Citi Open 50th anniversary exclusive: Interview with co-founder Donald Dell and JTCC CEO Ray Benton on the inclusion of the WTA
Petrova won the inaugural Citi Open for WTA players (Keith Allison)

2018 will be the 50th annual edition of the Citi Open. The tournament was co-founded by Donald Dell and John Harris back in 1969 for the men's tour. It wasn't until 2011 when the women made their debut. Due to the difficulty of trying to line up both the ATP World Tour and WTA calendars, the women played at a different time than the men.

With the different time slots and being unable to use the venue, the WTA kicked off their inaugural Citi Open at Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland. I had the pleasure of interviewing tournament co-founder Donald Dell as well as JTCC CEO Ray Benton on how they worked together to get the WTA involved in the Citi Open. 

On How Citi Got The WTA Involved

Since its inception, the Citi Open was a men's only tournament. There was "no specific reason" behind it being a men's only tournament said, Donald Dell. There wasn't a women's tour yet when the tournament began, and it was only a year after Dell and Harris gave the tournament to the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation in 1972, that the women had their own tour when the WTA was founded by Billie Jean King. 

Dell said that when they talked with Citi to become the tournament's premier sponsor, that Citi strongly insisted on having women play in the tournament. He continued by saying, "49 percent of Citi's business was with women."

Once the WTA got involved, more courts were needed at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. They built an additional second stadium to accommodate women's matches.

Competing With Stanford

Dell said the most difficult thing to do was trying to line up both the ATP and WTA calendars. In 2011, it was not possible to get it done so they worked for 15 months to get it worked out. 

The Citi Open falls the same week as the Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose (formerly the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford). Since WTA rules state that two Premier-level tournaments cannot take place the same week, Citi had to classify themselves as a WTA International tournament (Premier tournaments are worth 470 points compared to the 280 points of an International tournament). So with fewer points involved, it also means less prize money is available since Stanford is the Premier event. 

Since Citi is a WTA International tournament, they are only allowed to sign one WTA player to their tournament at the time that player is in the top-ten. This year, Citi signed Caroline Wozniacki after she won the Australian Open. Dell has a good relationship with Wozniacki, signing her twice with her agency Lagardere Sport. 

Wozniacki previously played the Citi Open back in 2016 (Mathew Hazlett/Getty Images)
Wozniacki previously played the Citi Open back in 2016 (Mathew Hazlett/Getty Images)

Following the signing of Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens followed suit. Stephens was outside of the top-ten at the time but has since gone inside the top-ten due to her run to the finals. Since she was signed to the tournament at the time she was outside the top-ten, it's not in breach of the rules. 

Naomi Osaka was the third signing after her magical run to the Indian Wells title earlier this spring. 

Starting At JTCC

The first year of women competing at the Citi Open opened at College Park. JTCC Ceo Ray Benton and Donald Dell worked together for 16 years as law and business partners. They managed a company called ProServ which managed athletes. 

Dell asked Benton if he was willing to host it, and he did, using College Park as a placeholder. It was an all-outdoor tournament despite having indoor courts. Benton said JTCC hosted a "doubleheader that week of the Citi Open as the US Open Wildcard Challenge took place". 

An aerial view of JTCC, where the first-ever Citi Open for the WTA took place
An aerial view of JTCC, where the first-ever Citi Open for the WTA took place

With JTCC being mostly courts used for training and smaller level tournaments (an ITF Grade 1 Juniors tournament is held there a couple weeks before the US Open), Benton and JTCC built a stadium on one of their courts. The stadium was about 1500-2000 seats. 

This year marks the Citi Open's 50th anniversary. The tournament begins July 28th and runs through August 5. 

Read my interview with Citi Open co-founder John Harris here