Women of Mid-Atlantic Tennis: Keely O’Brien

Throughout Women’s History Month in March, USTA MAS will be profiling the work of women who are making a difference today in tennis communities throughout the Mid-Atlantic. Keely O’Brien is tournament director of the Citi Open, a men’s and women’s professional tournament hosted at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in Washington, D.C. She is currently the only female tournament director in the world for a 500 or above ATP event.

What is your tennis background? When did you start playing?

Growing up, our family had a tennis court in our backyard, so I started to play with my mom. She quickly realized that I would need lessons from a pro, because every time I played, I would try to hit the ball over the fence. One of my favorite parts of being on that court, unlike most kids today, was picking up the balls. I’ve always been competitive, so my mom would “time me” to see how many I could get in the hopper. I always “beat my time.”

Who or what inspired you to get involved in tennis?

A career in tennis was not on my radar. I knew I wanted to work in sports, but it wasn’t until my internship with the Legg Mason Tennis Classic (now Citi Open) in 2004, that I was hooked. I had the pleasure of sitting in the press box with our legendary Tournament Announcer, Charlie Brotman. Watching matches above Stadium Court was an unforgettable experience. I remember seeing the stadium fill up as players like Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt took the court. The athleticism of those legends was unbelievable.  Watching them cover the court during rallies and hearing the crowds erupt after a good point – I had never witnessed anything like that before. During the week, I shadowed a few staff members and had the opportunity to learn the different areas of event management. Before the week was over, I knew I wanted to be on this Tournament team. Thirteen years later…I’m still here.

Which professional player has been most inspirational for you?

That’s such a tough question! I definitely have some of my favorites, but I have to say they are all very inspiring. If you think about it, these players, and their families, have devoted their lives to this sport. Some of them started as soon as they could walk and have given up a childhood and adolescent years that many of us are so accustomed to, to focus on training and perfecting their skill. For the most part, they live out of suitcases and travel week to week hoping they make it far enough in the draw to bring home a sizable paycheck and possibly a trophy. Granted, they are following their dreams and have the privilege of doing something they love every single day, but that comes with many sacrifices. I am very proud to have the opportunity to work in the sport with these incredible athletes.

What advice do you have for a young girl who has recently started playing tennis?

Stay focused, stay hungry and keep a smile on your face!

Historically, tennis has led the way among sports by awarding equal prize money and giving exposure to female athletes in addition to male athletes. How else do you see tennis as a leader in gender equity?  

What sets tennis apart from any other sport in the world is that it provides a platform for men and women to play on the same surface, under the same conditions in simultaneous competition. The men’s and women’s games are very intertwined in a way that other sports are not, and I think that shared spotlight benefits the entire sport and helps attract both boys and girls to play and follow the game.