Secret to @CitiOpen Success: Homegrown Volunteers
Stephan Fogleman, Tennis East Coast
A few years ago, I was elated as a Marylander and a first-time tennis blogger to cover the inaugural Citi Open, a fledgling WTA-only International level tournament in College Park, Maryland. It was, by all accounts, an attendance bust. It was with a slightly heavy heart that I learned the following year that the WTA event was moving across the border into Washington to merge with the long-standing and successful ATP event. Worse yet for my Baltimore pride was the announcement that Citi had replaced venerable Baltimore-based financial institution Legg Mason as named sponsor of the newer, bigger event. I lamented that we’d lost a local stake in our own local tournament.
Skip ahead to 2014. Citi has a three-year track record by now, and they’ve done a good job at maintaining the successes of the old event while adding new and welcome amenities. After speaking with several volunteers at Citi Open last week, I was touched to learn that the children, men and women who form the core of a visitor’s experience to the tournament remain very local. I also interviewed two Marylanders who donate their time, their gas money and their sweat to assist with the tournament they continue to love–by any name.
19-year-old Saboor Khan (@SaboorTweets) of Owings Mills, Maryland makes the one hour drive each day to Citi Open in Washington, DC. The Houston native is a 2nd year volunteer who attended the tournament for several years as a fan. He’s working toward his goal of being a professional tennis player, having played varsity tennis at Baltimore County’s science & technology magnet high school, Western Tech.
“Since age 5, I’ve been watching tennis and playing it myself. My goal was to become a professional tennis player. I’m still working toward that and trying my best.”
The self-described 3.0 ranked player attends the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and plans to join the team this fall. At 5’4”, he happily accepts the label of “counter-puncher”.
I ran into Khan at the Citi Open, US Open and Fed Cup in years past, and I was impressed with his dedication to hit the road as a fan. He’s also been to Cincinnati, Charleston and Miami. He is often accompanied by his father on the road, “who’s a die-hard like me”. Atlanta and Newport remain on his East Coast bucket list.
He served as an airport greeter this year, entering Reagan National and making sure the hotel-bound players got from the terminal into a shiny new Citi Open Lexus SUV. “That’s my main responsibility here right now and it’s a great experience”, he told me while on break from his duties last Wednesday. He also made deliveries to the player hotel hospitality lounge last week at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Khan’s best moment of the 2014 event was picking up the affable Irina Falconi, a 2011 Citi Open quarterfinalist, who played doubles this year. “She’s very friendly”, he proclaimed.
The only thing he’d change at Citi Open is the obvious one. “They need to renovate the Stadium”, he says, but quickly acknowledges the difficulties entailed since the tournament is held on National Park Service property.
The next volunteering goal for Khan? “I plan on volunteering at the US Open soon”.
Like many rabid devotees, he prefers the early rounds of the US Open. “Early rounds are much better because all the players are there. In the later rounds, the players are all gone.”
While Federer and Sharapova are his two all-time favorites, he now prefers to focus his fandom on the next tier. “Donald Young is a person to watch out for. Also, Jack Sock is pretty good”. He follows Genie Bouchard, saying “she’s made a big leap”. He calls Sloane Stephens “a good person and a friend”.
With his training in information technology, he’s looking to mix his love of computers with his passion for the sport. “I’m going to be a tennis player or a tennis journalist. I’m going to start a website soon”, he says in a tone of certainty.
The three-set Isner/DelPotro final last year was the most enjoyable match he watched during his volunteer time at Citi Open.
21-year-old Shannon Ramsey, from Dunkirk, Maryland, has volunteered as a ball person at Citi Open since she was 14. She’s been attending the Washington event since she was 5, and her father worked as a ball boy there before she was born. Now in her eighth year, she’s a captain. Ramsey wanted to get out on those courts earlier in life, but the tournament raised the minimum age from 12 to 14 when she was 12. She also has a one hour commute each way to the tournament.
She was 14 when she first stepped foot on Stadium Court. Her first match was Arnaud Clement and James Blake.
She finally worked her first ATP singles final last year. She’d done a few doubles finals in the past, but the Del Potro/Isner title match was a special memory for Ramsey as well.
“To do this job, you have to love tennis”, she states. And Ramsey is no exception to that. She’s a member of the tennis team at St. Mary’s College in Leonardtown, where she’s a junior. An active athlete, she played a variety of sports before focusing on her court game.
I played every sport in the book when I was younger— basketball, softball, soccer, gymnastics—but tennis was the one I gravitated toward. I also stuck with running in middle school and high school, but tennis was my favorite sport. My dad would encourage me and put me in tournaments.
Ramsey also coaches at Pointer Ridge Racquet Club in Bowie, Maryland, and check this out: She was a Washington Kastles ball person at all three venues since the inception of the team.
What are her best off-court moments at Citi Open? It’s hard to tell since she’s constantly adding new ones.
What keeps me coming? The veterans. My best and closest friends are the ball people. It’s the people that keep me coming back. Hanging out off-court with them, making memories with them. We always play cards in there and hang out in the lounge. We all go to different schools now, and we try to get together on winter break, spring break, and next week—the week before we go back to school, we all try to hang out together one more time.
In her educated opinion, she thinks the tournament is constantly upgrading to provide a better experience for every visitor.
I’m really glad they added the extra grandstand court. I like the set-up of the volunteer lounge and the player lounge. They also have all these extra practice courts, and fans love that. The tournament’s getting better and better every year and I’m excited for it.
With her seniority as a ball person, is she the best one out there? She rejected the accolades, choosing to focus on how much she enjoys teaching.
I’m one of the captains. I don’t consider myself one of the best ballkids. There are so many others I can’t hold a candle to. I try to be a good role model and be inclusive. I love working with the kids. I want to do that after I graduate, so I really enjoy mentoring them.
It’s fun being out there, but it doesn’t become fun until you’re comfortable out there. When you’re out there and constantly nervous about what you need to be doing, it’s not that fun. I love seeing the transition during the first few days of ball kids until the end of the week when they actually feel comfortable and confident out there on the court. They’re not worried about making a mistake.
What about the idea that the best thing you can do on the job is do your job so well that you’re invisible?
When you’re just starting out, and you’re thinking that all eyes are on you, you just have to shut it out and focus on doing your job as quick as possible. You don’t want to make a scene out there. You want to be fast out there, but you want to be efficient and not over-do it. After a while, it happens naturally.
But is she approaching retirement and what will happen after that?
I know it’s inevitable. My brother helps run the ball kids, he’s one of the chair people. I would love to eventually be a chair person so I can stay involved in the tournament. I have two years left in school before I go to grad school and get a Masters in Education. There will be two summers when I won’t be able to come. I want to keep helping out. I love this tournament and it’s been such a big part of my life.
When a middle-aged tennis fan like me looks at how pro tennis (all sports, really) has changed so much over the years, slicker, more expensive, more corporate, more moneyed, more internationally-focused, we’re reminded that nothing has changed with the tireless volunteers on the court whose love of this sport remain a constant. The sponsors may not be locally-headquartered anymore, but that matters less. What matters are that the hardest workers at Citi Open are very home-grown. That’s comforting to me.