By Erik Gudris | Thursday, August 5, 2021
Rafael Nadal is captivating Washington, D.C., both on and off the court as he makes his Citi Open debut at the ATP 500 event. Celebrities and dignitaries pass through this town weekly, but having the 20-time major champion here is really making residents, even those who don’t play or watch tennis, pay attention this week.
That energy and support is something Nadal truly appreciates and is perhaps a first in his long career.
“Well, have been a beautiful night in terms of energy, in terms of the crowd have been amazing,” Nadal said after his first match. “Yeah, the support of the city since I arrived here is one of the most that I ever had in my career, no? Yeah, super happy to visit Washington and to play here for the first time.”
The fact that Nadal made national headlines when he arrived in D.C. is truly something, given that he’s played all over the world for over 20 years.
Yet it’s his first visit to the Nation’s Capital that has residents here hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Either in Georgetown near where he is staying or around the famous monuments. (Yes, he posted earlier that he was at the White House instead of the Capitol on his Instagram, but we’ll forgive him that first-time tourist mistake).
Tickets for the event, naturally, were hard to get. Even when the tournament announced it was going from 50 percent to 100 percent fan capacity. That may have had something to do with the seats near the court that literally had fans shoulder to shoulder with each other. Social distancing qualms aside, it was quite something to feel the stands vibrating with excitement as Nadal entered the stadium court to a raucous roar to face Jack Sock in his opening match.
It was quite something to see the stadium completely full. In fact, it may have been the first time every seat and square inch that could accommodate someone filled, even for a previous final. The die-hard tennis fans were there for sure, but the chance to see Nadal in person, in D.C., very likely spurred even casual sports fans to spring for the once in a lifetime chance to “breathe the same air as Nadal” as one fan told a local sports reporter after the match.
The match itself became an enthralling three-hour battle. One never knows how a player will perform once back on the court after a long layoff. Yet Nadal did not disappoint, despite showing some early signs of rust in the first set. For a set and a half, it looked like Nadal would enjoy a comfortable straight-sets victory.
Jack Sock had other ideas, though. The former top-10 American late in the second set began hitting massive forehand winners to match his huge serve. His backhand, considered his weakest shot, also started creating winners. Sock played at a level not seen in many years. After he took the second set and then went up an early break in the third set, many in the crowd got nervous. Likely the tournament organizers were too, hoping Nadal would not make just a “one and done” appearance.
The crowd got loud with most cheering on Nadal. Sock had fewer, but just as vocal supporters and that got on the Nadal supporters nerves. While D.C. is no U.S. Open in terms of rowdy, late night matches, it wasn’t a surprise to hear and feel most of the crowd willing Nadal on to victory.
Thrilling the crowd with his trademark intensity, and several stunning shots, including a backhand smash winner, Nadal made his move. He got the break back and then stayed with Sock into a tiebreak. Nadal rose to the occasion, winning a testing rally for an early mini-break. After that, it was all Nadal who went on, to the delight and relief of the crowd, 6-2, 4-6, 7-6(1).
Vintage GRIT from @RafaelNadal 💪
— Citi Open (@CitiOpen) August 5, 2021
Post-match, tournament owner Mark Ein presented Nadal a check for $50,000 from the city for the Rafael Nadal Foundation, all in appreciation of Nadal and everything he’s done for the city this week.
— Citi Open (@CitiOpen) August 5, 2021
Nadal in his press, said that he felt pain in his foot, so it will be worth watching how he progresses this week, and if the foot becomes more of an issue. He’s back out there tonight against rising South African Lloyd Harris.
For everyone in D.C., many certainly hope Nadal stays for the whole week so they can celebrate his passion, intensity, and love for the game that keeps all of us enthralled, whether we are watching him at courtside or somewhere else from wherever we are in the world.
“Tomorrow another day, another opportunity to play in front of this amazing crowd. I want to enjoy the experience again,” Nadal said, summing up the night.
So do we.
Photo credit: @mikelawrencesports/Citi Open Facebook
Erik Gudris is a Tennis Now contributing writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @ATNtennis.