The inaugural ATX Open is slated to be the biggest women’s tennis event in the state of Texas, and one of just four women’s-only professional tournaments in the US this year.
Coupled with the fact that tennis is one of the most-watched women’s sports in the world and 17,000+ Austinites play the sport regularly, tournament director Christo Van Rensburg thinks it’s about time.
“This is bringing that missing piece to Austin,” he said.
The week-long tournament will host renowned athletes and local stars, including — as was announced Thursday — Peyton Stearns, a Texas Longhorn currently approaching the top 200 in world rankings.
Ahead of the event, which begins Monday, Feb. 27 and is a part of the Hologic WTA Tour, we spoke with Christo about how the tournament came to the Capital City and what visitors can expect.
How it began
Christo himself is no stranger to tennis. The South African player has won 21 titles, including a Grand Slam in 1985. His wife also played professionally, and his sister-in-law was once ranked No. 10 in the world for doubles.
“I know exactly what the players would want,” he said.
This is why Christo was approached by Bryan Sheffield — one of the owners of Austin FC and an avid tennis fan — about hosting tennis tournaments in Austin.
Their business, DropShot Series, launched a few years ago with smaller tournaments for junior players, who must earn points to get into larger tournaments. The duo wanted to help provide a competitive avenue for local players like those at UT Austin, Christo said.
“The last two years, the [UT] women’s team has won the national championship twice in a row,” he pointed out. “They’re the best women’s college team in America.”
He noticed the fans loved it, too, and people started coming back. So, a few years ago, Drop Shot decided to up the ante. They decided to host the ATX Open.
‘Everything just came together’
The decision to host a women’s tournament was an easy one, as Christo describes it.
“When you look at the Austin market, and you look at all the companies that are coming in here and want to invest in any sport, it’s all male dominated. You’ve got baseball, you’ve got football, you’ve got Austin FC, you’ve got F1,” he said. “We want to support women athletes.”
But first, they had to find a license. The Women’s Tennis Association distributes a limited number of licenses, and those hoping to host a tournament have to wait until another host sells theirs.
“The WTA has been looking for the last 10 years to add tournaments in North America,” Christo said. “And then when a license became available and Drop Shot Series were looking to be a promoter of a big women’s tennis event in Austin, partnership was formed.”
After you get a license, you have to find a date that fits, Christo explained. Knowing an outdoor summertime tournament in Texas wouldn’t work, the team decided on the ninth week of the year — just after players return from tournaments abroad and just before players head to other US tournaments.
On top of the kismet that was obtaining a license and finding a good date, Christo said the location they found, the Westwood Country Club, was an ideal place to host this event.
“It is on the water. It is one of the most prestigious venues in Austin for tennis,” he said. “Everything just came together.”
What to expect at the event
In addition to Stearns, US players Danielle Collins, currently ranked No. 11 in the world, and No. 36 Sloane Stephens have confirmed they’ll be two of the 32 competitors in the ATX Open’s singles bracket. Another 16 doubles teams will also compete.
The club is being transformed with a 1,700-seat temporary stadium. Attendees will access guaranteed seating at the Stadium Match Court, as well as first-come, first-served seating at another Grandstand Match Court.
Fans will also be able to dine on local food from The Grove and Huckleberry, and event organizers said they’re close to announcing another well-known local vendor serving up eats.
“Bring your friends and family, kids, because it’s going to be great,” Christo said. “You’ll be so close to the players to get autographs, to go and sit right next to the practice courts and watch them fine tune their game.”
Hopes to inspire
Overall, Christo sees this tournament affecting kids in the same way the Olympics do: “Everyone goes and signs up. They want to be gymnasts … I think [the ATX Open] is going to do this with tennis. People’s kids are going to watch this, they’re going to go to clubs, academies, and coaches to become better.”
But he also hopes this event supports women athletes in Austin, as well.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of a big moment in women’s tennis. In 1973, Billie Jean King’s ongoing efforts for equality in women’s sports resulted in the U.S. Open becoming the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for women’s and men’s tournaments. The ATX Open is the first American tournament of the year, something Christo also sees as a special opportunity for promoting women’s sports in Austin.
“We want to empower women,” he said, simply.
Full series packages for the ATX Open have already sold out, but single-session tickets start at $20 — buy them online here.