The Emergence of a Tennis Mecca

The Western & Southern Open has grown into one of the biggest and most important tennis tournaments in the world

Aug 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm

“The tennis tourney Tuesday was marked with the brilliant and fast playing on the part of the contestants, awakening the greatest interest in what promises to be the most successful tournament ever held in Cincinnati, if not the entire West.”

— Sept. 19, 1899, edition of the Cincinnati Times Star


he tennis tournament now known as the Western & Southern Open has existed in Cincinnati in one form or another for 112 years, which (arguably) makes it the oldest in the United States still played in its original city. The tournament regularly features the best the players in the world — look for defending champion Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to continue their heated rivalry, and it looks as though the oft-injured Williams sisters will also play this year — and its past winners include a who’s who of tennis luminaries: Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Jimmy Conners, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, Bobby Riggs, Ken Rosewall, Pete Sampras and Tony Trabert.

Backed by its rich history and its placement as the main hard-court warm-up for the U.S. Open, the Cincinnati tour stop has evolved into one the biggest and most important on the tennis landscape: 250,000 fans now attend each year, and it features $5.2 million in combined men’s and women’s prize money.

And now it’s getting even bigger — one can easily imagine the above epigraph being written in reference to this year’s “tourney.”

The 2011 edition, which runs Aug. 13-21, marks the first time the men’s and women’s tournaments will be held simultaneously, which makes Cincinnati one of only five cities in the world to host top-tier men’s and women’s events during the same week. To accommodate the shift, the event’s home at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason is expanding by 40 percent to include six new courts, a new ticket office and a revamped entry plaza, all of which arrive on the heels of last year’s shiny new press and players facilities.

Yes, it’s kind of a big deal. No longer should it be, “Oh, you mean that tennis thing up by Kings Island?” as it’s often been called by locals not in the know.

No one has been as instrumental in the tournament’s rise to prominence as Paul Flory, an executive with Proctor & Gamble who became the tournament’s director in 1975. Under his guidance, the event grew rapidly, moving from Coney Island, which hosted the festivities from 1975-1978, to its current home in Mason. (For those curious, the first tournament, then known simply as The Cincinnati Open, was held at the Avondale Athletic Club in 1899.)

Whether through good fortune, visionary insight or both, Flory’s taking of the tournament’s reins corresponded with the first wave of Open-era players — a band of charismatic characters led by Bjorn Borg, Conners, Vitas Gerulatis, McEnroe and Nastase — a “Golden Age” that changed tennis forever. (For further reading on the subject, check out Stephen Tignor’s recently published High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry, which is a fascinating look at the tennis revolution that spurred the sport’s move from a culture of genteel “country-club amateurs” to players with diverse backgrounds who “translated their talents and professional success into international celebrity.”)

Though no longer the tournament’s director, the now nearly 90-year-old Flory remains an instrumental figure, helping to guide the current expansion and continuing his work with the various charities affiliated with the event. (Revealing side note: Flory has reportedly never accepted a salary for his tireless efforts.)

“Paul’s impact has been immeasurable, and I can say with absolute certainty that the tournament wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Paul,” says current tournament CEO Elaine Bruening, a P&G colleague of Flory’s who originally came on as a volunteer 35 years ago. “Other U.S. cities much larger than Cincinnati — such as Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia — have lost their tennis tournaments over the years, but Cincinnati just kept on growing, and that is because of Paul’s influence.