Nadal Beats Sock In Electrifying Citi Open Debut

Rafael Nadal (photo: ATP video)

WASHINGTON, August 5, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Rafael Nadal made his much-anticipated Citi Open debut Wednesday. It’s the first time he’s played an ATP Tour singles event for the first time since 2017 at Brisbane. He’s also a wild card for the first time in five years. While some things may be new to the 35-year-old Nadal this week, one thing’s certain: he hasn’t forgot how to play tennis or how to excite a crowd.

From the time the 20-time major champion and current World No. 3 walked out on Stadium Court at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center in northwest Washington to play his first match in the United States in nearly two years, since the 2019 US Open final, through the three-hour and five-minute conclusion of his featured evening session match against American wild card Jack Sock, the sold out crowd of 7,500 was abuzz – first with anticipation of seeing the Spanish superstar perform and later with thunderous applause.

“Rafa doesn’t just transcend tennis,” said Mark Ein, Citi Open chairman and CEO of MDE Tennis, which operates the ATP 500 hard court tournament that’s been part of the nation’s capital city sporting fabric for 52 years. “He transcends sports. He’s one of the people in the world who has a one-word name. You say ‘Rafa’ and people now exactly who you’re talking about. He’s a global icon.”

Nadal didn’t disappoint. He put on quite a show. Now, Rafa gets to do it all over again on Thursday evening.

While the odds favored the top-seeded Nadal against the 192nd-ranked Sock, he’s historically done well against players from the United States. He came in 74-10 against Americans with active win streaks of 11 matches and 27 sets. The last American to beat Nadal? Try three-time Citi Open finalist John Isner back in 2017 at the Laver Cup.

In his first match since losing to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at Roland Garros on June 11 – and his first on a hard court February 17, when he lost in the Australian Open quarterfinals to Stefanos Tsitsipas – Nadal found a way to win against Sock, which he did 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (1). He thrilled the crowd with a plethora of blistering forehand shots and intensity, which are his signature traits.

Nadal had not competed since Roland Garros in early June due to a foot injury that subsequently keep him from picking up a tennis racquet for nearly three weeks. He skipped Wimbledon and the Olympics to rest and recover before accepting a wild card to come to Washington, D.C. Now, if his win over Sock is any indication, Nadal is ready to go. He’ll be back in action on Thursday evening against No. 14 seed Lloyd Harris of South Africa, ranked 50th, who advanced with a 6-4, 1-0 retirement win over No. 83 Tennys Sandgren of the United States.

“Playing in Washington allows me to be on the tour one week before than what I do usually for this part of the season. But missing Wimbledon, I think that’s the right thing to do. The decision I think is the right one,” Nadal said earlier this week. “Super happy to be here. [The] tournament organization is doing amazing.”

After garnering plenty of attention and spreading good will through a series of public practices over the weekend on Stadium Court at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, Nadal enjoyed an afternoon of sightingseeing via bicycle in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, which he documented on his Instagram with photos of him posing in front of the U.S. Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Rafa Nadal (@rafaelnadal)

Nadal knew there would be a sense of uncertainty after not playing competitively on the ATP Tour for nearly two months. However, if his practices and first match back are any indication, he’s worked hard to raise his level, especially with consecutive ATP Masters 1000 events coming up in the next two weeks in Toronto and Cincinnati before the US Open begins on August 30.

In facing a determined and resurgent Sock, once a former World No. 8 who was a Citi Open semifinalist in 2017 before falling on hard times with thumb and back injuries, Nadal ripped 41 winners, including 27 from his forehand side, and made 17 unforced errors. By comparison, Sock hit 41 winners (28 forehand) but committed 33 unforced errors. Nadal was solid coming into the net, winning 12 of 16 approaches, and he captured 70 percent (47 of 67) of his first-serve points while saving eight of the 10 break points he faced. He outpointed Sock 115-102. The 28-year-old American was out-aced by Nadal 8-7 and his serve was broken three times.

“It was a tough match and I managed to find a way at the end. Sorry for Jack,” Nadal said during an on-court interview after the match. “The energy here in Washington has been unforgettable after such a tough year and a half.

“Getting to play in front of these great people is just fantastic. I enjoyed it, I suffered a little bit but it’s normal. I hope to be ready for tomorrow.”

While Nadal showed a noticeable limp and seemed to favor his left foot toward the end of the match, he concealed whatever pain he might have been feeling – never requiring a trainer visit – and it never seemed to affect his ability to fight for every point as is his style.

“My fitness is fine,” Nadal said in press. “I just need to be a little bit – I need to have a little bit of less pain in the foot, honestly. That’s the truth. But physically I feel more or less okay.”

For now, Nadal has lived to play another day at the Citi Open, something for which he and all tennis fans are grateful.

“I don’t know how long it will take to recover everything, but the only thing I can say is I’m here just to try my best in every single moment. I hope the past couple of days of practices keep helping me to be competitive enough …” Nadal said before match. “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 stadiums.”

Auger-Aliassime finding right solutions to win

No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime‘s 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Italy’s Andreas Seppi on Tuesday afternoon left the 20-year-old Canadian feeling a bit weary. It came after participating in the Tokyo Olympic Games last week, where he lost in the first round to Max Purcell of Australia.

“The way it started, it felt like it wasn’t meant to be,” Auger-Aliassime described his win against the 88th-ranked  Seppi during an on-court interview. “We play a lot of matches during the year and I guaranteee you it’s not always pretty. I tried to fight and find solutions. I had to dig deep and fight really well.”

Later in press, he added: “I guess, to win ugly, in a way, coming back from really a poor set of tennis in the first, to come back and win it, it’s good that I can also win matches that way.”

Now, the World No. 15 Auger-Aliassime is through to the third-round in Washington, D.C., and awaiting him will be 130th-ranked American newcomer Jenson Brooksby, who upset No. 16 seed and area favorite Frances Tiafoe 7-6 (4), 7-5 Tuesday evening.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Citi Open (@citiopen)

Auger-Aliassime has already played 40 matches this season – he’s 25-15 – and his increased workload can be attributed to making deeper runs in tournaments that he competes in. He’s reached the quarterfinals or better in six tournaments in 2021. However, with success there’s been some spoils.

“Wimbledon has been great, but the transition has not been easy – physically, mentally, the traveling,” he said. “I’m still a little bit jet-lagged from Tokyo. Just this whole combination hasn’t made it easy for me the last couple of weeks after Wimbledon.”

Looking ahead, Auger-Aliassime could meet No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal for the Washington title Sunday, if both advance, which also happens to be his 21st birthday. Nadal’s uncle and former coach, Toni Nadal, has helped coach Auger-Aliassime since April and during that time he reached his eighth ATP Tour-level final in Stuttgart. He also beat his idol, Roger Federer, on grass at Halle.

“I try to take it one week at a time,” Auger-Aliassime said. “There are so many weeks in the season. I feel like to be consistent you really have to make an effort to stay in the present.”

Wednesday’s Citi Open results

Thursday’s Citi Open order of play

Azarenka added to Citi Open Women’s Invitational

Former World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, currently ranked World No. 15, has been added to the four-player field for the inaugural Citi Open Women’s Invitational this weekend. She joins Americans Coco Gauff, Jennifer Brady and Jessica Pegula.

Azarenka will play Gauff Thursday evening in the opening match of the invitational.

Around the Citi Open

• It’s been an eventful week for #NextGenATP American rising star Brandon Nakashima this week. First, on Sunday, he played in his second ATP Tour-level final in two weeks at the Atlanta Open. Next, on Monday, he broke into the ATP Top 100 at No. 89 thanks to his in-form two-week run in Los Cabos and Atlanta. Then, on Tuesday, Nakashima celebrated his 20th birthday with a solid win over Alexei Popyrin.

Finally, on Wednesday, Nakashima eliminated No. 6 Dan Evans of Great Britain, 7-6 (1), 6-0, to reach the third round of the Citi Open in their first meeting. Nakashima hit five aces and converted four of five break-point chances against the No. 27 Evans for his 10th victory in his past 12 matches.

“It definitely feels great right now. Having all this confidence from playing all these matches, going deep in tournaments has been good for me,” Nakashima said in press. “I’m sure every player would want to have this feeling right now of playing well and winning all these matches. I’m just trying to embrace it as much as possible.”

Evans, recovering from a recent bout with Covid-19 that forced him to miss last week’s Olympic Tennis Event, was impressed by Nakashima. “I think he’s got obviously a very big future. He seems very calm and levelheaded, which is a good thing,” he said. “He played good today. He put me away pretty convincingly in the end. He’s going to be a good player.”

Next, Nakashima will face No. 103 Denis Kudla, who knocked off No. 10 seed Taylor Fritz,6-4, 6-2, in an all-American matchup that began play on Stadium Court Wednesday. Kudla hit 27 winners, including five aces, to 21 unforced errors and converted five of eight break-point opportunities during their one hour and 19-minute tussle. He closed out the victory on his fourth match-point opportunity with a service winner.

• No. 11 seed John Millman of Australia advanced to the third round with a hard-fought 6-2, 7-6 (8) win over 168th-ranked qualifier Elias Ymer of Sweden in two hours and two minutes that was decided on the Aussie’s third match-point opportunity. The second-round match ended when Ymer netted a forehand that quashed a 10-shot rally. Millman outpointed Ymer 85-73.

Next, Millman will face No. 8 seed Reilly Opelka of the United States, who beat No. 113 Daniel Elahi Galan of Colombia, 7-6 (1), 6-3, in back of nine service aces. The 36th-ranked American saved all five break points he faced during the one hour and 35-minute match, winning 84 percent (36 of 43) first-serve points.

• Unseeded No. 81 Steve Johnson of the United States rallied from dropping a first-set tie break and scored the biggest upset of the tournament in beating No. 3 seed and 2018 Citi Open finalist Alex de Minaur of Australia. Johnson’s 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-2 victory in two hours and 17 minutes to moved him into the third round against No. 86  Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania. Johnson hit seven aces, won 74 percent (39 of 53) of his first-serve points and outpointed the 18th-ranked de Minaur 101-94.

• No. 5 seed Jannik Sinner of Italy advanced to a third-round matchup against No. 12 seed Sebastian Korda of the United States after beating No. 69 Emil Ruusuvuori of Finland, 6-2, 6-4, in 78 minutes. Sinner won 85 percent (17 of 20) of his first-serve points and faced no break points on his serve. The victory ended a four-match losing streak.

Sinner and Korda are doubles partners this week at the Citi Open and won their first-round match over qualifiers Benoit Paire and Jackson Withrow 1-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Tuesday.

• No. 65 Ilya Ivashka of Belarus knocked out No. 4 seed Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, 6-2, 7-6 (4), in one hour and 51 minutes, winning on his second match-point try. Ivashka overcame Dimitrov’s 24 winners and 4o unforced errors by hitting five aces and 12 winners and outpointing his opponent 82-68.

Next, Ivashka will face unseeded No. 107 Mackenzie McDonald of the United States, who fended off No. 13 seed Benoit Paire of France, 6-7 (6), 6-4, 6-4, in two hours and 17 minutes. The victory ensures McDonald, the former NCAA singles champion at UCLA, will break into the ATP Top 100 next week. Although Paire fired 17 aces, he also committed hit 10 double faults and McDonald broke the Frenchman’s serve five times in 17 opportunities.

• No. 67 Kei Nishikori of Japan upset No. 9 seed Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, 6-2, 7-5, in an hour and 36 minutes to advance to Thursday’s third round against No. 7 Cameron Norrie of Great Britain. Bublik was undone by 19 double faults and Nishikori won 72 percent (18 of 25) of his second-serve points, outpointing Bublik 92-75.

By the numbers

Last month, Kei Nishikori fell to No. 69  – his lowest spot in the FedEx ATP Rankings in more than a decade. The 2015 Citi Open champion is 5-1 since then, including a run to the Tokyo Olympics quarterfinals last week. With his win over No. 9 seed Alexander Bublik, Nishikori improved to 16-6 lifetimein Washington.

“Quotable …”

“My head’s in the shed, to be honest. I didn’t play great. I know there are going to be a lot of people disappointed.

“I’ll get back on the practice court. All I can do is just keep trying to play, keep swinging, and hopefully things will turn.”

Nick Kyrgios, 2019 Citi Open champion, who lost 6-4, 6-4 to Mackenzie McDonald in Tuesday evening’s first round.

“It’s always tough, especially when you’re playing the final of one tournament and then having to bounce back the next day or a couple days later and play another new tournament against another top player. I just try to tell myself to just stay calm out there, just focus on what I do best. All these hard-court matches have helped me with my confidence in my game, knowing that I can compete with all these top guys if I bring my best game out there.

“I think it’s great that I’m able to back up these good weeks with another good run back to back. Hopefully I can continue here.”

Brandon Nakashima, who debuted this week in the ATP Top 100 at No. 89, on the challenge of reaching back-to-back finals in Los Cabos and Atlanta, then winning his first two rounds at the Citi Open.

“I’ve always had good results on hard courts. My recent victories in the Grand Slams really boosted my confidence and I hope to keep going in that direction. It’s been a good couple of last weeks. I hope to have a good tournament here, first of all, and then a good U.S. swing.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime, seeded second at this week’s Citi Open, on the upcoming U.S. hard-court swing.

“Having fans now is unbelievable. It’s been so long. Thank you everyone for coming out. It’s a pleasure to play in front of everyone. Hopefully, we’ll have some more packed stadiums coming up.”

Mackenzie McDonald, who beat Nick Kyrgios Tuesday evening in the featured night session Stadium Court match at the Citi Open.