For a year and a half, the sports world mostly lived within the limitations that the coronavirus imposed. The Olympics were postponed, Wimbledon was canceled, baseball games were played in front of cardboard cut-outs.
Finally, in June, tennis produced a match that was too good not to have an audience. Over four hours at Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal used every inch of the clay canvas inside Court Philippe Chatrier to paint a tennis masterpiece.
The only problem was, their brutal and beautiful artistry lasted too long; by the time they reached the end of the third set, France’s 11 p.m. Covid curfew was set to kick in.
As a tournament official rose to address the crowd, boos rained down from spectators who thought they were being told to leave. But as he spoke, those boos turned to cheers.
“Due to the exceptional nature of the match,” he said, as Chatrier erupted, “public authorities have allowed this match to go on with fans.”
This might not have been the most prudent solution, but you had to hand it to the French: They understand the importance of great art, and great tennis.
Americans understand it, too. During the pandemic, millions of us found refuge on tennis courts. This summer, we’ve started to go see the pros in person again. There’s still plenty of uncertainty, but the chance to gather with fellow fans and experience the sport up close should make life feel a little more normal, and exhilarating, to those of us who love the game’s sights and sounds.
“We want to inspire people around the world, to say that we’re back, New York is back,” says US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster.
As tennis was set to reopen across the country, we asked six people involved in the sport what they loved most about experiencing it live.
Perhaps no one in the game yearned for the return of the Before Times as much as Mark Ein. By 2019, the tournament he manages, the Citi Open, was on a roll. That year, the Washington, D.C., event offered a weeklong sneak peak at the pro game’s future: Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the semifinals; Daniil Medvedev made the final; Jessica Pegula won her first title; and Nick Kyrgios, mostly on his best behavior, packed the stands, went viral on a near-daily basis, and lifted the men’s trophy.
“There was a spirit around the grounds that week, everyone felt like something special was happening,” Ein says.
The Citi Open has been a lifelong labor of love for the venture capitalist. As a tennis-obsessed D.C. kid, he served as a ball boy, and when the tournament’s owner, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, was seeking someone to run it, Ein was there. He already owned the Washington Kastles of World TeamTennis and had a stake in that league. WTEF said it had bigger offers, but Ein’s was a “no-brainer” because he understood the tradition of a tournament that Arthur Ashe helped start in 1969, in order to get “black faces to come out and watch the tennis.”
Continuing that D.C. tradition is important for Ein, and so is reviving the tradition of pro tennis in the U.S.
“When I was a kid, we had 40 tour events, now there are about 11,” says Ein, who believes professional tournaments are key to grass-roots growth.
“People start to play, they follow on TV, they see it in person, and they’re inspired to go back out and play,” he says. “It’s a virtuous cycle, but we’ve been in a vicious cycle.”
After being canceled in 2020, the Citi Open was scheduled to return at full capacity in August, with Rafael Nadal as a headliner.
“This tournament has deep roots in this community,” Ein says. “We want to help people get back to doing what they loved.”
What Ein loves most of all is what he remembers about the tournament from his youth.
“My most indelible memories are seeing people gathering for something they love, and creating this shared experience,” Ein says. “That’s what I’m looking forward to being part of again.”
What did LaWanda Watts miss most about the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells when it was canceled in 2020, and again this spring? The Los Angeles resident and super-fan, who traditionally spends 12 days watching tennis in the California desert each March, missed seeing her favorite players—“Rafa, Vika, Delpo, Serena, etc.” But she also missed not being seen by them.
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