Washington

How the Citi Open lured Rafael Nadal to D.C.

Washington

The Citi Open is welcoming its biggest star – men’s or women’s – to the Washington D.C. tennis tournament this year. Rafael Nadal, the 20-time major champion, will head to Rock Creek Park as he returns to competition for the first time since the French Open.

For the 52-year-old tournament, it is a tremendous opportunity to highlight the event with one of the greatest athletes ever. While continuing to make his case as arguably the greatest male tennis player of all time, Nadal has transcended sport as a global figure. The Citi Open always likes to celebrate its strong field as a 500-level event on the ATP calendar. Never, though, has a player of Nadal’s stature been a part of the field.

Getting the first member of the ‘Big Three’ (Roger Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic) to attend the Citi Open since Federer’s first year on tour in 1999, was the result of a process that began a few years ago.

“Since we took over the event two years ago, we've made a real point to outreach to all the top players to tell them about the event, the experience they would have and why they should consider coming to Washington,” Mark Ein, Citi Open Chairman and CEO of MDE Tennis, told NBC Sports Washington.

“[Nadal] had never been to Washington, D.C., [Nadal’s team] reached out to us as a couple weeks ago and said this is something they were considering. We obviously did everything we could to show them that Washington would be a fantastic place for him to play and also have an experience for a city he's never been.”

The decision from the current No. 3 player in the world came just two days prior to the announcement. Past the main draw deadline for the event held from July 31 to Aug. 8 at Rock Creek Park in Northeast, D.C, he had to receive a Wild Card entry.

Washington will be the first tournament for Nadal in two months. Nadal elected not to play at Wimbledon or the Tokyo Olympics after his semifinal loss to Djokovic in the French Open. The Spaniard wanted to focus on his body and getting back to peak form on the tour. Because of the pandemic, Nadal did not play in the United States during the 2020 season. His last tournament in America was his championship at the 2019 U.S. Open.

“I am very excited to come to Washington for the first time,” Nadal said in a statement. “I have never been there and it’s one more place I wanted to come and play. I am looking forward to playing again and Washington shall be the best start for the US Summer Swing for me. Looking forward to seeing again my US fans that I haven’t seen since I won the 2019 US Open in NYC!. Vamos!”

His 20 major championships are tied with Federer for the most ever, a mark Djokovic could match by claiming Wimbledon this weekend.  Overall, he’ll be seeking his 89th singles title which is fourth all-time (behind Jimmy Connors, Federer and Ivan Lendl).

“It's indescribable to have a global icon like Rafa come to our city and our community. This tournament, and being the 52nd year we've hosted this event, we've had great champions like Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl and Arthur Ashe, but I think Rafa takes it even to another level,” Ein said. “There never really has been a player like him come play in our tournament and in our community and it's just extraordinarily exciting for all of us.”

Marquee players have always been a staple of the Citi Open through the years. Andy Murray made a few returns from injury in D.C. Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick made multiple stops while at the peak of their careers in the mid-2000s. Back in the 1990s, Andre Agassi was a mainstay in the field winning it five times and prior to him was Connors, Lendl and Arthur Ashe. The Bryan brothers have also been prominently featured in doubles competition.

Nadal will bring it to a different level in 2021 and the Citi Open is excited for the District's response.

 “He transcends tennis. He transcends sports. I mean he's one of those one-name people when you say Rafa you know who we're talking about,” Ein said. “To me what it means the most to are the kids in our community are going to get to come see him in person firsthand. See him, see him practice, see him play and hopefully inspire future generations of tennis players sports stars, business people, whoever who just get inspired by seeing the world's best right in their own community.”