Entrepreneur Mark Ein reimagines the Citi Open
As a teenager in the 1970s, Mark Ein worked for the Washington Star International tennis tournament, driving players from practice courts to their hotels. He still remembers ferrying a player from a Soviet bloc country to a Burger King for the first time, an experience the wide-eyed Ein relished just as much as the pro.
Those memories — Ein still has a wristband that hall of famer Jimmy Connors flicked in his direction — moved him to action in 2018. That’s when the tournament, known as the Citi Open since 2012 and the country’s fifth-most-prestigious tennis event, was put up for bid by the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, a nonprofit that uses tennis to empower underserved kids in the D.C. area.
The organization ultimately accepted Ein’s offer to operate the event — not purchase it outright — and accepted less money to keep the Open in D.C.
“These were really important moments in my life,” Ein, 54, said of his childhood experiences at the tournament. “So when the chance — really the need — for someone to step up to keep the tournament in Washington was presented to me, really it was a no-brainer that I needed to do this.”
Under Ein’s leadership, the Citi Open begins this week with another strong field, featuring multiple top-10 men’s players and American women’s star Sloane Stephens.
In his deal with the WTEF, the foundation retains ownership of the tournament through its ATP sanction — Ein has the option to purchase the sanction within five years — and it will continue to be held at its historic home, the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Stadium at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. When the Citi Open launched in 1969, local tennis legends Donald Dell and Arthur Ashe insisted on it being held at the public facility.
“We’re not your traditional corporate setting,” said Manny Ortiz, WTEF board chairman. “This tournament is deeply rooted in the community. We’re looking to continue that community brand but increase our value proposition for the end user, the fans. This partnership with Mark allows us to do that.”
Ein, a former U.S. Tennis Association board vice president who made his fortune through venture capital, is limited in changes he can make to the tennis facility. The venue’s main stadium was built by the WTEF, but its deed was conveyed to the National Park Service, which is responsible for maintenance. Still, Ein wants the Citi Open’s history to be seen as an asset, not a negative, and immediately set about complementing the 50-year history with fresh additions.
■ Founded: 1969
■ 2019 dates: July 27-Aug. 4
■ 2018 attendance: 73,995
■ Number of courts: 5
■ Surface: Hard court
■ No. of sponsors: 36
■ Financial commitment to players: $2,046,340
■ Defending singles champions: Alexander Zverev; Svetlana Kuznetsova
■ Top-10 players in 2019 field: Men — 4; women — 1
Top of the list: food and beverage options.
The 2019 Citi Open partnered with Levy Restaurants to create a culinary experience that will spotlight local D.C. fare in a new fully enclosed, air-conditioned food court tent, free to all fans, called Market Square. Celebrity chef José Andrés, a tennis fan and friend of Ein’s, will have his own section of Market Square called “José’s Way.”
Moët & Chandon and Amstel are two of the new sponsors that signed on with the Citi Open in the last year. The tournament’s official champagne, Moët & Chandon is sponsoring a courtside, air-conditioned hospitality tent offering premium food and beverage options for 40 guests with indoor and outdoor seating. Seats in the courtside tent are available for $2,500 for the entire tournament, or between $210 and $325 per session. Amstel and Founding Spirits vodka and whiskey also will sponsor premium beverage tents.
“You want to create an event that appeals to a very wide set of people,” Ein said.
The Citi Open is one of just four pro tournaments that feature men’s and women’s competition, and it’s caught flak in recent years for play running late into the night. Last year it endured nine straight days of rain, and one of the field’s biggest names, Andy Murray, withdrew after finishing a match at 3 a.m.
The tournament uses just five of the tennis center’s courts for its simultaneous men’s and women’s competitions, meaning rain delays can have an outsized impact. Ein recently told the Washington Business Journal that rejoining the U.S. Open Series, which the Citi Open left in 2014, enables the event to benefit from the USTA’s court surface expertise, which could help with faster drying in case of wet weather.
The event also has revamped its parking, built four new practice courts closer to the players’ hotel, enhanced player dining options and increased the number of rehab and massage therapists for post-match recovery.
“We really tried to touch every element of the experience,” Ein said.
A serial entrepreneur, Ein is comfortable building things.
He was on the ground floor of six companies in a range of industries that each topped a billion dollars in value. He owns the alternative weekly Washington City Paper, a D.C.-based esports team and World TeamTennis’ Washington Kastles. He’s also involved in D.C. philanthropy, serving as board chairman of the D.C. Public Education Fund since 2010 — all part of calling himself “a hometown kid.”
“There are important institutions in our community that will make life in Washington just a little bit better, and I’m drawn to doing that,” Ein said. “Whether we’re building a company, starting a company from scratch or reimagining a great U.S. tennis tournament, it all comes from the same place.”