A History of the Colorado Tennis Championships
Legends of the State Open: Don Budge (1933), Bobby Riggs (1937) and Althea Gibson (1956-57) were some of the many world class players to capture titles at the Colorado Tennis Championships.
Each year, tournament players in Colorado and throughout the six-state Intermountain Section mark three USTA sanctioned tournaments on their calendars — the Denver City Open, the Intermountain Championships, and the Colorado Tennis Championships.
Known colloquially in the Rocky Mountain region as “the Big Three”, these events are some of the largest tennis tournaments in the entire United States.
The Denver City Open was first contested in 1914 at Denver City Park, and has been held annually at Denver Tennis Club since 1928. The tournament hosts more than 600 entries annually, making it one of the nation’s top-10 biggest events.
The Intermountain Sectional Championships has also been around for more than 100 years. The event has been held in Utah, Idaho and Colorado, and has been contested in Boulder for several decades now.
The oldest and grandest of the “Big Three” is the Colorado Tennis Championships, the nation’s largest annual tennis tournament with more than 1,600 entries in 2018. The event has been held at a variety of sites over its long run, gracing clubs like the Denver Athletic Club, the Denver Country Club, the Colorado Racquet Club, Denver City Park, the Country Club of Colorado and most recently the Gates Tennis Center.
The first Colorado Tennis Championships was held 120 years ago, in 1891. Colorado had only become a state 25 years prior, and tennis had only recently arrived in America. The United States National Lawn Tennis Association (USNLTA), now the United States Tennis Association, had formed just a decade earlier, in 1881, the same year the very first national championships were held.
The Championships, which have been recognized with nearly a dozen different names, began as the “Rocky Mountain Tennis Championships”, organized by the Western Lawn Tennis Association, and was open to players from Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. The first tournament was competed on the five clay courts of Denver Athletic Club Park, located between Colfax (15th) and 17th Avenue, one block from Denver City Park.
In 1907, the tournament moved to the Denver Country Club, and was renamed “Colorado State Championships”. After two years, the USNLTA took over for the Western LTA and became the official patron in 1909. In 1955, the newly formed Colorado Tennis Association (CTA) became the district affiliate of the USTA in Colorado, and has governed tournaments and other tennis programs in the state ever since. Today, the CTA is recognized as USTA Colorado.
For 60 years, the clay courts of the DCC hosted the Colorado State Championships, with just a few exceptions. In an effort to honor wartime efforts during World War I, the USNLTA declared that no official state championships in the country be awarded in 1917. Instead, those winners were referred to as “Red Cross Champions”. In 1921-22, Denver City Park hosted the event, and during the last three years of World War II, when the event was canceled.
Beginning in the 1930s and through the early 1950s, the Colorado State Championships drew some of the biggest names in the game, as top young California players stopped to play in the tournament on their way to the big eastern grass court event in Forest Hills, NY. Don Budge, age 17, won the men’s singles title in 1933. Bobby Riggs would win it in 1937, Jack Kramer in 1942, and Tony Trabert in 1954.
Notable other NCAA Champions and numerous International Tennis Hall of Fame (ITHOF) inductees, including Gardnar Mulloy, Art Larsen, Bill Talbert, Alex Olmedo, Gene Mako and Lew Hoad would go on to hoist the trophy. The last ITHOF inductee to capture the men’s single title at the Championships was Mexican-great Rafael Osuna in 1960. Monetary and housing demands led to the absence of international players, which opened the way for local talent to shine.
Ladies events had been added to the tournament offerings in 1924, which brought many of the biggest names in women’s tennis to Denver as well. Historically significant players included International Tennis Hall of Famer Dorothy “Dodo” Cheney, who won the women’s singles title six times. Her first victory in 1936 was just a few months removed from her victory at the Australian National Championships. Dodo's career went on to span nearly 80 years, as she amassed nearly 300 USTA National Championship titles ("Gold Balls"). Another notable champion was Bobby Riggs’ coach Dr. Esther Bartosh.
Among the greatest names to ever compete in the Championships was Althea Gibson, who won the ladies championship in 1956 and 1957, the same years she captured the world's attention by winning Roland Garros (French Open), Wimbledon and the US National Championships (US Open).
With the Colorado Tennis Association focusing on sanctioned tournaments and expanding tournament offerings across the state, the number of tennis players grew. Sanctioned tournaments were being offered across the state, and by the late 1960s the number of facilities had also grown so as to accommodate the influx of new players. The number of sanctioned events soared as every new facility wanted to be part of the growing popularity of the sport.
And because of its prestige, many clubs vied for the opportunity to host the Colorado Tennis Championships. In 1968, the tournament was relocated from Denver Country Club when the Colorado Racquet Club (on Arapahoe Road in what is now Centennial) was selected to host the event. The tournament remained there until 1975, during the height of the American “tennis boom”.
The early 1970s was an era of unprecedented tennis growth in America, coming on the heels of the professionalization of tennis and the culture-changing Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. One of Denver’s greatest tennis philanthropists, Charlie Gates, Jr., helped spearhead the creation of a public tennis facility in the heart of Cherry Creek, the Gates Tennis Center.
When the facility was completed in 1975, the new 20-court facility was given the sanction to host the "Colorado State Open Tennis Championships" by the Colorado Tennis Association. the name was shortened in 1988 to "Colorado State Open" and kept that moniker until 2021.
With the exception of 1984 when the Country Club of Colorado in Colorado Springs was selected to host the event — the only time in its history when the tournament was not held in Denver. The Colorado State Open has been held at Gates Tennis Center ever since, save for the unfortunate cancellation of the tournament during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beginning in 2022, the event has been rebranded as the Colorado Tennis Championships, hearkening back to its roots in the early 1890s. In addition to the name change, the event will now be hosted by Colorado Athletic Clubs Inverness and Monaco. The new venue and name represent a continuation of that 130 plus year tradition.
The long history of success of the Colorado Tennis Championships is a testament to the level of professionalism and pride that host facilities have exhibited when hosting one of the oldest, and largest, tennis tournaments in the country.
As a part of its ongoing mission, the USTA (including the state, sectional and national governing bodies) remains focused on promoting and growing the sport by working with the entire Colorado tennis community in guiding the direction of major events like the Colorado Tennis Championships and the other Big Three championships, as well as the many other tournaments that are hosted each year throughout the state.