Professional tennis in Washington has a long, proud history. The champions list of what is now the Citi Open includes Hall of Famers Ken Rosewall, Arthur Ashe, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg and Andre Agassi.
And although the nation’s capital hasn’t played host to a major women’s tournament in more than two decades, Hall of Famers Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin and Steffi Graf were among the winners in Washington.
In short, anyone who was anybody in tennis came through D.C. in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s as I can attest since I attended those tournaments as a fan, ballboy and reporter. Washington’s was also one of the first tournaments to feature blue courts and instant replay/video review.
Unfortunately our tournament is no longer a must-visit stop despite the best efforts of the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, the highly-regarded beneficiary of the ongoing Citi Open which ends on Sunday at the FitzGerald Tennis Center at 16th and Kennedy Streets N.W.
The top women haven’t competed in Washington since 1991 – unless the occasional appearances by the Williams sisters for the Kastles count. And none of the men’s finalists since Agassi’s defeat in 2000 seem Hall of Fame-bound. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the three dominant players of our time, haven’t deigned to visit D.C.
Last year’s final matched the less-than-immortal Radek Stepanek against Gael Monfils. In 2010, David Nalbandian dueled with Marcos Baghdatis. Not exactly names to bring the casual tennis fan out on a steamy summer afternoon or evening.
And although the men are joined this year in Washington by some of the up-and-coming women, the sport’s big names are in London this week competing for Olympic gold for their countries.
So while the Citi Open is one of the top 20 tournaments on the ATP circuit and a prelude to the U.S. Open that starts later this month, the field here is not exactly heart-stopping other than Mardy Fish, who has become the top American player with the descent of Andy Roddick.
The other “big” names competing here are: Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov, 17th-ranked but unknown here; James Blake, the champion in 2002 and a finalist in 2005; 6-foot-6 Sam Querry, who has been ranked as high as 17th in the world; Tommy Haas, who once ranked second; and Nicholas Mahut, whose claim to fame is losing the longest match in tennis history to John Isner at Wimbledon two summers ago. Dolgopolov, Fish, who’s ranked 13th, and Haas, who’s 35th, are the only top 40 players in Washington.
The top names in the women’s field are 28th-ranked Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, 19-year-old Floridian Sloane Stephens, who’s ranked 52nd, and 20-year-old Melanie Oudin, who won the mixed doubles title at last year’s U.S. Open with fellow American Jack Sock.
Making matters even tougher for this year’s tournament is that, unlike last summer, the Nats are home starting on Wednesday against division rivals Philadelphia and Miami.
Washington tennis fans can only hope that they’ll be repaid down the road for this week’s rough circumstances. Who knows? Maybe some of the world’s best will play here next summer, knowing that the U.S. Open will start just three weeks later.
That would certainly be good news for the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation which does a yeoman job of working with lower-income area youth through a mix of tennis, education and community service.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin