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MIAMI, FL - MARCH 26: Images of match between Kyle Edmund of Great Britain and John Isner of the United States at the Miami Open held at the Hard Rock Stadium on March 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida (Photo by Mike Lawrence/ATPTour.com)

Old Guard vs. New Guard: Top Players Come to Win at Citi Open

“It’s been a good year so far.”

That’s the low-key summary of 2019 from Reilly Opelka, the up-and-coming American tennis powerhouse who won his first Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour title in February, and saw his world-ranking climb to an all-time high of 53 in May – just a few years into his career.

“It was a big accomplishment for me – a huge step in the direction I’ve always wanted to go in,” he says of the win. “And I hope it’s just the beginning. There’s a lot more I want to accomplish and that’s definitely a really good steppingstone toward the progression.”

Next up for Opelka is DC’s legendary summer series, the Citi Open, from July 27 to August 4. Formerly known as the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, the series has been drawing District residents (an average of 72,000 each year) to its Rock Creek Park location since 1969.

While summer in DC might not be the preferred weather for all players, Florida-based Opelka loves the playing conditions. He says the high heat helps his style of play.

“I get a lot of help from the court with my serve. It bounces higher when it’s hot, and the ball goes through the court more. So from a conditions standpoint, it’s a good setup for me.”

Opelka’s rankings in the tennis world have been climbing since he turned pro, around the time he won the 2015 junior Wimbledon tournament. The athlete is almost 7 feet tall, making him the tallest ATP-ranked player in tennis history. While he tried his hand at many different sports as a kid, tennis was always his main focus.

“I went to public school and had a lot of friends in the neighborhood, so I spent a lot of time throwing the football, playing baseball, playing basketball.
But tennis was always a priority for me, even at a young age.”

With his incredibly powerful serve, Opelka has drawn comparisons to another U.S. tennis stalwart who also happens to be one of the top players in the world – and one of the tallest. John Isner, currently ranked No. 11 in the world, has been at it about a decade longer than Opelka. But he is still improving every year, achieving his highest career ranking ever just last year: No. 8 in the world.

Isner and the Citi Open go way back to his debut year in 2007, where just six weeks after turning pro, he made a splash and battled his way to the finals but lost to Andy Roddick in two sets. Isner made the Citi Open finals in 2013 and 2015 as well, losing to Juan Martin del Potro and Kei Nishikori respectively. When asked about his chances at this year’s tournament, Isner lightheartedly says that maybe he will finally win it all and take home the big trophy.

“I’ve had some great memories competing in DC and have been close to winning a few times. Do I think this could be my year? Sure, why not? I’m looking forward to being back and playing in front of great DC fans.”

Now a veteran of many Citi Opens and tournaments in general, Isner can spot talent when he looks at a new crop of U.S. players – and he sees it in Opelka.

“Reilly has a lot of potential and is on the right track. He’s a good friend of mine as well and obviously, we can relate on many levels. I think if he stays healthy [and] continues to work hard and develop, then the sky is the limit.”

Catch Isner and Opelka at the Citi Open from July 27 through August 4 at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. Tickets start at $25. Learn more at www.citiopentennis.com.

Rock Creek Park Tennis Center: 16th and Kennedy Streets in NW, DC; 202-721-9500; www.citiopentennis.com

Photo: courtesy of Mark Ein

DC’s Tennis Ace Mark Ein Keeps Citi Open on Home Court

Mark Ein didn’t want to risk it.

The local venture capitalist refused to sit idly while other cities around the world bid for the opportunity to host the Citi Open, which has called the District home since 1969. Apart from his undying, unending passion for tennis as a prominent member of the local sports zeitgeist, the owner of the Washington Kastles and Washington City Paper felt a responsibility to keep the celebrated tournament in the nation’s capital.

“I’m incredibly lucky and blessed to be able to do these things, and there’s a sense of responsibility to make these big events happen,” Ein tells me over the phone. “It meant the world to me to be able to save the event for our region. It’s been a big part of our community for 50 years. It’s touched millions of people. When the possibility that it would move came up, I felt a real obligation to make sure it thrives for the next 50 years.”

In April, Ein announced that the Citi Open tournament would remain in DC after he secured a management deal including an option to purchase the tournament within five years. This year’s iteration takes place from July 27 through August 4. The tournament is the only Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour 500 in the U.S. and often features top players gearing up for the U.S. Open.

The process took six months, but Ein’s commitment to keeping the tournament local and providing support for the tournament’s charity, the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, won out.

“Pretty early on, there was a group of people that wanted to keep it in town,” he says. “They recognized I was a supporter of that, and they reached out to us.”

The Citi Open has historically not been without its own challenges, as the weather and location have created uncontrollable problems for the tournament. Often plagued by rain and heat, matches between top players have sometimes been delayed well into the wee hours of the night. Physical upgrades are difficult to apply as well because the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park, the Citi Open’s venue, is subject to National Park Service restrictions.

“We’re very encouraged by the amount of things we’ll be able to do already this summer,” Ein says. “Fans will notice and really enjoy, and there’s a list of things we’ll be able to add each year.”

The improvements Ein mentions all fall under the umbrella of fan experience: food and beverage options, new air-conditioned spaces complete with curated music and games, and improved transportation options such as shuttles, valets and a “re-engineered parking plan.” For larger developments further down the line, Ein says he is encouraged by discussions with the park service.

“It all starts with the fact that it’s a great event,” he says. “It’s the fifth biggest tournament in the U.S., and the setting in a public park is unique and public. We’ve been re-examining every detail in every area to make it meaningfully better.”

With tournament management comes facing the potential risks associated with the production of the event. Despite variables and the dangers that come with them, Ein never wavers when dealing with his passions.

“I only do these things [because I’m] passionate about them,” Ein says with a chuckle. “The motivation for me is not financial at all. It really is to do something special for my community around a sport that I have passion for and believe in. As big of a financial investment as it is, it’s an even larger time investment. I wouldn’t spend time on it if I didn’t care deeply.”

Another tennis endeavor Ein is famous for is the Washington Kastles, a team prepared to undergo changes of its own. This season will mark the team’s Union Market debut, with a new venue currently being constructed on the roof of the famed food hall in Northeast DC. The Kastles are set to take the rooftop in their season opener on July 15 against the Vegas Rollers.

“We’re thrilled about the new stadium on the roof,” Ein says. “It’s going to be a lot smaller of a stadium, and we’re already close to selling out the whole season. But for the people who get to have a seat, it’s going to be tremendous. You’ll be able to see the entire capital.”

The new venue only sits about 700 people whereas previous seasons saw the team fill stadiums three time as large, Ein says. However, with a video board, lights and of course, a full-scale tennis court on a roof, he’s right to declare it a unique experience.

Experiences are what Ein is all about after all. Recreating for others what he once felt as a boy watching and playing tennis is of huge importance for him. The sport has given him so much, so it’s only fair.

“You learn so many important lessons about life on the tennis court,” he says. “You’re there by yourself, and you find yourself in situations that you have to figure out. It teaches you resilience, discipline, fairness and continuous improvement. It’s a great sport for people of all ages and it’s the sport of a lifetime.”

For more information about the 2019 Citi Open, visit www.citiopentennis.com. For more information about the Washington Kastles and their upcoming season, visit www.washingtonkastles.com.

Union Market Rooftop: 1309 5th St. NE, DC; www.washingtonkastles.com
William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Stadium: 16th and Kennedy Streets in NW, DC; www.citiopentennis.com