By M. Leigh Hood, Cincinnati Magazine
Before the Carew Tower rose to dominate the city skyline, and long before “skyline” became synonymous with chili, Cincinnati had another tradition: tennis. In 1899, the Avondale Athletic Club hosted the first of what would become one of the longest-running tennis tournaments in America.
The first Cincinnati Open–now known as the Western & Southern Open–attracted players from across the country to compete in what could’ve easily been a closed, state-only event. Instead, the number of men’s singles competitors that participated rivaled that of the National Championships. Thousands turned out to see the weekend’s competition, picturesquely framed by Avondale’s rolling hills. Some of the best prizes came from Rookwood Pottery, proof that the tournament was a very Cincinnati affair from the beginning. Nat Emerson, the first men’s champion, took home an ale set valued at $150. The first women’s champion, Myrtle McAteer, won a $100 vase.
In 1945, with WWII still looming large and taking eligible a number of male players to the battlefield, referees determined there was no rule banning women from competing alongside men in a doubles draw. Palfrey Cooke made history by reaching the men’s doubles finals with her husband, Elwood Cooke.
The tournament turned professional in 1969. It added prize money and took on a new name, becoming the Western Tennis Championships.
The women’s events disappeared in 1974, and for decades, the Western Tennis Championships would be a male-only competition. Women’s events did not return until 2004.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, seating and attendance grew, smashing audience records time and time again.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Another name arrived in 2000: Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati. It didn’t last long, though. In 2002, the tournament changed names again to the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters.
Just as it shouldn’t be surprising that a region so rich in clay embraced the drama on the clay court, it’s little wonder how much local flavor seeped into the tournament over its 122-year history. When the tourney first adopted the idea of cups, they chose traditional metal chalices. Although these trophies came from generous donations bestowed by Cincinnati industry leaders, like Procter & Gamble, they weren’t a pure reflection of the city. Since 2010, Rookwood has designed and crafted The Champion’s Trophy, or Rookwood Cup. The hand-painted pottery vessel stands out in victors’ collections, as unique a fixture in the world of tennis championships as the Open that awards it.
Richard Norris Williams II witnessed his father’s death on the Titanic, floated partially submerged for six hours, refused amputation of his legs aboard the Carpathia, and played in the 1912 Tri-State Tennis Tournament just three months later.
The Western & Southern Open is the oldest American tennis tournament still held in its city of origin. Since 1899, the event has only been held outside of Greater Cincinnati five times. It hadn’t left town since 1922–until last year when it was relocated to the
USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It isn’t the first time a national crisis has interrupted the event. The Great Depression pushed organizers to skip a year in 1935, and several times competing tennis matches pushed it into Indiana.
The Western & Southern Open is a continuing story. It’s grown with the region, showcasing some of the area’s most unique treasures, and embraces the sporting tradition that began on clay and brick dust. Men and women overcame personal and international disasters to play the game, and war and loss made room for patriotic problem-solving. Although it’s ongoing, the tournament is a success story. As records grow and break–both on and off the court–it continues to build on its roots of longevity and good sportsmanship.
See the original article from Cincinnati Magazine here.