Serena and Venus Williams will renew their on-court sibling rivalry for the 31st time Thursday. But they’ve never played a match in circumstances quite like this.
Williams-Williams XXXI will take place in the Round of 16 at the Top Seed Open in Lexington, Ky., as tournament-level tennis returns to the U.S. at a private club hoping to convert a unique opportunity into something a bit more regular.
In July, the Women’s Tennis Association announced that Washington D.C.’s Citi Open would not host an event in 2020 due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. As the owner of the tournament sanction for the ill-fated D.C. event, Octagon had the opportunity to identify a new host and turned its attention to the Top Seed Tennis Club, which successfully hosted an eight-woman exhibition event earlier in the month.
“They were asking us about hosting an event in August,” tournament director and club general manager Jon Sanders said, “and I said, in 2021?” But the opportunity to host the tour’s stateside return—and bring it to Kentucky for the first time—was too good to pass up, even if it meant putting everything together in a matter of weeks.
Normally, WTA representatives would do a site visit before approving a new tournament location. This time, they did it over FaceTime, with Sanders showing them Top Seed’s 12 indoor and nine outdoor courts. He then called the local hotel, renting it out to set up a bluegrass bubble. A local lab came on to provide testing with the capacity to turn around same-day results.
Once basic health and safety measures were in place, players quickly signed up. With the U.S. Open expected to take place later in August, organizers knew top players were eager to return to play. The current depth of American talent on the women’s side of the game also made it easier to build a strong field, headlined by the Williams sisters, rising star Coco Gauff and 10 other Top 50 players.
Tennis Channel agreed to televise the event, and Octagon Tennis vice president Alastair Garland said they received strong interest from sponsors even without the prospects of fans in attendance. “The overall response by event sponsors has been incredibly successful,” he said, while declining to provide financial details.
Normally, gate receipts make up a large portion of revenue for smaller events. In 2017, Sports Business Journal reported that smaller ATP tournaments get less than 20% of their revenue from TV. Even the U.S. Open sees 45% of its revenue come from tickets, hospitality and on-site purchases, according to the Associated Press.
Citi Open owner Mark Ein said he was prepared to lose money hosting a spectator-free event, and was comfortable doing so, before the decision was made to change sites. “The motivation this year to throw events is just to provide players the chance to compete and earn a living, and for fans to watch it on TV,” he said.
Still, Garland said, “We have every intention to turn a profit.” For one, hosting the event at a smaller venue in the Horse Capital of the World likely comes with cost savings compared to a similar undertaking in the nation’s capital.
Regardless of the final balance sheet, Garland and Sanders said this one-off event represents a larger investment in the sport and the potential beginning of a long-term partnership. Sanders hopes to continue bringing high-level tennis to the state and saw this as an opportunity to introduce players to the two-year-old venue, the staff and the region (even if their tours are limited to rides between hotel and club).
A year ago, WTA chief executive Steve Simon said the tour planned to add a new U.S. event in 2020. Back then, The New York Times reported that the number of U.S. WTA events had fallen from 24 in 1990 to seven in 2019, despite Americans’ continued dominance atop the women’s standings. This 32-player draw in the Bluegrass State probably wasn’t what he or any of the players envisioned, but it has been a small dose of normalcy in abnormal times.
“Who would’ve guessed this draw would’ve happened,” Venus said after beating Victoria Azeranka in straight sets Tuesday. “Playing two former world No. 1’s and Grand Slam champs in the first two rounds in the middle of Kentucky? I’m like, Oh my god.”
Serena, meanwhile, has said of playing without fans at the local club: “This kind of reminds me of the junior days…. There was something kind of nostalgic about that.” Sanders is hoping there’s a bit of future potential too.