By: Ben Raby (www.twitter.com/benraby31)
As the Citi Open player field started to take shape early this summer, Rafael Nadal and his team reached out to tournament officials.
Over several conversations, they discussed the possibility of Nadal making a maiden appearance in Washington to jumpstart his hardcourt season.
There was incentive for Nadal to get back to competition after a foot injury kept him from playing at Wimbledon and the Olympics.
Nadal’s camp even sent video to Citi Open chairman Mark Ein showing a healthy Nadal training and moving well at his home base in Mallorca, Spain.
“He understands when he commits to a tournament, a lot of people then commit resources and time to wanting to see him,” Ein said. “So, he doesn’t do it unless he feels he’s going to be ready. And he clearly feels ready.”
Nadal ultimately received a wild card and is the Citi Open’s No.1 seed. On Wednesday, he will make his DC debut on Stadium Court.
“When I see the calendar, my goal was to be here in Washington,” said Nadal, who revealed that he didn’t pick up a tennis racket for 20 days earlier this summer due to the foot ailment.
“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 last couple of days of practices keep helping me to be competitive enough for the first [match].”
Nadal, 35, received a first-round bye and will face American wild card Jack Sock in Round-of-32. His opening match in Washington also marks the unofficial start in his quest for history next month in New York.
Nadal enters the summer hardcourt season tied with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in a three-horse race for the all-time Grand Slam record. “The Big Three” are all tied with 20 major titles apiece, though Djokovic has won the first three Grand Slams in 2021.
“He’s entirely focused on getting the record-setting 21st Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open,” Ein said of Nadal, “and he decided the best way to prepare was to start in Washington.”
According to former world No.5 and current Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Arias, the pursuit of the all-time Grand Slam record is a tremendous carrot that continues to push all three members of “The Big Three” to be at their competitive best.
“I don’t think there’s any chance Federer or Nadal would still be playing right now if Djokovic wasn’t there,” Arias said. “I think they both want to stop him, in some ways.”
That’s why, Arias believes, Djokovic’s momentum could also be one of the contributing factors to Nadal’s decision to play Washington.
“If Djokovic wins the Grand Slam this year, if he wins all four, it’s going to be tough to deny him [the all-time record],” said Arias, a two-time DC finalist.
“He’s the youngest, he’s probably going to win a couple more and he’s going to have everything. So, I think this is Nadal’s way to say, ‘I’ve got to give everything I can to be ready for the U.S. Open to stop Djokovic from getting the Grand Slam.’”
According to Arias, Nadal could also benefit from the extra week and a head start to the U.S. hardcourt season.
“He’s always been a player, Nadal, who has always needed a little bit of time in the situation,” he said. “In hardcourt season, it takes him a little while before he gets his timing and into the swing of things. So, I think he’s giving himself the best chance for the U.S. Open and that’s to the benefit of the people in Washington, who are getting to see one of the greatest of all-time in person and up close.”
DC tennis fans have responded, with a palpable buzz surrounding the tournament and with all sessions having sold out.
“Rafa doesn’t just transcend tennis,” said Ein. “He transcends sports. He’s one of the people in the world who has a one-word name. You say ‘Rafa’ and people know exactly who you’re talking about. He’s a global icon.”