- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2021

Frances Tiafoe remembers attending the Citi Open as a child, admiring the professional players he saw on the tennis courts at Rock Creek Park. 

The Hyattsville, Maryland, native watched tennis greats like Juan Martin del Potro and James Blake play on the grounds and he was motivated to join them. The experience he had as a child inspired Tiafoe to pursue his dream of being a professional tennis player.

“You’re like, ‘Wow, I can maybe play with these guys one day, even be in the same locker room as these guys,’” Tiafoe said Sunday. “I think those experiences definitely helped me to be the man I am today.”

One player Tiafoe didn’t see play in the District? Rafael Nadal. Now, the young players in the stands this week at the tournament will be able to watch the tennis star in person.

Tiafoe, who’s played on tennis’ biggest stages in the Olympics and at Wimbledon, can’t fathom that Nadal, a 20-time grand slam winner, is playing at the Citi Open.

“It’s just unbelievable that he came here to D.C.,” Tiafoe said. “Having a player of his caliber here is pretty legendary.”

Mark Ein, the CEO of the Citi Open, compared the inspiration that local children got from the Washington Capitals’ recent success to what he hopes having Nadal and other top players in the world playing at the tournament has on them.

“There’s nothing like the chance for a kid to come out and see the best players in the world in person to inspire them to want to be there and give them something to aspire to be,” Ein told the Washington Times.

“Before the Caps were the big thing in town, hockey wasn’t big amongst kids. Now there’s a shortage of ice skating rinks because they were inspired,” Ein said. “The bigger we can make this event, the more people that are going to come out, the more people that are going to go out and play tennis themselves and that’s the impact that we want to have.”

The Citi Open will be played at full capacity and Ein said the tournament has sold every single ticket it’s able to and has about 16,000 people on a waiting list to purchase tickets. The increased demand to attend the event this year spurred from Nadal’s D.C. debut.

“He’s not just a tennis icon, he’s not just a sporting icon, he’s a global icon,” Ein said of Nadal. “He’s one of those people in the world who has a one word name — Rafa — and you know who you’re talking about. … There’s nothing much like that in sports and that’s the Rafa effect.”

Ein said he thinks the addition of Nadal to this year’s tournament will have a “long-lasting impact” on the Citi Open and the tennis community in the District.

“I think this potentially changes the event for a very long time,” Ein said. “I think it does shine a spotlight for the top players that this is a place to come.”

It’s the first time Nadal has played in the District and at the Citi Open. The experience of playing in a new tournament is something Nadal doesn’t get as often at this point of his 20-year career.

Nadal said he was impressed by Washington and added that he was enjoying his time so far in the nation’s capital.

“I love to be here in Washington because is not only a new event for me, is a new city,” Nadal said. “I am able to visit one of the most important cities in the world. And honestly, it’s a very beautiful city.”

The 35-year-old tennis star took 20 days off from playing to take care of a foot injury he suffered. During his break, Nadal missed the Olympics in Tokyo and Wimbledon, but beginning this week, he’s focused on preparing for the U.S. Open at the end of August.

“When I see the calendar, my goal was to be here in Washington,” Nadal said. “Playing in Washington allow me to be on the tour one week before I usually do for this part of the season.”

When Nadal takes the court Wednesday night in his opening match of the tournament, it’ll be his first in front of an American crowd in over a year since he didn’t play in last year’s U.S. Open due to concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am excited to be back playing in America after more than a year without playing here,” Nadal said, “especially playing in front of the full crowd.”

Tiafoe, who once sat in the stands at Rock Creek Park, said he can’t wait to feel the energy from the fans.

“They are going to get super behind me all week,” Tiafoe said. “Hopefully I can go for a nice run here. … This is one of my staples of the year, so I’m ready for it.”

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