by David Elfin

Giants used to rule the tennis courts at 16th and Kennedy Streets N.W. where the currently-named Citi Open is being contested this week.

Nineteen of the first 31 tournaments played during the scorching Washington summers were won by men now immortalized in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The list includes Ken Rosewall, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors, Yannick Noah, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg, Michael Chang and the late Arthur Ashe.

The 1995 final matched two of those stars as Agassi downed defending champion Edberg for the third of his five Washington titles. Only eight finals from the tournament’s 1969 inception — on a couple of clay courts with fans watching from temporary bleachers — through 2000 didn’t feature a Hall of Famer.

But those days now seem as distant as those when the tournament didn’t even offer its participants the ability to shower on site after matches and when the players bunked in the homes of local families.

The recently retired Andy Roddick, who triumphed in D.C. in 2001, 2005 and 2007 before losing the final in 2009, will likely be enshrined soon. Reigning Wimbledon, Olympic and U.S. Open champion Andy Murray, who lost the 2006 final here, will also be a Hall of Famer. But that could be the entire list of immortals who have graced us with their presence over the last 13 years unless Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, who won the 2009 Open after winning in Washington that summer and the previous one, joins their company some day.

The 24-year-old del Potro is on hand this week. But at No. 7 in the world, he’s the only top 10 player braving our sweltering days and nights. Murray and fellow Grand Slam kings Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are not on this side of the Atlantic Ocean although they’ll all be stateside for the Open four weeks from now.

However, tournament organizers have to be commended for luring five other players in the top 20 – Japan’s Kei Nishikori, Germany’s 35-year-old Tommy Haas, Canada’s Milos Raonic, France’s Gilles Simon, and the top-ranked American, Sam Querrey — a better ratio than their golf counterparts managed for last month’s AT&T National at Congressional.

Charlie Brotman, who has announced the matches at 16th and Kennedy for the last 44 years with his trademark humor and light touch, said that founders Donald Dell and John Harris originally wanted to run a low-key, low-budget event.

American Davis Cup captain Dell, a Bethesdan, convinced the top U.S. players, Ashe and Stan Smith – soon to be ranked No. 1 in the world — to compete and got the Washington Star to pay $25,000 to sponsor the tournament. In return, Ashe prompted Harris to find a site in the heart of an integrated part of the city rather than in an exclusive suburb.

Now in its 25th year in the 7,500-seat William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center and its 27th on hard courts, the Citi Open offers $1.5 million in prize money and is the ATP World Tour’s only 500-level event that’s played in the U.S. As a bonus, a women’s tournament was added in 2011 and this year features ninth-ranked Angelique Kerber of Germany now that American Sloane Stephens, who’s No. 16, was stunned in the first round in straight sets by Russia’s Olga Puchkova last night.

However, today’s Ashes and Smiths continue to decline to play. It would certainly help if more top players were American. Five of the top six who do call the U.S. home – Querrey, 2007 finalist John Isner, 2004 Olympic silver medalist Mardy Fish, 2002 champion James Blake and Arlington’s Denis Kudla – entered the tournament although Blake and Kudla exited in straight sets last night’s first round.

Of course, Australian Rosewall, Argentine Vilas, Czech Lendl, Frenchman Noah and Swede Edberg weren’t Americans, but they made it a point to compete in our embassy-filled, international city. The tournament has been upgraded since its wing and a prayer beginning, but sadly the field has been downgraded which only lessens the odds of tennis making a comeback among the most popular sports in the U.S.

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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin


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