By Dave Gertler
(July 28, 2014) The Citi Open in Washington D.C. is the only North American fixture on an 11-event ATP World Tour 500 series calendar. The defending men’s champion is Juan Martin del Potro, who hasn’t completed his rehab from left-wrist surgery in time to defend his title, leaving Czech Tomas Berdych as the highest-ranked player in a strong men’s field that also includes world No.7 Milos Raonic, No.11 Kei Nishikori, No.12 John Isner and No.14 Richard Gasquet. The withdrawal of stars Grigor Dimitrov and Gael Monfils before the draw was announced did not impact the fact that this is one of the strongest men’s draws the Citi Open has seen.
The tournament takes place at the William HG Fitzgerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park, with a Stadium Court that holds 7,500 people at full capacity. The arena took a year to build, opening in 1991, and was named after a man who was one of Washington’s leading philanthropists, and who helped establish what is now the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF), and organization that uses tennis to help disadvantaged youth in the D.C. area.
The WTEF is the owner and beneficiary of the Citi Open, and has organized a series of fundraisers and community programs throughout the week, including top seed Tomas Berdych leading a community tennis clinic, a ‘Celebrating Our Heroes Day’ which featured WTA drawcard Sloane Stephens, and the screening of a documentary called ‘Queens At Court’, about struggles and successes of four lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender amateur tennis players.
While the WTA Citi Open event has only been going for three years, the history of the men’s singles event goes back to 45 years ago, when Thomaz Koch from Brazil beat Arthur Ashe in a five-set final. Since then, the tournament has been won by luminaries of the sport such as Ken Rosewall, Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas, Ivan Lendl, Yannick Noah, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt. Agassi currently holds the record at five titles, Connors also won all three finals he appeared in (as well as being doubles runner-up with Ashe in 1974), as has Argentina’s Del Potro.
Inaugurated as the Washington Star International from 1969 to 1981, the tournament was also known as the Sovran Bank Classic from the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s. Pete Sampras, whom many consider the greatest player that ever lived, was actually born in Washington D.C. but never played the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, as it was known from 1994-2011.
While Sampras is long retired, the D.C. crowd will still be able to cheer on a few of their own. Treat Huey, a D.C. native and resident, will take the court with doubles partner Dom Inglot in an attempt to reclaim a title they won in 2012.
Considerably more hype, however, has been placed around the 16-year-old winner of the Citi Open Wildcard Challenge, Francis Tiafoe, who grew up a short drive north of Rock Creek Park, at College Park Tennis Center. Taifoe’s wildcard was initially purposed for qualification-round entry, but after the withdrawal of France’s Gael Monfils, it was upgraded to a main-draw berth. Tiafoe faces Russia’s Evgeny Donskoy in their first round match on Monday night.
Australia’s Sam Groth, who lost in qualifying, has been named Lucky Loser in Dimitrov’s absence, and will play Israel’s Dudi Sela in their first round match on Tuesday.
Dave Gertler is a tennis journalist, player and musician based in Sydney covering Citi Open for Tennis Panorama News. Follow his Twitter updates from the tournament @TennisNewsTPN, follow him on his personal Twitter @davegertler, read his blog, and listen to his podcast, Tennis Days .