Rafael Nadal practicing at the 2011 U.S. Open Credit: Romi Cvitkovic

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Ronnie Goodall didn’t believe the news at first. Someone had just sent him a Washington Post article announcing that 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal had committed to play at this summer’s Citi Open tennis tournament. But players with Nadal’s resume typically haven’t made the D.C. tournament one of their stops, so Goodall texted his boss, John Borden, the president and CEO of the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, with a question: “Is this for real?” Borden has yet to respond, but Goodall quickly learned that the news was indeed true.

For the first time, a member of the “Big Three” in men’s professional tennis will make his way to D.C. for the Citi Open. On Thursday, tournament organizers announced that Nadal, winner of 20 Grand Slam singles titles, including 13 at the French Open, has committed to playing at the Citi Open, scheduled to take place at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center from July 31 to Aug. 8. City Paper owner Mark Ein took over management of the tournament in 2019, and WTEF, a non-profit that offers tennis and educational programs to local kids, has been the longtime beneficiary of the tournament. The Citi Open did not take place last year due to the pandemic.

“This is a huge,” says Goodall, the Arthur Ashe Children’s Program director and West Campus programs manager for WTEF. “The tournament is coming back after a one-year hiatus. Everyone is just starving to get back out there, and now you add this … It’s like everyone will want to be a part of it.”

Nadal, 35, is one of the most recognizable athletes in the world and has earned admiration from fans for his historic achievements and passion and intensity on the court. Goodall says that some of the kids in the WTEF program “want to imitate and adore” Nadal, even wearing his signature headband during practice. Tennis’ “Big Three”—Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic—have dominated the professional men’s tennis tour for nearly the past two decades, winning a combined 59 Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal and Federer have 20 each, while Djokovic is currently chasing his 20th at Wimbledon. Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are the only other active male players who have won more than one Grand Slam, with three titles apiece. 

Nadal has not competed since losing in the French Open semifinals to Djokovic last month, and the Citi Open will serve as preparation for the U.S. Open in New York later this summer. The Citi Open will be the first time the Spaniard has played in the United States since he won the 2019 U.S. Open.

“I am very excited to come to Washington for the first time,” Nadal said in a statement. “I have never been there and it’s one more place I wanted to come and play. I am looking forward to playing again and Washington shall be the best start for the U.S. summer swing for me.”

Donald Dell and John Harris co-founded the tournament in 1969 and the Citi Open, which has gone by other names with different title sponsors in the past, has historically attracted a strong field of players. Past winners include Grand Slam champions Arthur Ashe, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Andy Roddick, and Juan Martín del Potro. Ashe urged the tournament organizers to hold the event on public land in a racially mixed neighborhood. The National Park Service administers Rock Creek Park, where the tennis tournament is held. Per NPS guidance, fan capacity for the 2021 tournament is currently capped at 50 percent.

In 2012, the Citi Open became a shared event between the men’s ATP tour and the WTA. This year, the event will not host a tour-level women’s tournament. Ein told the Washington Post that the WTA reassigned the sanction to an overseas market, so instead, the Citi Open will host a three-day women’s invitational from Aug. 5 through 7 that will feature Coco Gauff, Jennifer Brady, and Jessica Pegula, who won the Citi Open women’s singles title in 2019.

In addition to Nadal, several notable names have committed for the men’s field. The defending men’s champion, Nick Kyrgios, is set to return, as is Hyattsville native Frances Tiafoe and former World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov. Previous champions Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic are also committed to play, as are young stars Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Hubert Hurkacz, Karen Khachanov, Sebastian Korda, and Jannik Sinner.

Gauff, Tiafoe, Brady, and Pegula will all be heading to Tokyo for the Olympics. It will be a tight turnaround for the players who plan on competing at both; the last day of tennis at the Olympics will be Aug. 1, a day before the men’s main draw at the Citi Open is set to begin.