HIGHLIGHTS: Borna Coric wins the 2022 Cincinnati Masters

Almost every town in America seems to have at least one rambling, towering, multi-wing Victorian mansion that, in its faded glory, triggers sentimental memories. At the same time, others call for the wrecking ball. Tennis has its own version of that grand old edifice in Cincinnati.

The 1000-level tournament, aka the Western & Southern Open, has been played continuously in the Cincinnati area, near the banks of the Ohio River, since 1899. Although it has been a popular and profitable event for decades in Mason, Ohio, the USTA leaped on the opportunity to sell it at a windfall profit to Charleston, S.C.- based billionaire Ben Navarro. The entrepreneur, whose family firm is Beemok Capital, might move the tournament to the banks of a different river—the Catawba, in Charlotte, N.C.

Should that move take place, it will mark the end of one era and stand as a significant event in a new one, helping to complete a transition that yanked professional tennis free from its country-club roots (in this case, The Cincinnati Tennis Club) and plopped it down in an entertainment culture featuring large, multi-purpose arenas and a full palate of amenities, including fine dining, shopping and music, all within reach of major population centers.

“It was always a little weird that the tournament was in Mason,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe told me, referring to the suburb where the tournament has held its ground for decades, 25 miles north of Cincinnati. “On the other hand, it has been incredibly successful. But nothing lasts forever. As much as I love the tournament, I kind of get this.”


Midwest weather—and late-summer heat—are always factors at the Western & Southern Open.

Midwest weather—and late-summer heat—are always factors at the Western & Southern Open.

The event is, indeed, much loved—in that special way that an ugly duckling is lovable. The tournament is the outlier among the ATP’s elite Masters tournaments, which rank second in prestige only to the four Grand Slams. The eight other Masters events all are played amid glamorous trappings in major or world-class resort cities: Palm Springs, Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, Toronto/Montreal, Shanghai and Paris. Rome has the Coliseum; Monte Carlo has the glittering Casino. Mason doesn’t have anything like those things, or Paris’ Louvre, but the Kings Island Amusement Park does boast of a one-third scale replica of that city’s Eiffel Tower—plus Delirium, a giant Frisbee ride.

Mason often confounded visiting players, especially those from foreign shores. They were shocked that there was no real city in the city of nearly 19 square miles, nor very much of interest to them amid a mix of cornfields, subdivisions, highway cloverleafs and drive-through restaurants. Anyone hoping to grab dinner near the tournament hotel after 9 p.m. had just one choice: a Waffle House sitting forlorn on a large expanse of empty parking lot. As one source for this story said, “Cincinnati is sleepy. Mason is really sleepy.”

What Mason did have going for it, though, was the late Paul Flory. A Proctor & Gamble executive, Flory started as a tournament volunteer and ultimately took over the reins in 1975, earning the support of pillars of Cincinnati society led by the Lindner family (for whom the tennis center is named).

In short order, Flory’s managerial skill, his ability to connect with the larger community, and his heavy emphasis on charity turned the tournament into an important fixture on both the tennis schedule and Cincinnati’s social calendar. So what if a par-three golf course, among other neighboring tracts, was suborned for parking? So what if, in the early days, the August heat and humidity in the canvas corporate hospitality tents was nearly unbearable? The cause was a worthy one, the millions funneled to charity ensured tremendous community support. None of the elite Masters events did—or do—anything like that on a comparable scale.


Roger Federer won the Cincinnati Masters seven times.

Roger Federer won the Cincinnati Masters seven times.

The tournament also flourished because of the topnotch fields guaranteed by the ATP to Masters events. Fans flocked to Cincy, including an impressive number from out-of-state and country. It was the rare tournament where they could actually rub elbows with players—including stars like John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer—at a spacious, open-air venue with the easy, laid-back vibe and the affordable amenities of a county fair.

“One of the upsides of Mason was that when you went to the event you were like in this tennis bubble because there was so little else to distract you,” Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone told me. “There’s a tremendous heritage there.”

For better or worse, that heritage—one of gradual, organic growth under patient and watchful eyes—is now in jeopardy. It may have been inevitable, once Flory took his hand off the tiller. Perhaps everyone just got a little tired, after such a long, successful run, mostly by volunteers. It’s been known to happen where profit is not the main motive. But the anticipated move to Charlotte is not a done deal yet, and there is a local movement among civic and government players to convince and incentivize Navarro to keep the tournament in Mason, in a renovated and expanded facility.

David Nevers, Western & Southern Financial Group’s vice president of public relations and communication, wants the event to remain. He recently told the Cincinnati Business Courier, “Since the tournament’s sale last year, we have made clear our interest in keeping the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, even as we recognized that the new owner would be evaluating multiple options.”


Beemok officials, perhaps recognizing that discretion is the better part of valor, have retreated into silence regarding their plans. But a spokesperson did tell the CBC, “We’ve had productive conversations. . . in Mason and the surrounding area and have made considerable efforts to develop a potential master plan to expand the event in its current location. We have great respect for the city of Mason and are excited to host the tournament here in August and for years to come.”

Most of the people I spoke with consider that a sop meant to soften the blow of losing the tournament. Navarro and Beemok, working with Charlotte officials, have already proposed a $400 million project. According to Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Jason Williams, civic leaders in Cincinnati were “surprised” by the level of details (including cost estimates and visual renderings) recently released by Charlotte.

“Obviously if you’re buying a tournament and building a massive structure in Charlotte in a planned community-type situation, you’re going to need an event to go in there,” Enquirer reporter Scott Springer told me. “It appears that the tournament may be moving. I’d be shocked if it ended up staying.”

Cincy loyalists are sure to be upset if the tournament does end up going to Charlotte. Their consolation is that Navarro does not appear to be driven purely by the profit motive. He’s a certified tennis nut, already the owner of the showcase WTA event, the Charleston Open. A daughter, Emma, competes on the pro tour. Navarro also owns two tennis complexes in the Charleston area and supports developmental programs.


I’m a Charlotte homer and there was a huge buzz around the city today. . . But there’s still some ball to be played here. Andy Roddick

One USTA official described Navarro as an “angel” investor. Think of him as the east coast Larry Ellison, owner of the BNP Paribas Open. Like Flory, Navarro has cultivated philanthropic interests.

“Navarro is vested in the sport, this isn't just a cold business deal,” Phil dePicciotto, president of sports management titan Octagon (which holds the rights to the WTA portion of the Western & Southern) told me. “He is genuinely interested in the well-being of the sport.”

When news of the potential move broke, Andy Roddick said on a Tennis Channel broadcast, “I’m a Charlotte homer and there was a huge buzz around the city today. . . But there’s still some ball to be played here.”

“For Charlotte it would be amazing to get this event,” Annacone said. “For Cincinnati, though, it would be a heartbreak.”