mason Tennis Classic
The Legg Mason Tennis Classic is an annual late-summer men's tennis tournament played in Washington, D.C. as part of the ATP Tour. It was first held as the Washington Star International in 1969 but was later known as the Sovran Bank Classic. The tournament was played on a clay court until 1986, it switched to hard. It has remained a hard court tournament ever since. The Legg Mason Tennis Classic is now one of the United States Open Series of hard-court tournaments leading up to the US Open in September.
1968 marked the beginning of men's professional tennis, when a handful of tournaments around the world adopted the open format, allowing both amateurs and professionals to participate for prize money. This select group of tournaments included both Wimbledon and the French Open. Previously, only amateurs were able to compete in tournaments, and were compensated with just enough in appearance fees to cover their travel and playing expenses. That same year, the United States Davis Cup team defeated the dominant Australian team to win tennis' most prestigious competition. Winning the Davis Cup was a huge international accomplishment, and the top American players such as Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith were looking to capitalize on their success and abilities. It was at this point that then-Davis Cup captain and Washington native Donald Dell decided that he should bring an open tournament to the Nation's Capital.
Having successfully hosted two exhibition events featuring the Australian and U.S. Davis Cup teams at an indoor club in Rockville in 1967 and 1968, Dell knew that the Washington area would support a world-class tennis tournament. Bringing a professional tennis tournament to Washington proved to be no small feat. The first hurdle that stood in the way was choosing the tournament's surface. Dell's idea was to hold this new summer event on clay which was an ordinary choice. But the tournament organizers persisted, arguing that a clay court event in July would not be detrimental to the training and preparation for the Open in late August.
The second major obstacle was finding the funding for the tournament. By definition, an open professional event should have a prize money purse which is dispensed to the participants depending on how far each advances, with the winner taking home the most money. Dell and his childhood friend and tennis partner John Harris solicited Washington area businesses to pledge $5,000 each towards this purse, with the promise that their donations would be returned if a title sponsor could be secured. In the end Dell and Harris were able to lock in five donors to pledge $5,000 each, for a total of $25,000. Soon after, the Washington Star --- the Washington's evening newspaper, committed to sponsor the tournament, the donations were returned, and Dell and Harris, the tournament's co-chairmen, had their prize money and their title sponsor.
Since Dell was the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, he was able to persuade the game's top American stars, Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, to participate in this new professional event in Washington in 1969. Arthur Ashe, one of the most visible and socially-conscious athletes of his day, said to Dell that he would participate in and support this new tournament if it were held in the city of Washington, in a naturally integrated neighborhood, so that everyone could have the opportunity to enjoy it. The National Park Service land seemed like an ideal spot: on federal parkland accessible to everyone and right in the middle of one of D.C.'s most inclusive districts. And so in July of 1969, the inaugural Washington Star International became the first open professional tennis tournament held in the United States outside of the U.S. Open, on a couple of clay courts surrounded by temporary bleachers in the middle of Washington, D.C.
While the current stadium at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center is a top-flight professional facility, with permanent seating for 7,500 spectators. However, player accommodations remained rather humble. Player lodging was provided by local families, who also transported the players to and from the tournament site. Players changed in tents that were set up just behind the stadium court, and there were no on-site locker room facilities until 1973, when the National Park Service built a small public locker room building in the park. Water for players and ball kids came from outdoor spigots and was brought over from across the street by volunteers. Nevertheless, the Washington Star International continued to attract the world's best players to Washington, as players annually prepped their games for the U.S. Open (which had switched surfaces from grass to clay in 1975).
By the late 1980s, the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation (now the Washington Tennis & Foundation) and tournament organizers at ProServ knew that a permanent stadium was needed in Washington to elevate the event to the next level.
In order to keep the tournament as a must-play event in preparation for the U.S. Open, the new stadium in Washington should be a hard-court facility. The new courts were installed in 1987, using the same surface as the Open. The construction of the stadium and tennis center would be overseen by Sloat, who temporarily stepped down a Foundation board member to take a full-time position coordinating the project.
The generosity of two local businessmen, William H.G. FitzGerald and John Safer greatly helped in providing the funding of the tennis court. FitzGerald, the former U.S. ambassador to Ireland in 1992-1993 and the honorary chairman of the Tennis Center Committee, made the initial contribution of $1 million to the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation to get the project off the ground, and later contributed another $1 million to help cover additional construction costs. Additional funding also came as a result of the support of John Safer, who at the time was the chairman of D.C. National Bank (now BB&T). Safer personally saw to the approval of a $6 million loan to the Tennis Patrons to ensure the completion of the stadium. Both men are still strong tennis supporters and regularly can be found courtside during the tournament.
As mentioned, the all-new 11 hard courts were installed in 1987 in time for that year's tournament. However, due to permit approval delays with the National Park Service, the construction was spread across the following two years, with a portion of the stadium completed in 1988 and the entire project completed in June of 1989.
By 1989, when construction had finished, the end result of this planning and fundraising was an $11 million stadium that was instantly comparable in construction and design with other premier facilities in professional sports. The new Washington tennis center was the first urban park center in the world designed for both high-level tournament play and public use.
The stadium contains 31 courtside air-conditioned suites, a feature that was not standard in most sports arenas until the mid- to early-1990s. It can also be said that there truly isn't a bad seat in the house, as the permanent seating combines the comforts of a larger stadium, such as several different levels of seating options, with the intimacy of a smaller venue.
The tournament is produced by SFX Media & Events, a Blue Equity Company. Its lead sponsor is Legg Mason, a financial services company. Throughout its existence, the tournament has been closely associated with Donald Dell, founder of ProServ International, who was instrumental in creation of the tournament. The location of the tournament in Washington D.C. was chosen at the urging of Arthur Ashe, an early supporter. It is held at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park, a U.S. National Park.
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