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Official Review by Sean Rowland, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Each summer since 1969, DC tennis fans have had the opportunity to check out professional tennis in an urban oasis, Rock Creek Park. Arthur Ashe was the facilitator for this tournament as he wanted to see a departure from the typical country club setting. The result has been a successful event in the northwestern portion of the city. Recognizable names like Connors, Lendl, Agassi, Edberg, Chang, Roddick and Del Potro all have won here. Now, the tournament is known as the Citi Open and the mid-summer tradition is an ATP 500-level event, which is the middle tier. While the biggest names typically miss out, this 48 player men’s field does draw known talent and at least a few Top 10 players. The women also began playing a few years ago, but a competing tournament the same week really diminishes the quality. The Citi Open is more of an old-school event, but that is a good thing as the intimacy of the venue increases the value as fans really enjoy some great tennis.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
A food court in the central part of the grounds offers up a typical assortment of sporting food as the tent names include "Metro City Grill," "Pizza City" and "Under The Stadium." Expect to pay a hefty price, which is unfortunate as the all day action means that most will eat here. A cheeseburger costs $9, while a slice of pizza goes for $7. One interesting stand is "Thai-Breaker" which feature $17 combos that are highlighted by dishes like Pad Thai, Chicken Kapow and Vegetable Stir-Fry. Probably the best options are the two stands at the south side of the stadium, which are far less frequented. Here, fans can get various sandwiches in the form of a sub or a panini.
Drinks are quite popular at the Citi Open as the upper-class vibe means that wine and sangria are just as popular as beer. The sangria is a great choice and it can be had in a glass ($10) or pitcher ($23). There is also a whole station devoted to coffee products. With the hot variety not exactly appealing in the DC heat, drinks like Iced Coffee and Frozen Moccachino's are a better option. As for beer, expect to see a lot of offerings for Michelob ($8). Also available are Budweiser, Stella Artois and Goose Island. Pepsi is the soda provider.
Most fans arrive via the North entrance, which leads through a corridor of promotional and advertisement tents that feature a few grab bag goodies. The primary gathering area with most of the food tents are just ahead and this area can get quite congested, especially in the 5-7 PM time frame. While there are tables and places to sit, it's almost better to squeeze out of there and head to the surrounding areas which are smaller, but quieter. These spots include some bar lounges playing video of the Tennis Channel coverage and an area with comfortable beach chairs. A more exclusive club is located at the other end of the grounds. There are also various games around (including a fun Speed Serve contest), which liven the atmosphere.
Four outer courts feature simple bleachers on the side, while the showcase court is in the 7,500-seat main stadium. Though it is an older facility, the stadium features an intimate atmosphere and excellent sightlines, especially in the steep upper deck built up on three sides. The lone downside is the uncomfortable metal bleachers in the majority of the 200 level. The other open end is a small grandstand, an excellent and rare feature for a tennis stadium in the United States. The overhead covering protects fans from the sun no matter the time of day and it is a great spot for those looking to stay cool. Others outside this area can aim for the seats on the west side of the stadium to try and avoid late day sun. As for the lower level "box" seating, it is on a gentler slope and these seats are fine, but the actual seats themselves are curious. They're temporary folding chairs and it is very odd not to see a more permanent structure. Situated between the upper and lower level seating is a series of luxury suites.
Multiple video boards are within sight from any seat and these adequately give match information, along with replays and challenge graphics. There are also a pair of old-school boards above the sideline seating and these ancient displays become fun when watching workers change the names of players with a long, sticky pole (think of a gas station sign). Wayne Bryan has MC duties for the matches in the main stadium and he does a great job introducing and interviewing the players, along with generating some energy.
Rock Creek Park is in the northwest portion of Washington and this is the largest greenspace in the District. Many residents come to enjoy the open area and outdoor recreation. The area is also a nice setting for a tennis tournament, however for out-of-town visitors that are looking for something else to do, it offers little. The closest attraction to Rock Creek Park is the National Zoo, which is a few miles away. Otherwise, this is Washington, DC and the places to see are endless as this capital of the United States offers so much. Downtown is about 20 minutes away and the National Mall is a great place to start for any first time visitor. Famous monuments and free museums are the essence of the city.
For recommended restaurants, it is best to look in the area of the shuttle buses to the complex. This section around the University of the District of Columbia has some great spots including: Laliguras and Acacia Bistro & Wine Bar.
The Citi Open is a 500 series ATP event, which is the middle tier for non-major tournaments. Crowds are small for early week action, but they do gradually build for the weekend and the Men's Final on Sunday generates a nearly packed house. This tournament is getting close to its 50th birthday and decent fan support has to play some role in the event continuing to return to Washington. For what the Citi Open is, it does well. The fans are generally laid-back and the match atmosphere can be on the quiet side (especially if it does not involve an American). However, they are knowledgeable and appreciate good points. When an American is playing, the crowd gets more vocal as the match goes on.
Driving anywhere by automobile is not the best move in DC. This is one of the country's hardest cities to drive in due to aggravating traffic and confusing roads, especially in the most urbanized areas. By far, the best way to get to the Citi Open is by using the Metro, DC's excellent public transportation system that is easy to follow. The red line is the rail to use and just across the Van Ness station is a free shuttle bus that takes fans to the Tennis Center. The shuttle holds about 25 passengers and runs frequently enough where there is not much of a wait. For those that do choose to drive, parking in Rock Creek Park is extremely limited. In fact, the field lots are closed even with a threat of rain. Drivers should instead park in the Landmark Garage or the University of DC garage (free for the week) and then take the shuttle over.
Inside the tennis center, the grounds do get quite congested during peak times and it can be cumbersome to move around. However, there are certainly open spots around the grounds. Bathrooms are a bit hard to find and the main stadium itself is not all that fan friendly in that the restrooms are all located outside of the entry areas. In fact, much of the open space behind the upper level seating is empty and pointless. With the exception of a new café behind one end, the blank space behind one side doesn't even have garbage cans.
Tickets in the upper deck cost $45 - $55 (depending on the day), while the lower box seats run between $70 and $80. These are priced appropriately when compared to the Masters Series (1000-level) tournaments and given the close proximity to these athletes, it's a great place to check out. A ticket gives access to any court and Friday/Saturday matches are split into a separate admission between the day session and night session. I would recommend the Friday Evening session, where a fan can see at least a Women's match and a pair of Men's Quarterfinal matches that will likely include multiple well-known players. It's not too crowded, the temperature is cooler and seats are closer, making this session ideal.
One point for tradition as there are not many tennis tournaments outside of the majors that have been contested for such a long time. In fact, it was Arthur Ashe who was key for the creation of this event as he was looking to have a tournament open to the public in a park setting.
The Citi Open also does a nice job in honoring past champions and that is noticeable throughout the grounds. The best display is inside the main stadium, where the facade of the suite level includes every champion and the year they won it. In fact, the awards ceremony includes an unveiling of the new winner.
The Citi Open is a summer tradition in Washington DC and this mid-level tournament does very well for what it is. While the biggest names in the sport do not fully attend, there certainly is a fair number of top level talent competing. What makes Rock Creek Park Tennis Center stand out is the intimacy of the venue as each seat in the main stadium is a close one.
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4221-B Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20008
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