The comfortable frontier of Citi Open brings fans and players together

Suspension

Shupita Nandi is “a fan of stalking tennis,” she said with a laugh.

Seven years ago, Nandi, 59, moved to Rockville from New York City, where she was a regular attendee at the US Open in Queens. One year, I waited outside the gates until 2am just to get a look – and hopefully get an autograph – from Rafael Nadal. But once she moved to Maryland, she realized that the Citi Open’s unparalleled access to players made it the tournament for her.

She loved it so much that this year she chose to spend her 59th birthday at the Citi Open.

“[The players] “They walk quietly from the players’ lounge to the pitches, and then you can catch them back and forth and see them at the training grounds,” Nandi said. “He is very involved with the players, by going to their games and you can chat with them and take a picture with them. But it is not the same in the bigger tournaments.”

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Despite the low level of the event, one of the main selling points of Citi Open is the high level of interaction between player and fans. Part of that is due to the small footprint of the Rock Creek Tennis Center. Various match pitches and training grounds are scattered throughout the site, so players need to walk through the fan zones to get to just about anywhere, even in the player’s lounge itself when they arrive in the morning. For fans, that means brushing elbows with everyone from Nick Kyrgios to Emma Raducanu.

But the Citi Open, led by Chairman Mark Ein, has chosen to lean into that tightness.

The tournament publishes daily practice schedules so fans can look out over the fenced training grounds and watch their favorite stars train and work on their games. The tournament also began hosting daily ‘Tennis Conversations’ in front of the Market Square food court, where former pro tennis player Prakash Amritraj performs a silly simulation of a press conference with an opponent. There are daily autograph sessions at the same venue — and it’s all, says Ain, part of the tournament’s mission.

“It’s a big part of what makes this tournament so special,” Ain said on Thursday. “The tournament is big enough that you have a lot of the best players in the world, but it’s intimate enough that the fans can get close to it when they play. They can see them when they walk around the grounds. And we get a lot of positive feedback from players and fans alike that accessibility is part of the game. Big of the reason they love the championship so much.”

For their part, the players in the capital showed their willingness to interact with the fans. Ajla Tomljanovic joked back and forth with the crowd and posed for pictures with fans after her “tennis talk” on Wednesday. On the match point in his first-round victory over Marcos Giron, Kyrgios turned to a fan and asked where he should servewhether it was shocking or exhilarating for someone who might have been expecting a distinctly emotional outburst from the Aussie.

Eye also pointed to a myriad Local tennis stars who enjoyed the tournament as children – Francis Tiafoe, Dennis Kudla and Hailey Baptiste between them. After beating Christopher Eubanks on Wednesday, Tiafoe remembered how much he valued the experience as a young tennis player, beating elbows with greats like Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt.

At the same time, though, the Hyattsville native, ranked 27 in the world, also noted the challenges players face that come with greater fan interaction: “It’s both good and bad.”

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“Tonight, I’ve been trying to come here a lot from the locker room area here,” Tiafoe said in the interview room after walking among the fans after his win on Wednesday. “For me, it’s different. I’m a guy from my hometown. . . . but maybe very soon, they’ll probably have to make it a little easier for the players. [the tournament is] Having the names of better and better players come here and they want to feel that they can come and go as they please.”

When asked about the player’s safety, Ein sneered, praising the quality of the security team for the event before saying that if a player hasn’t already attended their own security team, they can request security details at any time.

Thursday was the all-sold-out 20th consecutive session of the Citi Open, dating back to 2019, according to Ein, and the high level of fan engagement has seen fans like Nandi return to Rock Creek.

“It’s a really cool tournament, it’s a small tournament, but you’ve got big and big players coming in here,” she said. “…I love this tournament.”

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