A Combined Conundrum: The Gender Balance at the Citi Open
Historically, the Citi Open has always been a men’s tournament. From its inception 46 years ago — the brainchild of founder Donald Dell — through its 2015 roster of players, which includes both men and women, men have taken priority. This can be explained, in part, by the level of tournament the ATP and WTA present over the week; and, the fact that the WTA joined forces with the ATP at Citi Open only five years ago.
The ATP considers the Citi Open a 500-level tournament, while the WTA presents an International level event. The comparison between the two is something akin to a king versus a prince, or a queen in relation to a princess. The dominant royal has more power to influence the tournament’s every element from the daily order of play to court schedules that are planned by tournament officials along with WTA and ATP staff.
Although Citi Open is one of only four mixed tournaments presented in the United States, the WTA is a recent addition, as mentioned. It was first staged in nearby College Park, Md., in 2011. The next year, the ATP and the WTA merged their tournament venues to this one at the William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, carrying with it the title sponsor Citi Group.
Even with the ATP rising above the WTA in types of tournament designations and the fact that the men came first, today’s order of play reflected the sideshow that women’s tennis seems to portray inside the Capital Beltway.
Christina McHale, unseeded and ranked No. 62, and wildcard and No. 7 seed CoCo Vandewegh took Stadium Court a bit before 2 pm. On the second show court, Grandstand 1, No. 2 seed and 2011 U. S. Open champion Samantha Stosur played Kristina Mladenovic, unseeded and currently ranked No. 38. That match began about 15 minutes later, by design.
Why Vandeweghe and McHale got priority booking over the No. 2 seeded player is not clear — although both on Stadium were American, and this is the American hard-court season staged in the nation’s capital. While these four women competed, four additional match courts stood empty. No men were scheduled.
Temperatures were 90 degrees while they played. That doesn’t take in to account the courts surface temperatures, which have been known to exceed 120 degrees, or the area humidity — a special consideration for fans and players. Only a handful of people were in the stands. Washington is a working city and most were most likely at their jobs or on vacation.
“To be honest I hadn’t looked at the schedule today,” Stosur remarked, after defeating Mladenovic 6-2, 6-2, and notching her 500th career match win. “I knew I was on first and on that court, but didn’t worry about looking at anything else.
“Sometimes at tournaments it can be an issue. I do think that women sometimes get pushed out to the smaller courts and maybe not in good time slots, but, honestly, to make comment here I didn’t take much notice. Sometimes, depending on match ups, men or women, and, obviously T.V. rules a lot, too. So, unfortunately sometimes it looks like one side gets a bit of a raw deal.”
Stosur said she didn’t mind playing early afternoon or into the evening; she prepares for both.
At 4 pm, all six courts were loaded with players — three men’s singles matches and three women’s singles matches — but here’s the rub. Ekaterina Makarova, the No. 1 seed, was scheduled on Court 2, not Grandstand 1 or Grandstand 2 or Court 1, which holds 2,300 and 1,200 fans respectively. Yet, American Sam Querrey, the ATP’s No. 13 seed, took over Stadium Court against Go Soeda, who is ranked No. 102 and qualified for the main draw. Again, the nationality of Querrey had to be a big consideration when the order of play was written.
The day continued in similar fashion, with rare exceptions to relegating women’s matches to the outer courts. Even defending women’s champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova was put on Grandstand 1 while US Open champion Marin Cilic, the tournament’s No. 3 seed, was put on Stadium Court against Hyeon Chung for their first meeting.
At 19, Chung is one of the men’s up-and-comers and Cilic is a star that demands respect. He has a huge fan following in an international community such as Washington D.C., but to schedule Kuznetsova to a court that seats about 15 percent of Stadium’s capacity is a slight for her, the WTA, and the tournament as a whole.
The women’s side of Citi Open competes with a tournament running the same week in Stanford, Calif. — the Bank of The West Classic. It’s a WTA Premier event with prize money totaling $731,000 compared to $250,000 in D.C. If the WTA elevated the D.C. event to a Premier level, lots of questions would have to be answered first. However, the leverage for better court scheduling would improve.
The draw would expand from a 32 to 64 players, which would tax the site with its limited number of match and practice courts. However, matches could begin earlier than 2 pm, and the four courts left empty at that hour could be lined up. Expansion of the overall facility in Rock Creek Park would require an army of lobbyists — considering it’s part of the National Parks Service governed by the Department of the Interior — but we all know there’s no lack of lobbyists in D.C.
For this year, Citi Open will remain a man’s kingdom. The odds are not forever in the interest of the women. However, one huge change in broadcasting rights could influence future events. Tennis Channel won those rights this year, eliminating ESPN. The move also severed relations between Citi Open and the U.S. Open Series, an ESPN tennis promotion.
As a result, fans that pay for Tennis Channel, which is offered through high tier sport packages across the country, will see wall-to-wall coverage.
“Starting with the first match on Opening Day, Tennis Channel will have more national on-air coverage of Washington D.C.’s Citi Open this year than ever before,” Tennis Channel announced through a press release in late July.
The bump in broadcasting from Tennis Channel has been on a steady increase since 2012 when it accounted for 10 hours, to this year’s 160 hours which includes 60 hours of live matches and 95 hours of repeat performances.
No matter if you’re ATP, WTA or a fan hungry for top-notch play, more tennis is good for the sport. Now if Tennis Channel could just dislodge itself from the high-tier sporting stratosphere and secure a spot on cable, like the Golf Channel, the world would be a better place for tennis fans.
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