Accidental Tourist Nadal Makes Washington Debut This Week

Rafael Nadal (photo: @CitiOpen/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, August 2, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

There’s little that Rafael Nadal hasn’t achieved during his nearly two-decade tennis career. He’s won 20 major titles (including 13 at the French Open), led Spain to five Davis Cup titles, won a pair of Olympic gold medals and been ranked World No. 1.

However, until this week, Nadal had never played at the Citi Open, the ATP 500 hard court event in the nation’s capital city that is one of the major preps for the US Open. It had never fit into his schedule until now.

The 20-time Grand Slam champion Nadal, who will make his Washington, D.C. debut Wednesday evening against either 192nd-ranked American wild card Jack Sock or No. 56 Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan, has been idle since June 11, when he suffered an uncharacteristic and heartbreaking semifinal loss to World No. 1 Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros.

On Sunday, during an interview session that followed a public workout on Stadium Court at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in northwest Washington, Nadal revealed that neither the physical or mental toil of the European clay-court season – in which the Spaniard always spills his gut and wears his heart on his sleeve – was the reason for withdrawing from last month’s Wimbledon or last week’s Olympic Tennis Event.

Instead, Nadal, who has won a pair of ATP Tour titles this season, attributed his absence in these recent major events due to a flare-up of a nagging ailment with his left foot. “My body decided for me,” he said. It was so bad that Nadal didn’t pick up a tennis racquet for nearly three weeks.

During the past two months, Nadal has taken a measured approach to rehabilitation in preparation for returning to the ATP Tour in time for the North American hard court season. “You have to trust the process,” he told The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke. “And you need to accept the feeling that it’s going to be horrible for a couple of days, sometimes a couple of weeks.”

When Nadal was asked if his foot injury kept him from being able to beat Djokovic at Roland Garros, a match he lost 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2, he answered: “I lost against a great player – that is it. You can’t win all the time.”

Since last October, when Nadal won the 2020 French Open, he’s been tied with Roger Federer for most career major titles with 20. Last month, Djokovic’s Wimbledon triumph on grass made it a three-way tie. The Serbian has won all three Grand Slam singles titles this year – the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon Championships – and will be the favorite when the US Open takes place later this month in New York.

Nadal was asked if he thought Djokovic could be successful in completing the calendar Grand Slam – not achieved since Rod Laver accomplished it in 1969 – which would give him his 21st major title. He replied: “He already won three. So, when you win three, you can win four, without a doubt, no? He did 75 percent of the way. He [is] going to be playing on hard court, probably his best surface. So why not?

“Of course, it’s something difficult. [There are] going to be other guys that want to achieve the last Slam of the season. But of course, he’s one of the clear favorites.”

On Saturday and Sunday, the Citi Open showcased Nadal in a series of public workouts on Stadium Court, which drew a mixture of diehard fans and plenty of curious spectators – all hoping to catch a glimpse of the Spanish great. On Saturday, Nadal enjoyed an early-evening hit with #NextGenATP American rising star Sebastian Korda. Then, before he met with the media Sunday afternoon, Nadal shared a practice hit with 21st-ranked Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, who is seeded fourth. Both days, Nadal bantered with fans, posed for selfies and signed autographs – all in a day’s work and play for the World No. 3 and top seed.

For all of his worldly travels, Nadal had never been to the United States capital city of Washington until he arrived last Thursday. Usually, Nadal starts his summer North American hard court swing in Canada or Cincinnati while bypassing the Citi Open. However, his rehab schedule from his injury setback made coming to Washington very inviting. It was all in the timing, coupled no doubt with the persuasive talents of tournament owner Mark Ein and tournament director Carlos Silva to convince Nadal to come. Once Nadal committed to the Citi Open, ticket sales soared. His Wednesday debut is virtually sold out.

“Here I am. I am excited to be in Washington for the first time of my life and to play this event for the first time, too, that has a great history,” Nadal said. “I am excited to be back playing in America, after more than a year without playing here, especially playing in front of the full crowd, full stadium. It’s something we are not seeing for such a long time So, going to be a great feeling again and I am very excited about it.”

Because of jet lag, Nadal has been spotted taking early-morning walks in Georgetown and along the Potomac River. His first impressions?

“It’s different than most of the American cities I have been in – lower buildings, and the city is super green, something that I love,” he said beaming a smile. “Yesterday (Saturday), I was 6 in the morning walking in the city. I walked around for one hour [and] 30 [minutes] in the morning. … I was walking just by myself. But I had fun.

“I love to be here in Washington because it’s not only a new event for me, it’s a new city. I am able to visit one of the most important cities in the world. And honestly, it’s very beautiful city. I am very impressed. I hope to have a chance to visit a little bit more [of] the city during the next couple of days.”

Monday’s order of play

Around the Citi Open

• As the 52nd edition of the Citi Open begins Monday after a one-year respite due to the coronavirus pandemic, No. 12 seed Sebastian Korda is one of 15 Americans in this year’s Citi Open field, which includes Maryland native and U.S. Olympian Frances Tiafoe, as well as Virginia native Denis Kudla. The last American to win the Citi Open? Andy Roddick in 2007.

• There are 14 players in the Citi Open draw who competed in last week’s Olympic Tennis Event at the Tokyo Games: Americans Marcos Giron, Tommy Paul, Tennys Sandgren and Frances Tiafoe; James Duckworth and John Millman of Australia; Egor Gerasimov and Ilya Ivashka of Belarus; Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada; Daniel Elahi Galan of Colombia; Kei Nishikori and Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan; Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan; and Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia. Ivashka and Nishikori enjoyed the deepest run of any, both making it to the third round.

Reigning Citi Open champion Nick Kyrgios returns to defend his title. Unseeded, Kyrgios will play American Mackenzie McDonald in the first round Tuesday and, if he wins, would play No. 13 seed Benoit Paire in the second round. One former Citi Open champion, No. 67 Kei Nishikori (who won the tournament in 2015), is unseeded and faces No. 68 Sam Querrey in the first round.