- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2011

Denis Kudla’s birth certificate is from the Ukraine, but the 18-year-old tennis player is a Washingtonian at heart. His parents moved to Fairfax when he was 1, and he has called Arlington home for the past five years.

So Kudla calls the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, which officially starts at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park on Sunday, his hometown tournament. He’ll need to qualify for it beginning Saturday, but it’s hard to find an event in this sport that’s more special to Kudla.

“I’ve always told my friends and family, outside of the grand slams, this is the one tournament I wanted to win,” Kudla said Wednesday.

It’s a long process for Kudla to achieve that dream — one that includes him being one of the final six left among 24 qualifiers. Wimbledon quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic and rising U.S. star Ryan Harrison also will be vying to get into the main draw.

Kudla expects a lot of family and friends to watch him this weekend (and possibly beyond). With that comes extra pressure for a player who reached the quarterfinals at the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport, R.I., earlier this month.

“You don’t get to play in your hometown every single week,” Kudla said. “I hope I handle it better than I did last year.”

Kudla tried qualifying for the Legg Mason in 2010 only to fall 6-1, 6-1 to 2008 quarterfinalist Somdev Devvarman, a former University of Virginia standout.

Kudla learned a lesson from that performance as a 17-year-old and plenty more from his work with coach Diego Moyano. Kudla credited Moyano with helping to change his mentality and “remove the weaknesses” from his game.

Needing to fight through qualifying just to get into the Legg Mason, Kudla will need to show that those weaknesses are in the past. He has steadily climbed the world rankings from nothing in September 2009 to No. 332 now.

It’s the perfect time for Kudla to show the locals an improved game that he says has been on display for the past couple months.

“I feel like I can really make a mark on the tournament,” Kudla said.

He fondly remembers going to the Legg Mason as a kid and seeing Andre Agassi play live for the first time. If he makes it into the main draw, Kudla could have a date with another American star — either Andy Roddick or Marty Fish. Seventh-ranked player in the world, Gael Monfils, and 23rd-ranked Fernando Verdasco are set to play as well.

As a younger player, Kudla would have allowed himself to consider what a match against a guy like Roddick would be like, but not anymore.

“Now they’re competition,” he said. “You want to think ‘It’s just a tournament, I need to win this match’ and not have to worry about who you’re playing against, who you’re playing in front of or where you’re playing.”

Kudla spends most of his time training in Boca Raton, Fla., but still calls the D.C. area home. That’s why the dream of winning the Legg Mason — or even just making it — remains a big one.

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