Bronx Bombers: How the WTA found its way to the Yankees' borough

Bronx Bombers: How the WTA found its way to the Yankees' borough

Tournament director Joe Ceriello and former world No. 1 Liezel Huber are helping make the late-arriving WTA International event run smoothly.

Hosting a WTA tournament for the first time is an enormous undertaking, which tournament director Joe Ceriello figured out well before the first ball of the new NYJTL Bronx Open was struck on Friday.

"It's more than we could ever dream of," says Ceriello, who is also the chief marketing operator of New York Junior Tennis & Learning. "So it's been a good year, a big year. We've been working hard."

Filling the void left when New Haven's Connecticut Open, which was the lone WTA event held the week prior to the US Open, sold its WTA Premier sanction, the International-level Bronx Open was announced to the public just two months ago. Quick on his feet, Ceriello assembled a strong field; an early entry list featured world No. 15 Johanna Konta, world No. 20 Anett Kontaveit and eight other Top 40 players. He even secured two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova with a late wild card. But with players prioritizing the US Open, which starts next Monday, a number of those prominent names withdrew from the event.

When then dust settled, the top four seeds are world No. 17 Qiang Wang, followed by recent Wimbledon semifinalist and world No. 31 Barbora Strycova, world No. 34 Zhang Shaui and world No. 38 Katerina Siniakova. Other popular names include wild cards Coco Vandeweghe and Kristie Ahn. 

"Players are like, I'm in New York, I'm tuning up for the US Open," Ceriello says. "You're going to see some good tennis."

Francesca Di Lorenzo, participating in the qualifying tournament, has a wild card into the main draw of the US Open. (Bruce Adler)

While the event will naturally go through its ups and downs, with problem-solving required daily or even hourly, the NYJTL Bronx Open brings pro tennis back to a community that hasn't seen it since 2012. From 1996-2012, an ITF $50K tournament (which was briefly upgraded to a $100K), was held at Crotona Park in the Bronx. And it was in that borough of New York City, in 2017, where The Cary Leeds Center for Tennis and Learning opened its gleaming doors: a two-floor clubhouse, 20 courts and two stadium courts that are up to any professional facility's standards. 

"It's a $26.5 million state-of-the art facility," Ceriello says. "I think players are going to come back—they're going to see what's here. I cannot believe what is here in the Bronx now. It's beautiful."

Like the tournament field, Ceriello's staff is brimming with talent. Former doubles No. 1 Liezel Huber is the director of tennis at Cary Leeds and can be spotted on the grounds helping with any task, from event management to fan interaction to getting water and towels ready for the players.

"I am so excited. I can't even tell you," Huber says. "For me the most exciting thing is going to be when the players start arriving. I can imagine players saying, 'You're in the Bronx, the South Bronx?' It is so different. It is home for me."

"The great thing is when you're No. 1 in the world, you've got this work ethic and this drive," Cereillo says of Huber. "We're pulling off a lot of stuff. That's a compliment to the whole team. We're putting in the hours. Joining the seven-time Grand Slam champion in tournament operations is former world No. 82 Ahsha Rolle, who's manning the player practice desk, and was once an NYTJL student."

The new facility boasts two sunken stadium courts. (Alex Liu)

Riding the rollercoaster of emotions is part of the job of hosting a professional tennis tournament, especially one held just a week before the US Open. Overlapping with the Grand Slam's qualifying event—which picked up a number of middle-ranked players that could have competed in the Bronx—provided some additional challenges to Ceriello and his staff. But this week's field nonetheless showcases plenty of Top 50 talent, and is completely free to the public (with a suggested donation of $10 for adults).

The tournament runs August 16-24, and, for the case of commute argument, the Bronx site is about the same distance from Manhattan as Flushing Meadows: about nine miles—or a 25-minute traffic-free drive. The NYJTL—the largest non-profit youth tennis and education program in the nation—the USTA, the WTA and sponsors such as Goldfarb have made this unlikely tournament a reality.

"It is a dream come true," Huber says. "Why I say that is because two years ago we were in the talks of having an [ITF] $50K here...and here we are two years later. We are so grateful for the USTA and the WTA for believing we can pull this off.

"A little bit of chaos, but a lot of dreams," Ceriello says. "It's every time I turn around there's more detail. The level and the professionalism of the WTA, and how much [it takes]—as a first time director, you don't realize how much care and process goes into it."

Local children are attending matches and taking part as ball boys and ball girls. (Alex Liu)

What the NYJTL Bronx Open brings to everyone—players, fans, tournament staff, etc.—is opportunity. It's an opportunity for a player to win her first WTA title; an opportunity for crucial match play before the US Open; an opportunity for locals to see top-level tennis in their backyard.

It's also and an opportunity to pique a child's interest in tennis that may lead to great things. Just as the NYJTL tries to accomplish all year round.

"These players are going to be so welcomed. They're going to play their best tennis," Huber says. "Our kids are going to see them play their best tennis. Folks in the community, folks from Manhattan and, I believe, folks from all over the country are going to come watch them."

"Now the ball is in our court, so let's see how we pull it off."