Tennis is different from many of the other sports Cincinnatians love. It’s more fluid than football, more balletic than baseball - and just slightly classier than cornhole.
So as the winners of the Western & Southern Open are crowned this weekend, it’s only fitting that the trophy the champions will hoist is all of those things as well.
The first Cincinnati Open was held in Avondale in 1899. Winners played only for the title that year; there was no prize money, no trophy. Just some lovely parting gifts. The gentlemen’s champion earned a Rookwood Pottery tankard and six ale mugs, at the time worth about $150. The ladies champ took home a Rookwood vase, worth roughly the same.
More than a century and a multitude of titles, sponsors and trophies rolled by before the Western & Southern Open decided to pay homage to that first tournament, commissioning what’s now known as the Rookwood Cup in 2010.
“We’re now on edition number three,” explained Rookwood historian George Hibben.
Rookwood artist Roy Robinson came up with a double-handled design that includes tennis balls surrounded by acanthus leaves. As trophies go, it’s undeniably unique - and undeniably Rookwood.
That first year, as the women’s champ held the cup high, The Enquirer reported, “The trophy was a hit with Kim Clijsters... When she hoisted the trophy at Center Court, she could not take her eyes off the work of art.”
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The trophy held high at Center Court stays with the tournament, but the men’s and women’s winners take home full-color, 14-inch versions of it, while the runners-up earn white versions.
Like the team that got Clijsters and every winner to that champion’s balcony, creating the trophy takes a village.
Many artisans have their hands on what becomes the Rookwood Cup. It takes multiple revisions, detail work, firings and months of labor in the Over-the-Rhine facility to create the single vessel you see on Championship Sunday.
“Ceramics is one of those things …. Well, it’s just not as predictable as painting a wall, or even oil on canvas,” Hibben explained. “Because it’s chemistry, and with the heat – anything can take a shift on you.”
Since the Cup is handmade, each is slightly different, but consistency is key. As artists apply one of five signature Rookwood glazes, they weigh the piece over and over to find the “spray weight.” They know down to a fraction of an ounce how much of each glaze must be applied. This isn’t something you can eyeball, either, since the glazes don’t reach their true color until after they’re fired.
Rookwood Pottery says the cup represents “strength, pride, performance and craftsmanship.”
A fitting prize for a sport that celebrates the same.
“This is a celebration of good things in Cincinnati,” said Hibben. “It’s a phenomenal event for our city. We definitely want to be involved with it.”