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, generating these eight pieces of tournament lore.
That first Cincinnati Open—precursor of the Western & Southern Open—attracted players from across the country, with the number of men’s singles participants rivaling that of the National Championships. Thousands turned out to see the weekend’s competition, picturesquely framed by Avondale’s rolling hills. A very Cincinnati affair from the beginning, Rookwood Pottery prizes were awarded to the winners. 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 1912, 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 what was then called the Tri-State Tennis Tournament just three months later.
A (WO)MAN’S WORLD
In 1945, with WWII still taking a number of eligible male players to the battlefield, referees determined there was no rule banning women from competing in a men’s draw. So Sarah Palfrey Cooke made history by entering the men’s draw and 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.
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.
Though the first tournament’s prizes were made by Rookwood Pottery, organizers eventually adopted the idea of awarding cups, and they chose traditional metal chalices. These trophies came from generous donations from Cincinnati industry leaders, like Procter & Gamble, but 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.
HOME AND AWAY
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. The Great Depression pushed organizers to skip a year in 1935, and several times competing tennis matches pushed it into Indiana.