WASHINGTON, April 2, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
Mark Ein has a simple, long-term vision for the Citi Open. The Washington, D.C.-area native and venture capitalist, whose MDE Tennis company took over Citi Open management a year ago, wants the only ATP 500 Series tournament remaining in the United States to become America’s summer tennis tradition.
“I want it to be the place that people from around the United States come if they want to come with their families to watch professional tennis,” Ein said during a press conference at the conclusion of last year’s “reimagined” Citi Open.
While Ein’s enthusiasm for putting on a good show for tennis fans hasn’t diminished despite the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has stopped tennis – and all sports worldwide – for the foreseeable future, he’s pragmatic enough to know that nothing is certain about whether or not there will be a Citi Open this summer. It’s currently scheduled to begin August 3 at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in northwest Washington. Plan for the worst and hope for the best would be an apt blueprint that Ein is following for this year’s tournament that over the years has included many greats of the game including Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Bob and Mike Bryan.
The Citi Open also includes a WTA International event (started in 2012) held concurrently with the more established ATP 500 tournament, which has been a fixture in the nation’s capital going all the way back to 1969. It is the longest running pro tennis event at the same site in the United States. In addition, Ein owns the Washington Kastles of World Team Tennis, whose season is slated to run from July 12 to August 1, and he founded the Washington Justice in the largest esports league, Activison’s Overwatch League. If all goes accordingly, summer figures to be a busy time for Ein as the nation’s capital becomes a bonanza for tennis fans.
“Obviously, no matter what business you’re in – and we’re in the tennis business – coronavirus is impacting everything,” Ein said during a telephone interview Tuesday. ”You have to balance, both moving things forward and planning, but also contingency planning because there’s still so much unknown.”
Despite the uncertainty of the tennis calendar, which now includes the suspension of the ATP and WTA Tours until July 13, Ein sounded cautiously optimistic in describing what it’s been like trying to plan a multi-million dollar, week-long tournament (scheduled for Aug. 3-9), which last year featured a post-Wimbledon coming party for teen sensation Coco Gauff, an exciting men’s singles final matching the mercurial Nick Kyrgios on his best behavior against Daniil Medvedev, plus the elevation of men’s doubles to prime time on stadium court. In addition, there were more hospitality areas for fan interaction, including the spacious, air-conditioned Market Square food court overlooking the practice courts featuring offerings from José Andrés, Dolcezza and Compass Coffee. Plus, nightly tennis talks hosted by ESPN tennis analyst Rennae Stubbs with a guest roster that included Andy Murray and Felix Auger-Aliassime were a popular attraction.
”The planning is continuing as if it’s happening. There’s a lot in the works around the Citi Open,” said Ein, who acquired management rights of the US Open Series kickoff event a year ago from the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation. “We’ve had a fantastic response from our season tournament ticket holders. People are excited.”
By this time last year, advertising campaigns had already started for both the Citi Open and the Washington Kastles, who moved into a new 700-seat roof-top stadium at Union Market in the city’s NoMa district near Gallaudet University. Now, the coronavirus crisis has changed Ein’s marketing strategy. He’s subdued – keeping things close to the vest – but is no less enthusiastic.
“We still have a while before we would usually put individual sessions on sale,” said Ein, 55, who grew up playing a lot of tennis as a youngster and once served as a ball kid at the Citi Open before graduating with an MBA from Harvard University. “But, we’re moving forward full steam ahead with the planning, unknowing that we may have to make adjustments. At the moment, right now, we’re moving full steam ahead. It’s what we should do.
“We have a lot of exciting developments to share with people, but it just doesn’t feel like right now is the right time to talk about that. When and if there’s a right time, people will see all the work that’s been going on.”
While Wednesday’s decision by the All England Club to cancel the 2020 Wimbledon Championships for the first time since the Second World War and the only time for reasons other than a war in the tournament’s storied history, Ein still has time – “at least two months” – before a final decision needs to be made on this year’s Citi Open. He said he’s been in regular contact with the leadership of the ATP Tour and the WTA regarding decisions being rendered to this year’s tennis calendar – what remains of it.
“I think the sport of tennis has been extraordinarily responsible,” said Ein, who is founder and CEO of Venturehouse Group, LLC. “When Indian Wells cancelled, I emailed a friend of mine who owns an NBA team. I said ‘this is a big deal for all of sports.’ We were really the first sport to cancel a big event. I think it’s reflective of the sport’s sense of responsibility. I think that the leadership of the sport has been terrific so far.”
While Ein couldn’t have imagined the fallout to the tennis world – and global sports – from the coronavirus outbreak, especially after putting on a successful 2019 Citi Open, he’s hopeful there will be a 2020 edition of the tournament this summer. After all, Ein loves challenges – he’s not afraid of them – and approaches his business endeavors with high expectations. He is used to setting lofty goals.
“I actually think that if we can host the event safely, it’s going to be an incredible celebration for everyone,” he said. “I believe people are so eager to get back to life as normal, to be outside and to be amongst other people.
“The Citi Open could be the first big event in our community. It could be one of the first big tennis events in the world. If it can be hosted safely, I think people are going to be wildly enthusiastic to be there.
“The players are as eager as anyone to get back on court. It’s what they love to do and it’s how they make a living. They’re incredibly eager to get back on tour.”
For now, Ein readily admits there’s still a lot of unknown factors that can unfold between now and the start of August – but for now, he’s ready to go and up for the challenge of putting on a world-class event. “The planning for these events continues until we know it’s not,” he said. “I think the Citi Open has a good chance to play.”