WATCH: Sloane Stephens was among the early winners at the San Diego Open.


SAN DIEGO—Spend time anywhere in San Diego and it’s easy to forget that this is America’s eighth-largest city—bigger in population than Dallas, San Francisco, Denver. San Diego is cozy yet significant, sprawling yet vastly populated. The same holds true for the city’s first-year WTA event, the San Diego Open, a WTA 500 tournament with a dazzling field—seven of the top ten, including world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, and top two Americans Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula, as well as past Slam winners Bianca Andreescu, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, and Sofia Kenin.

From the intimate 2,000-seat Stadium One to friendly volunteers and enough savvy coaches to staff a teaching convention, one interaction after another is a reminder of this tournament’s alluring mix of proximity and importance, all fueled by the deep passion for tennis that has long made San Diego such a vibrant and distinct tennis city. The tournament’s venue, the Barnes Tennis Center, is a 25-year-old, 25-court public tennis center that San Diego’s vast range of recreational players flock to frequently.

Each summer, Barnes hosts the USTA Girls’ 18 and 16 National Championships. Two weeks ago, an ATP 250 tournament was played here for the second year in a row, won by San Diegan Brandon Nakashima. “San Diego has a very tight-knit tennis community,” said Linda Milan, executive director of the Southern California Tennis Foundation, the non-profit organization that is the tournament’s major sponsor. “There’s a feeling of people wanting to do things together for tennis.”

“Come on, Coco, let’s go,” screamed a fan late Monday afternoon inside Hologic Court Two. Like San Diego, Court Two is welcoming and accessible. Its 500 seats were packed. “Now Coco, now’s the time,” came a cry. In this case, though, the Coco being cheered for was not Gauff, but local Coco Vandeweghe, a wild card entrant and one-time top tenner who ended up beating 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in a rollercoaster-like match, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4.

Notable locals watching Vandeweghe included Hall of Famer Charlie Pasarell and former San Diego city manager Jack McGrory, each of whom has provided significant support to this tournament and many more throughout the area. Others from the tennis world studied this match closely too. Hall of Famer Rosie Casals, an old-school net rusher, enjoyed seeing Vandeweghe charge forward. Kathy Rinaldi, head of women’s tennis for the USTA, was pleased to watch two Americans in a tight battle.

Hours prior to her match, Vandeweghe and her coach, Luke Jensen, headed to the west corner of the Barnes Center for a practice session on a court named for Larry Belinsky, a former San Diego State letterman she played with frequently as a child. In 2006, Belinsky created the San Diego Tennis Hall of Fame.

Monday night, in between two singles matches on Stadium One, Belinsky celebrated the Hall of Fame’s Class of ’22 —former ATP and WTA pros Todd Nelson and Allison Bradshaw DeNike, college standout Amber Liu, Girls’ nationals tournament director Lornie Kuhle, and media members John Martin and Dick Enberg (posthumous). They were joined by such past local inductees as ’89 Roland Garros champion Michael Chang, “Original Nine” member Valerie Ziegenfuss, longstanding coach Angel Lopez, former ATP pro Chico Hagey, and Suella Steele, winner of 99 national age group titles.

This being the tournament’s first year, the event’s flowering of community and commerce is nascent. Naturally, there’s a booth for the Southern California Tennis Foundation. Nearby are others for the San Diego Tennis District Tennis Association; emerging fashion firm UomoSport, the tournament’s official clothing sponsor; and another for the San Diego Wounded Warrior Tennis Program.

Tournament Ryan Redondo is a natural fit for this event. Born and raised in San Diego, formerly women’s coach at the University of Pacific, his tennis roots run deep, the Redondos in large part this area’s leading tennis family. Ryan’s aunt, Marita, was a top 20 WTA player in the ‘70s and ‘80s with a lively forehand. His uncle, Walter, was America’s best 16-and-under player in 1974, graced in those glory years with a style comparable to Roger Federer (witnessed first-hand by this writer). Another aunt, Marisa, was a nationally ranked junior. Redondo’s father, Skip, has long been a prominent coach.

The tournament, owned by Octagon, has an agreement with the WTA and Redondo’s team to hold the event in San Diego at least through the end of 2026. “Tennis is a priority sport in this city,” he said. “This community has embraced the necessities to have a tournament.” Or perhaps the opposite has happened. Rarely will you see a tennis community with such depth and breadth.