- The Washington Times
Sunday, July 31, 2022

The heart of the hard-court tennis season begins in earnest this week at the Citi Open, with one of the highest-profile fields in its history playing in D.C.’s tandem ATP and WTA events.

The tournament at Fitzgerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park has seen many stars grace its courts over the decades, most notably 22-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal last year. This year’s field builds on that, featuring a combined seven Grand Slam champions, four former world No.1s, the top American in the men’s and women’s world rankings, and the return of a WTA event for the first time since 2019.

Two of those stars, Venus Williams and Andy Murray, headline the first day of main-draw play on Monday.

Williams, who received a wild card into the field, is playing in the Citi Open for the first time and playing her first competitive singles tennis since last August. She practiced with her sister, Serena, here on Sunday, as the younger Williams prepares to kick off her hardcourt season next week in Canada.

Murray has had his struggles with injuries over the last five seasons — significantly, two hip surgeries and a groin pull. But the three-time Grand Slam champion has worked his way back to No. 50 in the world while learning a lot about how to best train his 35-year-old body and mind to continue playing.

“I think there’s a psychological element to a big comeback again. Just trusting your body again, remembering and understanding what it feels like to be a professional athlete,” Murray told reporters ahead of his first-round match against Sweden’s Mikael Ymer. “That, for me, was certainly difficult.”

D.C. area native Frances Tiafoe will look to continue his strong summer this week. The Hyattsville native reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, the best showing of his career there, and the semifinals of last week’s Atlanta Open. He’s looking to win his hometown tournament, an ATP 500-level event, for the first time.

The world’s No. 29-ranked player is part of a strong field of U.S. players that features top American Taylor Fritz (No. 12), Reilly Opelka (No. 17), and Tommy Paul (No. 36). 

“We’ve all grown up together. We’re all really close friends,” Fritz, who is coming off of a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, said of his compatriots. “At the same time, we all definitely want to be better than each other.” 

“It’s been an extremely healthy kind of competition between us for a long time. We all just keep getting better and better, so I think it’s going to continue like that.”

Tiafoe and Fritz are part of a plethora of players in the Citi Open field that had career-best showings at the All-England Club in early July. Paul (4th round), Belgium’s David Goffin (quarterfinal), and Australia’s Nick Kyrgios (runner-up) will all look to build on those performances this week.

Someone who has done that before in D.C. is American Jessica Pegula. Her first career tour title was in the last WTA event held here three years ago, helping her crack the top 100 for the first time. 

“I think every player kind of has that one tournament, few tournaments, where they love to play,” Pegula said. “This tournament, I’ve always just had good vibes here.”

Now as the 7th ranked player in the world and the top seed in the women’s draw, the leading American on tour is looking to use the WTA 250 event as a springboard in the run-up to the U.S. Open.

“This was definitely a steppingstone…I think it was one of the earlier stepping stones of establishing myself on tour, establishing myself as someone who could win these tournaments,” Pegula said.

Area tennis fans have been more than ready to welcome Pegula and the rest of the field. 

“I love [the] people here. They are super friendly, they are super nice,” said two-time Grand Slam champion and No. 3 seed Simona Halep, making her first appearance in Washington since 2017. “All the kids are asking for pictures. You can feel the vibe.” 

The tournament’s qualifying weekend sold out for the first time, and the energy around the grounds didn’t go unnoticed by players warming up for the main draw.

“The fans and the spectators have been great,” defending U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu said. “It’s amazing how they can get so close and watch the action live. It’s something that I wish there was more of when I was growing up, going to the tournaments, getting so close.”

“I think it’s just fun because it kind of kick starts the hard court summer in the U.S.,” Pegula said. “That’s my favorite swing, being an American. No other place to be than the nation’s capital.”

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.