The Citi Open holds a special place in my heart. Four years ago, it was the first tennis tournament I ever attended (outside of a night session or two at the U.S. Open). I wasn’t there as media, merely as an active tennis tweeter and fan who wanted to get an up-close look at players.
It was pretty magical. I got to sit court-side as Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish played a practice set, and listen to their banter with each other and Larry Stefanki. Not yet credentialed, I was able to cheer and scream for Xavier Malisse as he played in and won the only main-draw match of the day. I took a picture with Fernando Verdasco, had a few too many drinks, and got to see Marcos Baghdatis’ smile in person. Needless to say, I was hooked.
I’ve been back three of the last four years, each time as media. A lot of the players from that first year–David Nalbandian, Xavier Malisse, Andy Roddick, James Blake–have retired. The title sponsor has changed, the WTA has been added to the mix, and now, a new generation is coming up.
It was that new generation–specifically the teenagers–that I non-creepily had my eye on when I finally arrived to the Citi Open on Monday night to begin my fourth year covering this tournament.
First up, I went to the Stadium to catch the second set of 16-year-old Francis Tiafoe vs. Marat-lite Evgeny Donskoy. Donskoy had taken the first set, but the DC crowd was firmly behind the local wild card, and for good reason. If you haven’t familiarized yourself with Tiafoe’s incredible story, I suggest you do that now.
Tiafoe ended up losing in straight sets, but the top junior showed a lot of promise. His talent is raw and his technique still has a long way to go–his second serve was beyond horrific–but there’s a lot to like about his confidence and versatility. (For a complete look at his game from someone who watched the whole match, check out Jeff’s evaluation of him at Heavy Topspin.)
In a crowded press room after the match, Tiafoe was soft-spoken, fast-talking and relatively monotone. He didn’t seem uncomfortable, per se, but it’s going to take him a while to be able to really open up to the press and let his personality shine through.
However, Tiafoe didn’t shy away from explaining how much getting the wild card and getting to play in front of his home crowd in D.C. meant to him.
“Tonight it was probably the most fun I’ve had playing tennis,” he said. “You know, the whole crowd with you, every point you win everyone’s going crazy…I hope I can play here for many years to come.”
“It’s a dream,” he added later, when asked if he ever thought that he’d be playing on Stadium when he attended the tournament as a fan. “I never thought it would actually be real. When I walked onto court and the crowd started going crazy, I almost cried. It was an unbelievable feeling. It meant more to me than anything else I’ve ever done.”
The 16-year-old was encouraged by his performance, but had clearly gone onto court thinking that he could win the match. He said that seeing Nick Kyrgios upset Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon and Alexander Zverev have his great run at Hamburg has given him confidence.
“Yeah, I thought I could do that his week, but I couldn’t,” he said with a smile when I asked him about Zverev’s run. “I think the game is starting to change. In the next few years, the younger guys are going to start to take over again.”
Tiaofoe also credited other American juniors, particularly Stefan Kozlov and Michael Mmho, for keeping him motivated. “We all push each other a lot, and I hope we can keep doing that through the pros.”
Eighteen-year-old Taylor Townsend was taking on Juilia Goerges on Grandstand 1 as Tiafoe was playing. I have yet to figure out a way to be two places at once and therefore didn’t get a chance to watch her match, but I did sit in on her post-victory press conference, and I couldn’t have been more impressed.
“I think that I’ve grown a lot, just from the experiences and from all the matches that I’ve played,” she said when asked about her past year. “[I’ve learned from] the matches I’ve won, but most importantly from the matches I’ve lost.”
“I think my game is in a steady progression, and I’m continuing to learn, and like I said, continuing to build on each match, whether I win or lose. So tomorrow when I go and play my doubles…I’m going to try and do something better than I did today. That’s my goal for every match.”
Ben Rothenberg asked Townsend about her lack of on-court coaching, and her response revealed that her focus is on the majors.
“I don’t need it,” she said. “My thing is…and [my team all agrees] on this…you can’t bring coaches on the court during Grand Slams.”
“[At the majors] it’s just you and the other person–who can fight it out, who can tough it out that day? And so, just because that is available here at these tournaments, I’m going to approach it as though it’s a Grand Slam. Every single match it’s me out there. The earlier I can…really embrace what I’m doing on the court and figure things out on my own, the better I’m going to be in the long run.”
Coming off of a WTT season where she said she improved a lot–and learned how to play solo doubles–Townsend is playing regular doubles at the Citi Open with Vania King, and will face Kristina Mladenovic (who upset No. 1 Lucie Safarova) next in singles. With an open draw, this is a great chance for Townsend to keep moving forward.
I did get a brief look at two other American teenagers on Monday night, 16-year-old Tornado Alicia Black and 19-year-old Madison Keys.
I ran over to see Black play as soon as the press conferences had finished, and arrived to the court when she was on serve but leading Zarina Diyas 4-3 in the first set. At the time, Diyas was waiting on the trainer to come. It was a chilly night, and it took the trainer a long while to get to the court–I would estimate about 10 minutes. Once the trainer got there, it was another couple of minutes before the MTO was announced and made official. The trainer massaged Diyas’ wrist, but there was no wrapping.
All in all, my guess is that there was a 15-minute break in play. Black remained seated for the entire time. After the break, she did not win another game. She lost, 6-4, 6-0.
That was clearly a rookie mistake that the 2013 U.S. Open Junior runner-up will have to learn from.
Meanwhile, on Stadium, a healthy-again Madison Keys was regressing. After a successful grass-court season that saw her win her first title in Eastbourne, the 19-year-old could not find the court against Kurumi Nara, and lost meekly in straight sets. There was no adjusting, no positive body language, no hint of fight in the usually feisty Keys. She was just frustrated and, quite plainly, over it.
While watching both of these teens fall, I couldn’t help but think about Donskoy, the 24-year-old Russian who took out Tiafoe earlier that evening.
Donskoy has been a highly-touted Russian prospect since he was a teenager too. Born, raised, and residing in Moscow, he first received a wild card into the qualification draw at the Moscow ATP tournament back in 2007 and a wild card into the main draw in 2008. He didn’t win a match at the tournament until last year, when he beat a fading Marcos Baghdatis in three sets.
Recently, he’s been getting more and more media attention. He won five challengers in 2012 to finally break into the Top 100, and made his main-draw debut at a major at the 2013 Australian Open. He clearly has talent, as this literally jaw-dropping shot proves, but there’s been little-to-no big-time traction.
“It was really tough for all of the family,” he said after his first-round win, when discussing his long journey to making ATP main draws. “It was a long way, and it was like a dream. It was a goal for me to be Top 100, which was a little bit of a mistake because Top 100 is not a big,big thing. It’s not a thing you really want at the end of your career.”
A very animated and enthusiastic talker, Donskoy was very complimentary of Tiafoe’s game and future chances, but he knew from experience that the pressure of being a prospect could take a toll. “I mean, maybe I wasn’t that talented, but I had the same wild cards,” he said, referring to the Moscow ATP tournament. “I was nervous like crazy. I knew he was nervous today as well. The crowd, they think they’re helping, but actually they’re making you more nervous.” (What a Russian statement.)
Now ranked No. 111, Donskoy is focused on setting his goals higher than he did before. “The goal is not to be Top 100,” he said. “I wanna be bigger if I can, and I think I can.”
It’s fun to look at future prospects and make guesses about how high they can go. But, as Donskoy–among many others–proves, nothing is guaranteed.