When 13-year-old Naisha Rathi learned she could try out to be a ball girl at the new professional women’s tennis tournament at the Cary Leeds Center in Crotona Park, she knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
Rathi, a Queens native who will be a freshman this fall at the Beacon School in Manhattan and who plays tennis at the center year-round, saw it as a chance to get up close and personal with some real live pros.
“It’s awesome to see them here,” Rathi said of the players competing at the N.Y.J.T.L. Bronx Open, where main draw matches begin Sunday. “It’s supercool and exciting because we always dream about seeing them or being like them, and actually seeing them in real life and playing, it’s so much motivation.”
But it is unclear how long Rathi will be able to see the players up close. The Bronx Open is a transitional event, and it may not take place again next year.
When the Connecticut Open in New Haven was sold this year and moved to Zhengzhou, China, the WTA suddenly had a hole in its calendar the week before the United States Open.
New York Junior Tennis and Learning, a nonprofit tennis and education program for underserved youth that was co-founded by Arthur Ashe, and the WTA stepped up to create the Bronx Open, a new $250,000 International-level tournament. It is the only professional women’s tour event the week before the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 26.
The WTA is paying for prize money and other expenses, said George Guimaraes, the president and chief executive of the N.Y.J.T.L., which enables the organization to hold an event that is free to the public with suggested donations for those over 18. It is rare for the WTA to provide funding for a tournament, but it has done so in the past, the WTA spokeswoman Amy Binder said.
Hosting a pro tournament in Crotona Park would not be possible without the completion of the Cary Leeds Center in 2017. It has a two-story clubhouse and 22 courts, including two sunken courts with seating for 1,000 spectators. No more than five will be used for the Bronx Open. In July, the complex became the new home of World TeamTennis matches for the New York Empire, which featured Sloane Stephens and John Isner. The center is also home to N.Y.J.T.L. programs, which serve more than 10,000 children.
“If you’re a kid and you’re starting to play and it’s just a bit of fun at the moment, then you can come out here and watch the professionals play,” said Samantha Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion, who is playing the Bronx Open. “It can be really inspiring. When I was 9, my parents took me to the Australian Open women’s final. It was the most incredible day of my life.”
Watching her idols, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, play was her “first experience of professional tennis,” Stosur added.
Rennae Stubbs, who reached No. 1 in the world in doubles and now coaches Stosur, said having the free event in the South Bronx — with housing projects nearby — exposes tennis to a group of young people who are not “socioeconomically in the norm of a tennis country club atmosphere.”
“I always say, kids can’t be it if they don’t see it,” she said. “Young girls are going to see these players, they’re going to say: ‘I kind of look like that. I’m about that size. I might be a good tennis player one day.’”
From a practical standpoint, Stosur, who previously played the New Haven event, said she liked that she could stay in the same hotel for three weeks for the Bronx Open and then the U.S. Open.
Having not competed on hardcourts since March, Stosur had hoped to play several matches in the Bronx to prepare for the U.S. Open, but lost Friday in the first round of qualifying.
The 30-player main draw includes three top-20 players: No. 15 Johanna Konta, No. 17 Wang Qiang and No. 20 Anett Kontaveit. Barbora Strycova, a recent Wimbledon semifinalist, and the American CoCo Vandeweghe, a U.S. Open semifinalist in 2017 who is coming back from an ankle injury, are also in the tournament.
The clubhouse at Cary Leeds is named after Billie Jean King, who has been a supporter of the facility and its programs.
Rubén Díaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, said the Bronx Open was an extension of King’s dream of spreading tennis to low-income communities.
“When we all got together several years ago to do a public-private partnership to build the Cary Leeds Tennis Center, this is exactly the type of vision that we had, bringing professional tennis to the Bronx,” he said in a phone interview.
He added, “We want to hone those skills and feed that passion so that in the future we can have professionals who play tennis come right out of the Bronx.”
Ahsha Rolle, 34, is a living example of someone who came up through the N.Y.J.T.L. system. A former top 100 player, she now works as the adult program director at Cary Leeds. From 1993 to 2012, Crotona Park hosted a pro tournament, and in 2007 Rolle reached the women’s final. That year she also reached the third round of the U.S. Open and a career-high ranking of No. 82 as a result.
“The Bronx Open kind of gave me that confidence right before the big U.S. Open and that kind of transcended into the U.S. Open and I did well and I had lots of confidence and then I did well,” she said.
The Bronx Open is a second free option for tennis fans in the five boroughs next week; the qualifying tournament for the U.S. Open, which is also free to the public, begins in Queens on Monday.
The N.Y.J.T.L. hopes it can impress fans and sponsors enough this year to make the Bronx Open more than a one-off event.
The WTA said it planned to add two International-level events in 2020 in the week leading up to the U.S. Open, and indicated that the Bronx Open could be one of them.
But the Bronx event would need to find its own sponsors independent of the WTA, Binder said.
“There are many corporate connections on that board,” said Anne Worcester, the former tournament director of the Connecticut Open. “One or two big sponsorship hits by board members, and the tournament could have a life beyond 2019.”
Rathi, for one, hopes the tournament comes back next year.