Two local players make unexpected pro debut

The biggest match at the Citi Open won’t be played for another week. But for two Washington area residents, the first day of qualifying marked the biggest milestone in their tennis careers to date.

Leon Vessels made his Washington debut in 2010 as a member of the tournament’s operations team. The once-promising junior had stepped away from the game years prior, but was coaxed out of retirement by ATP World Tour player Rajeev Ram, who needed a practice partner for the week. Six years on, the 28 year old has made a habit of wearing different hats at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, from drying courts after rain delays to helping Alexandr Dolgopolov find his best game en route to the 2012 title.

“It was like getting fed to the sharks,” said the unranked Vessels of his first ATP World Tour qualifying match, a straight-sets loss to Ernesto Escobedo of the USA. “I was just done hitting with Grigor Dimitrovwhen I was told I got a wild card. I could not say no because this opportunity may never come around.

“I grew up here, I’ve been playing here since I was five years old,” Vessels said. “It was by far the biggest match I’ve played. It felt like I just played the US Open. I was really nervous. I am still shaking. It was weird being on a court with ballboys. A couple of times, I walked to the net to pick up my own balls, not realising that this is not your average tournament – it’s the big leagues here."

Despite the loss, Vessels still has a long day ahead of him at the Citi Open. “My day is not done. As soon as I’m done showering, I’m going back to work with the operations team.”

Earlier in the day, Nikita-Girey Demir had also made his ATP World Tour qualifying debut. The recent high-school grad only lasted 40 minutes against big-hitting Aussie Matthew Barton, but just having a chance to play was achievement enough for the teenager.

“I have so much respect for [ATP World Tour professionals], so it’s pretty cool to be able to play against one of them. More than anything, I was just happy to be out there. It meant a lot to me,” said Demir, who immigrated to Maryland from Russia as a child.

Despite being estranged from his parents, who both suffer from schizophrenia, Demir has thrived both on the tennis court and in the classroom. He is one of 160 high-schoolers (of four million 2016 seniors) honoured for their accomplishments in academics, the arts, and career and technical education via the prestigious U.S. Presidential Scholar Award. The Georgetown Prep graduate’s scholastic and athletic achievements are all the more impressive considering the trying personal circumstances he’s had to overcome.

“The more I spend time on tennis during the day, the better I do in my studies. There is something about tennis that helps you focus on your studies after a long practice,” said Demir, who is hoping to advance both his tennis and academic careers at Stanford under Coach Paul Goldstein, a former ATP World Tour player. “I’d love to study engineering and computer science there.”

Jack Han, ATP