Citi Open: A Haven For #NextGenATP Excellence

Jenson Brooksby (photo: @CitiOpen/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, August 6, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

If garnering World No. 3 Rafael Nadal has been great for box office appeal at this year’s Citi Open in Washington, D.C., an ATP 500 hard court event that is part of the US Open Series, so has been the emergence of this year’s group of #NextGenATP players. There are five of them and all have shared the spotlight in the nation’s capital city this week.

Not surprisingly, all of the #NextGenATP rising stars – from 19-year-old Jannik Sinner to 20-year-olds Brandon Nakashima, Jenson Brooksby and Felix Auger-Aliassime to 21-year-old Sebastian Korda – reached the round of 16 and all were in action Thursday with berths in the quarterfinals on the line. Although only two of them – Sinner and Brooksby – advanced to Friday’s play, all five have given fans plenty to cheer all week long.

A youthful trend has emerged in Washington where at least four #NextGenATP players have reached the third round in each of the last four Citi Open tournaments.

Two of them, No. 5 seed Sinner of Italy, who is ranked 24th, and No. 12 seed Korda from the United States, ranked 45th, faced off against each other for the first time in singles the opening match of the day on Stadium Court. It was anything but routine as Sinner won a pair of tie-break sets, coming back from two breaks down in the second, to triumph over Korda, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (3), in one hour and 56 minutes on Stadium Court. It was Sinner’s second straight win in his Citi Open debut. He broke a four-match losing streak against Finland’s Emil Ruusuvuori on Wednesday. In both instances, Sinner’s experience prevailed.

“You always feel a little extra pressure when you’re talking about this Next Gen,” Tennis Channel analyst and former pro Jimmy Arias commented at the conclusion of  the touted matchup of these two NextGen stars. “This is a guy who you are going to be competing against for years. You want the mental edge. It was a nervous match for both players. Sinner got over the nerves just slightly better in two tight sets. Korda really found something in the middle stages of the second set but he just wasn’t able to finish it.”

Sinner overcame 25 unforced errors to hit 18 winners (10 from his forehand), while Korda hit 21 winners (11 on his forehand) but committed 33 unforced errors. Sinner outpointed Korda 85-77 to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round against unseeded Steve Johnson of the United States.

“Was a little bit of a tight match,” Sinner said in press. “We were not playing so well. 

“When you’re down 5-2, double break … I tried to find a solution as soon as possible,” he explained. “There is a little bit of pressure. When I made the break, for me it was important to let him serve out on 5-4. If he’s serving well, okay, that’s it, but if not, trying to play a lot of balls in the court.

“When I was 5-3 and I was serving, I was tight, as well. I made two double faults. Then, fortunately, I served well. I kept his pressure on him, trying to close it out for his side, and so I think that today was the key of the second set.”

Coincidentally, Sinner and Korda have been doing double duty at the Citi Open. That’s because they are teamed together this week in the doubles draw, where they reached the quarterfinals by winning their opening match over Benoit Paire and Jackson Withrow. After doing battle in the singles arena Thursday afternoon, they were back on court during the evening session facing wild cards Nick Kyrgios of Australia and Frances Tiafoe of the United States, who advanced with a 7-5, 1-6, 11-9 upset of No. 3 seeds Rohan Bopanna of India and Olympic bronze medalist Ivan Dodig of Croatia. Sinner and Korda beat Kyrgios and Tiafoe 6-4, 6-4 in 62 minutes to move into the semifinals against No. 2 seeds Neal Skupski of Great Britain and Michael Venus of New Zealand.

“It would be super cool,” Korda said earlier this week about potentially winning the Citi Open, a tournament which his father and coach, Petr, won in 1992, and the elder Korda’s protégée Radek Stepanek won in 2011. “My dad winning it, then Radek, he won here as well. I think that would be really awesome, just having my dad coaching him, then coaching me. If we were somehow to pull it off and win this tournament, it would be something super special, that’s for sure.”

Now, Korda will have to wait at least another year. However, don’t bet against this young and talented American, who earlier this season won his first ATP Tour-level singles title, on clay at the Emilia-Romagna Open in Parma, Italy.

If the Sinner-Korda singles match did its best to whet everyone’s tennis appetite on a warm and sunny (82 degrees Farenheit) summer afternoon, the next match, between No. 2 seed Auger-Aliassime from Canada and American newcomer Brooksby more than set the table for Thursday evening’s main attraction: the top-seeded Nadal, who was upset by No. 14 seed Lloyd Harris of South Africa.

The 130th-ranked Brooksby proved himself to be a fearless ball striker in his 6-3, 6-4 victory over the World No. 15 Auger-Aliassime in an hour and 25 minutes, which advanced him to face No. 11 seed John Millman of Australia on Friday. It’s Brooksby’s first career ATP Top 50 win and first ATP 500 quarterfinal.

“I’d address that it was a good performance I thought, for sure,” Brooksby said during press. “Against [Felix], it was just really being physical, being physical back myself. I mean, I know he’s a very physical player, and I knew I couldn’t afford the fade-back, go soft. Those things would not work at this level, especially against someone that plays like that, an I thought I did a great job.”

Brooksby hit 23 winners against just five unforced errors and outpointed Auger-Aliassime 64-43. The Canadian No. 1 was held to just seven winners while striking 21 unforced errors. Brooksby won 79 percent (42 of 53) of his service points and was efficient in winning 41 percent (22 of 54) of his returns. He saved both break points he faced and broke Auger-Aliassime twice in four chances.

Frances Tiafoe, who lost to Brooksby during Tuesday’s second round, called the young American’s game “super unorthodox. Obviously, everything he does is pretty strange,” he said. “Puts you in awkward positions, makes you play an extra ball, has great anticipation of the ball. [He] is really solid, makes you play a lot.

“He has a ton of confidence. He’s young. He’s playing free. First kind of year on the scene. Every match he’s super excited for. He’s going to kind of go for his shots, hope for the best. He has no real pressure.”

With Brooksby’s upset of Auger-Aliassime, coupled with the later surprising outcome by Harris in knocking off the No. 1 seed Nadal, it leaves No. 5 Sinner as the highest remaining seed left. Going into Friday’s last eight, it’s a wide-open Citi Open draw.

Looking back on Rafael Nadal’s Citi Open debut

While World No. 3 Rafael Nadal‘s return to the ATP Tour after a nearly-two month absence due to an injured left foot was imperfect, he overcame every challenge that his opening opponent, American Jack Sock, could throw his way Wednesday evening. The top-seeded Nadal’s 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (1) emotional victory advanced the Spaniard to Thursday’s third-round, where he was upset 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 in two hours and 10 minutes by a healthier, quicker – and younger – No. 50 Lloyd Harris of South Africa.

Against Sock, the 35-year-old Nadal did what is his signature trademark and what has enabled him to thrive: he used his crushing forehand to consistently win points and fought harder than his opponent, never losing faith in himself.

In his first competition since his semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros in early June, there were moments where his movement was hampered by his injury. At other times, he ran down drop shots and chased after lobs that surprised Sock and dazzled the 7,500 spectators who filled the stadium at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. On one occasion, Nadal breathtakingly caught up with one lob that he fired back in between his legs – surprising Sock – and ultimately won the point.

Nadal reasserted himself during the third set, breaking Sock after he was broken to start the final stanza. In the third-set tie break, Nadal jumped out to a 5-0 lead, thanks to successfully executing a couple of beautiful drop shots for winners. He eventually won the three-hour and five-minute match with a satisfying winner that was the culmination of a crafty nine-shot rally. Typical Rafa, which brought out his best on an uncommonly mild August summer evening. During an on-court interview after the match, he thanked the capacity crowd for coming out to support him.

Afterward, Nadal admitted that his injury remained on his mind. During press, he said: “The match wasn’t easy. I started to suffer a little bit too much.

“I know [it] will not be easy after a couple of months, coming back from a tough situation with my foot, a couple of months without playing. But here I am. I fought. I am able to play again tomorrow, so that’s great news.”

Against Harris, 11 years Nadal’s junior, the South African No. 1 fired 16 aces and hit 38 winners (18 of them from his forehand side), while Rafa countered with 26 winners and just 11 unforced errors. He outpointed Harris, 83-79. However, it just wasn’t enough.

“It’s a very special moment in my career, probably the best win I have ever had, and to have it in front of fans just makes it so much better,” Harris said, during an on-court interview after his victory.

Following his loss, Nadal said in press: “The most positive thing is my foot was better today than yesterday, so that’s the best news possible. I played against a player that played well.”

Thursday’s Citi Open results 

Friday’s Citi Open order of play

Around the Citi Open

Brandon Nakashima, who is one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour this summer with 10 hard-court victories and back-to-back final appearances in Los Cabos and Atlanta, finally met his match against the more experienced Denis Kudla in an All-American tussle. The No. 103 Kudla prevailed 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-4 in their first meeting, in two hours and 17 minutes, by overcoming 13 aces by Nakashima to hit seven of his own. Each player broke the other’s serve three times and while Nakashima outscored Kudla 103-95, it wasn’t enough to advance to the quarterfinals. Instead, it will be Kudla, who will be making his second last eight appearance in Washington, D.C.

An Arlington, Virginia native who now lives and trains in Florida, Kudla, 28, was asked earlier this week about the quality of the next generation of American players – many of them like San Diego’s Nakashima who are playing this week in Washington, D.C. “They’re all great players. I think it’s changing the guard right now with tennis. There’s a huge opportunity for someone to make a big jump, who is going to be the next top guys. I think it’s completely open,” he said.

“I actually learn from them, the way they’re playing the game, because they’re going to be the future of the sport. I’m trying to maximize in the second half of my career. There’s always room to improve. I’m learning from those young guys.”

• At age 31, Steve Johnson is the oldest American remaining in the Citi Open draw. The 81st-ranked Californian beat No. 86 Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania for the first time in three meetings, 6-2, 6-1, to reach Friday’s quarterfinal round. A day after eliminating No. 3 seed Alex de Minaur of Australia, Johnson saved all three break points he faced and broke Berankis four times in four tries to advance against No. 5 seed Jannik Sinner of Italy. Johnson, who improved to 9-8 in tour-level matches this season, is 6-2 on hard courts in 2021. His three-match winning streak is his longest this year.

I’ve never been a quick starter by any stretch of the imagination in any of my years. I just needed matches. I need to kind of get in that rhythm and routine,” Johnson said this week. “So, for me, it was definitely longer just with the COVID, didn’t play much at the beginning of the year, with our daughter and everything. Didn’t want to kind of get stuck in the situation that happened in Australia this year.

“Now that we’re in the States, the crowds are back, we’ve all been kind of itching for this moment. It just feels like I’m hitting my stride at the right time.”

• No. 43 John Millman of Australia withstood a barage of 19 service aces from his opponent, eighth-seeded American Reilly Opelka to win 6-3, 7-6 (4). The one hour and 35 minute victory advanced Millman to his second quarterfinal of the season, where he will play Jenson Brooksby, the upset winner over No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. The Aussie converted two of four break points and outpointed Opelka 74-67.

• No. 67 Kei Nishikori of Japan, who won the 2015 Citi Open title, remained in contention for his second Washington, D.C. crown as he ousted No. 7 seed Cameron Norrie of Great Britain, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, in two hours and nine minutes. Although Nishikori was broken four times, he broke Norrie six times and outpointed his 29th-ranked opponent 90-81 to advance against No. 14 seed Lloyd Harris.

• No. 107 Mackenzie McDonald of the United States advanced to play Denis Kudla in the quarterfinal round after upsetting No. 65 Ilya Ivashka of Belarus, 6-4, 6-4 in an hour and 23 minutes. McDonald won 81 percent (30 of 37) of his first-serve points, broke Ivashka’s serve three times and outpointed him 67-56. The win was McDonald’s 35th in all levels of competition this year and it moved him provisionally inside the Top 100.

By the numbers

• Of the 15 Americans in the singles draw, seven – Mackenzie McDonald, Denis KudlaBrandon Nakashima, Sebastian Korda, Steve Johnson, Reilly Opelka and Jenson Brooksby – advanced to the third round – the most at the Citi Open since eight in 1993.

“We have a really good group right now,” Korda said this week. “We’re pushing each other. We all want to be the No. 1 Americans. Yeah, I think we’re really pushing each other and it’s really showing because we’ve all had some really good results this year.”

• Four Tokyo Olympics medalists were among the Citi Open doubles draw: Ivan Dodig of Croatia, men’s doubles silver; Marcus Daniell of New Zealand, men’s doubles bronze; Michael Venus of New Zealand, men’s doubles bronze; and John Peers of Australia, mixed doubles bronze.

Heading into the weekend, Daniell and Venus remain in contention. Ironically, at the Citi Open, they are playing with different partners: Daniell with Brazilian Olympian Marcelo Melo and Venus with British Olympian Neal Skupski.

“Quotable …”

“I’ve looked up to him ever since I started playing tennis. The first real memory I have, I would always camp out in front of the locker room, just wait for Rafa. I think when I was eight years old, we were in Miami, and he came up to me as he was leaving the locker room and just said hi. I shook my head a little bit. Yeah, ever since I started playing tennis, I kind of looked up to him. Now, to be able to practice and play against hi is a dream come true. Hopefully, we can have many more battles against each other.”

Sebastian Korda on being praised by Rafael Nadal, whom he practiced with at the Citi Open last weekend.

“I got to 30-something in the world with a shot, with a weakness that should be a strength in men’s tennis. We’ve made a lot of adjustments. It’s exciting for me to know that if I stay the path – I got ranked pretty high with a shot that can be a lot better. I can have one of the best forehands in the world. I’m excited to know I can climb higher.”

Reilly Opelka, known for his towering serves, on adjustment’s he’s made to his forehand shot.

What they’re tweeting

Darren Cahill / On Rafael Nadal

Jessica Pegula / On Rafael Nadal