To my fellow Yalies lucky enough to have attended the boygenius concert at the Westville Music Bowl on Thursday, I hope you had a great time. The venue is hands-down the best event space in New Haven. I would know — I’ve been there, no fewer than 46 times, for similar evening shows. Except that none of them were concerts. What eagle-eyed concertgoers may have noticed is that the Westville Music Bowl wasn’t built as a concert venue: it’s a converted tennis stadium. For ten years, I was part of the tennis enthusiasts who streamed into the Bowl’s blue seats as summer turned into fall. Of course, it wasn’t called that at the time: the only name I will ever know the stadium by is the Connecticut Tennis Center. At one time, it was the third-largest purpose-built tennis stadium in the world, larger even than Wimbledon’s fabled Centre Court. Nowadays, though, I think more about the size of the hole its loss created in the hearts of so many in the New Haven tennis community, including mine.
I moved to New Haven in 2008 and took up tennis a couple of years later. I always just took for granted that we hosted a premier professional tennis tournament — known most recently as the Connecticut Open — the last week of August every year. Going to watch the tournament was one of the highlights of my year — I got to see people I’d watched on TV, eat really good food from New Haven’s famous food trucks, listen to pop hits on the loudspeakers and participate in the tennis-themed activities set up by the tournament’s sponsors, all while having refuge from the inevitable anxieties that an imminent new school year brings. The event was also a boon for the New Haven community: in addition to increased tourism every August, the late great David Swensen organized a fundraiser with Yale’s endowment managers that annually raised seven-figure sums for local nonprofits. I remember being skeptical about attending at first; after all, I’d rather play tennis than watch it, but a 2010 night match between Caroline Wozniacki and Elena Dementieva got me irretrievably hooked. Everything about that night is seared into my memory: the high-energy crowd, the setting sun fading into bright lights, even the upper deck viewing spot I found after going to the bathroom before I was allowed to return to my seat on the changeover. That was my first year at the Connecticut Open, but I knew then that I’d always be back. I just didn’t know that it’d be gone before I left for college.
As the years went on, the tournament struggled to find sponsors, and gradually diminished in size: the men’s event was sold after 2010, while the women’s event cycled through sponsors almost every other year. Every year, I’d come back and there’d be slightly fewer amenities: fewer rows in the temporary bleachers, a sparser food court, a smaller pro shop and cheaper scoreboards, just to name a few. In 2018, the tournament went on without a title or presenting sponsor, and it was clear the financial model wasn’t going to survive much longer. We finally received the crushing news in early 2019 that the Connecticut Open wouldn’t be coming back. A China-based company bought the tournament’s sanction and moved it to Zhengzhou. I don’t blame anyone involved in the sale for the tournament’s demise — Anne Worcester, the director throughout its 21-year run, was phenomenal at her job and probably the reason we didn’t lose the tournament earlier. Similarly, the Tennis Foundation of Connecticut did everything it could to keep it, but ultimately money got the last word. But the saddest part for me was the fact that attendance was actually trending upward: in what became the last professional tennis match played in the stadium, over 5,000 fans attended, and the tournament opened the upper deck of seats for the first time in over five years. In its last year, the Connecticut Open was the third-best-attended women-only tennis event in the world (if that sounds like a lot of modifiers, note that this category includes tournaments in cities like Budapest, Stuttgart, Istanbul and Prague). It was professional tennis that abandoned New Haven, not the other way around.
Sadly, this is nothing new for the state of Connecticut: in the last thirty years, we have been subject to multiple sports choosing larger markets. From 1979 to 1997, Connecticut had an NHL team, the Hartford Whalers, before they left over frustrations with arena size, sponsorships and ticket sales. Their last game showcased the passion of Connecticut hockey fans, who loved their team even as it was being stripped away from them. UConn almost got a piece of college football’s ballooning revenue pie until Boston College blackballed their entry into the ACC in 2011 (“We wanted to be the New England team,” their athletic director said at the time). Now, they languish as an independent program without the massive TV deals the nation’s top programs enjoy. In all of these cases, however, the sports teams that left Connecticut ended up objectively worse. The new tennis tournament in Zhengzhou has only been played once since 2019 due to the pandemic and later allegations surrounding the Chinese government’s forced disappearance of women’s tennis player Peng Shuai (a frequent Connecticut Open player, by the way). The Whalers’ new home in Charlotte, North Carolina, has been panned as having the worst locker rooms in the league. And while Tom Brady’s Patriots may have conquered the professional football world, college football’s self-professed “New England team” can’t even win in their own region: last year, UConn recorded a 13-3 victory over BC en route to being the only team from New England to qualify for a bowl game. Connecticut is a criminally untapped sports market: we are desperate for something to unify around instead of the Boston-New York rivalry tearing us apart. The Connecticut Open may not have been an NFL team, but it provided that local unity New Haven sports fans so rarely see.
What, then, was to become of the 15,000-seat tennis stadium-turned-white elephant? In the short term, not much. The Tennis Foundation of Connecticut still owned the stadium’s lease, and New Haven Youth Tennis and Education — New HYTEs — operated yearlong out of the office space there. I was lucky enough to be a summer camp counselor for four summers there, aiding their mission of providing mentoring programs to underprivileged youth in New Haven. It has been one of the joys of my life to watch those kids become thoughtful, successful young adults, who in turn have given back to the same community they came from. (Getting to play on the stadium court, albeit with no fans, was a pretty cool perk of the job as well.) We continued with our school year and summer programming even as the tennis foundation sold most of what was inside the building. Then, in late 2019, we received news that the College Street Music Hall’s owners took over the lease and planned to turn the stadium into a concert venue. Initially, New HYTEs was given 15 months to stay in the stadium before finding a new home; however, this was December 2019, and we all know what happened after only three. With no fanfare, a small group of masked staff members cleaned out New HYTEs’ remaining possessions in the Connecticut Tennis Center, as construction workers took out parts of the lower bowl in preparation for the stadium’s new use. Despite receiving zoning approval for a new facility in West Haven, New HYTEs has had a nomadic existence since leaving the stadium. Any new permanent home is a long way away. While I’m sure the concert organizers need the office space for themselves now, it still hurts to know that such an honorable organization is another casualty of losing the tournament.
My biggest fear is that the Connecticut Tennis Center’s new occupants will take what they have for granted. It’s easy to imagine a world where it becomes just another venue for veteran concertgoers in the state, who, in addition to the College Street Music Hall, have frequent shows at Hartford’s XL Center, Uncasville’s Mohegan Sun Arena and Bridgeport’s Total Mortgage Arena, among others. But such a status would be a tremendous disservice to the newly-christened Westville Music Bowl’s rich history both as a stadium and a gathering place for one of our city’s most passionate communities. If you were to ask me five years ago to describe New Haven’s appeal in three words, I would’ve said Yale, restaurants and tennis. I’m still hopeful that one day someone will decide to take the financial risk to bring professional tennis back — maybe even some current Yale classmate who will inevitably control a potential sponsor in the future. Don’t get me wrong, the tennis community is still here and here to stay, but this year marks a solemn milestone: not even the current Yale super-seniors were here when we last had one of New Haven’s greatest treasures. And that’s a damn shame.