By Giri Nathan
The ATP Tour will not be rebooting as planned. On Monday, the Citi Open, which was due to begin August 14, was canceled. Safety concerns aside, it remains incredibly difficult to organize an event that requires players from all over the world to congregate in one place, and then head back to another event somewhere else in the world. Racquet spoke to Mark Ein, chairman of the Citi Open, about that process of planning an event like this amid so much uncertainty. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
RACQUET: If you could list the factors that played into the decision to cancel the event, what were they?
MARK EIN: Well, at the top of the list were the travel immigration issues both into the United States and getting people back to Europe. If the tournament was going to be held this weekend, we couldn’t have held it because players could neither come to the United States without quarantine and they couldn’t get back to Europe at the moment. And while there’s a lot of conversations—and, actually, progress on both sides of the Atlantic—it’s hard to predict how long that will take. And so, given where those conversations were, which was seemingly not close to a resolution, we were faced with a decision. And when you combine that with everything else—including the fact that at some point, it’s better to give everyone more notice rather than less, because so many people in the tennis ecosystem needed to firm up their plans—when we weighed everything, it felt like it was the right thing to do.
RACQUET: What was it like planning an event of this scope with so many crucial logistical details up in the air and outside of your control?
MARK EIN: It was an interesting process in how different it was from other years. Because there was this whole new set of challenges that not just people in tennis didn’t have to deal with before, not just people in sports didn’t have to deal with, but our society as a whole hasn’t had to deal with: How do you bring people together and keep them safe? And the current state of science and best practices and just general thinking on those issues changes so quickly that you’re inventing it all on the fly. And obviously, the stakes are very high because you’re dealing with people’s health and if you’re in our shoes, it’s a huge responsibility so you have to get it right. And then you have the ever-changing landscape, and the travel issues that I’ve mentioned were a big piece of that. We had all kinds of other logistical hurdles that were popping up, including losing the hotel that we had planned on using at the last minute. And then a second hotel also not being able to accommodate the event. And we would have overcome that. But things like that just kept popping up here.
RACQUET: You mentioned that the cancellation of the Citi Open might actually improve the prospects of Cincinnati and the US Open—the New York bubble events—actually happening. Could you expand on that and what you meant by the “conversations” that are going on right now?
MARK EIN: Yeah, it’s just a guess on my part. But when people are trying to get governments to focus on both the importance and the urgency of getting these travel restrictions resolved, it’s one thing to use words to tell people that it’s important, and there’s a time-sensitive nature to those decisions. It’s another thing to be able to point to an actual event that was canceled because they weren’t resolved. And so I’m just speculating that actually being able to point to the very tangible ramifications of an event getting canceled may help getting those resolved.
RACQUET: What was going to be the plan in place for regular tests of the players, and where were you sourcing those tests?
MARK EIN: We had partnered with MedStar, which is the leading health-care system in Washington in our region. Very sophisticated, large health-care system, and we were working closely with them. We were leaning towards using the Vault test, which is what the NHL was using, which is actually a saliva-based test, it’s easier to administer. In combination, possibly, with the nasal tests. But we were looking at all the tabs and all the options that are being used by other sports.
RACQUET: And as part of that communication, do you think some of your experience planning this event will be passed along to the USTA and the folks working on the events in New York next month?
MARK EIN: Yeah, there was already a lot of collaboration between us and them throughout this process, and the ATP and the WTA. There’s a lot of collaboration. I think one of the silver linings for this whole experience is that it’s brought all the usually disparate parts of tennis closer and forced a collaboration, which I think people have seen the benefit of. And people were fantastic. I mean, the way that everyone worked together was really encouraging. And hopefully that continues after the summer.
RACQUET: As someone who runs a mixed WTA and ATP event, were you at all excited by the idea of a tour merger that was being floated a bit earlier this year, as players were talking about it? What would that mean for you, and in what ways might it make your life easier or harder, as the case may be?
MARK EIN: I think if it can happen, it’s a great idea. And I think that there’s not just one way to have the tours come together. There’s the full merger, but then there’s a lot of steps that aren’t quite as significant but are working towards the same goal, of selling tennis as a larger integrated body to the outside world. We’re working on coordination issues that can also work. I mean, obviously the merger is great, but there’s a lot of other ways that they could come together to work on those things. And it’d be great; you do have to spend a meaningful amount of time coordinating between two different tours when having a combined event. And if you were just working with one tour that could speak for both, that would be really good.
RACQUET: And in terms of those intermediate steps, does anything jump out at you as something you’d like to see?
MARK EIN: Well, I think there’s a lot of commercial opportunities to sell this sport with both men and women together. People talk about, you know, we’re not competing with each other, we’re competing with other sports. And our issue is, the sport, when you’re talking to commercial partners, we’re already small relative to other sports. And then we divide up our whole into smaller slices, by men’s and women’s, Grand Slams and others, and if you actually could go to the external world with one larger package at scale, I think there’d be more dollars flowing into the tennis ecosystem. So it’s easy to say; it’s obviously a lot harder to do. It doesn’t have to be a full merger to try to tap into some of those benefits.
RACQUET: You’re someone who’s very close to World Team tennis, so it’s got to be an exciting time for you right now. [Ein is a founder and owner of the Washington Kastles.] The tours are held up, I can’t imagine a recent time where there’s been more focus on the league, and it seems to be getting great ratings as well. We’re going to see the finals on CBS. What has that been like from your perspective? And has it inspired you, or other stakeholders in WTT, to expand going forward?
MARK EIN: I think it’s too early to look past the summer. [Laughs] But what’s happened this summer has been incredibly encouraging. It’s obviously been a huge spotlight on the league. And the league has always had a lot of really attractive parts that the rest of tennis in its more traditional forms, you know, don’t. And so I think this attention has been fantastic and a lot of new people have been exposed to why World Team Tennis is so special and why it could be, or maybe should be, a bigger part of the sport. So I think once we get past this summer, then we’ll figure out, well, where do you go with it?
RACQUET: Could it be a model for what tennis might look like, if travel continues to be an issue going forward, just because of the regional nature?
MARK EIN: Yeah, I think in the current environment that we’re living in, you understand why sports have decided to go to a central location, create a single bubble, and stay there for a long time. Tennis has huge inherent advantages in these days because the nature of the sport is individuals or teams of two people on opposite sides of the net, not making contact with each other. Our inherent disadvantage is the international nature of it, and the fact that the structure has travel from location to location, week by week. And just as WTT is doing, and just as the US Open is doing, including the Western and Southern the week before, until the world gets back to normal, I think there should be real consideration to staying in single locations for longer periods of time.
RACQUET: From your perspective as a fan of tennis, where are you missing out on most, with the event not taking place this year? Was there anything you were particularly looking forward to?
MARK EIN: You know, my biggest motivation every year is seeing 80,000 people over a week come to the site, and love the tennis; that is what I’ll miss the most. We obviously knew now for months that that wasn’t gonna happen. We were hopeful that we’d at least get some people there.
In our revised plan, the two things that I am most remorseful about related to the cancellation are one, not being able to deliver a competitive opportunity for the players, because our player field was incredible. Our sign-in cutoff was 52, for 37 slots, so virtually everyone wanted to play. So there would have been phenomenal matches, and I would have loved to have provided that opportunity to the players. And then secondly, we had some really exciting plans on how we can use our platform to both bring joy to people through the restart of the sport, to honor heroes in our community, people who’ve been here in our community during this crisis, and then also to continue to raise the issues of racial justice. So we had a lot of really cool stuff we were going to do. And I’m sad that I’m not going to be able to have a platform to do that it. I think we could have made, in our own way, a real impact if the event had happened, so I’m sad that that won’t happen.
RACQUET: And in this environment, is there any sense of planning ahead for next year? Are there contingency plans being put in place now that you’ve already had this experience once?
MARK EIN: If next year there’s still COVID or something similar, we definitely now we have the plan done for how to make it safe. I felt like we were going to make it safe, I had confidence in that. And I actually think it also got us thinking differently around some of the ways we can use our platform for some of the causes that I mentioned, that I think are going to be exciting. But mainly I hope that just for all of our sake, well beyond tennis, that we can get back to normal. And have a normal event, and normal summer, next year.
Coco Gauff at the 2019 Citi Open, where she won the doubles title. (Getty Images)
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