Sebastian Korda practicing with Rafael Nadal before the main draw matches at the 2021 Citi Open. Credit: Kelyn Soong

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The last time Sebastian Korda, a 20-year-old up-and-coming tennis pro, was in D.C., he wasn’t here to play tennis. Instead, Korda and his father, Petr, came as a part of Radek Štěpánek’s entourage for the 2014 Citi Open. The younger Korda tagged along with the two and observed the daily routine of what it takes to be a professional tennis player. But he doesn’t have the most positive memories of that trip. Štěpánek, the 11th seed in the men’s draw that year, lost in the second round to unseeded Malek Jaziri in three sets.

“The player my dad was coaching, Radek Štěpánek, was playing a night match,” Korda recalled on Tuesday. “He was up, like, a set, 4-1, double break, 40-15, and lost the match.”

Seven years later, it’s Korda who is the one playing at the Citi Open. On Tuesday, he beat 2014 Citi Open runner-up Vasek Pospisil in the second round and then just hours later, teamed up with 19-year-old Jannik Sinner of Italy to win their first round doubles match. (Disclosure: City Paper owner Mark Ein took over management of the Citi Open in 2019.) Korda, who grew up Bradenton, Florida, has had a breakout season and is among the next generation of rising American tennis stars that includes Brandon Nakashima and Jenson Brooksby, who are both 20 and won their Citi Open matches Tuesday.

Korda, whose older sisters, Jessica and Nelly, are professional golfers and Olympians, won his first ATP Tour title this May in Italy and reached the round of 16 in his Wimbledon debut. He arrived at the Citi Open with plenty of confidence. Korda, ranked 45th in the world and seeded 12th at the Citi Open, only turned pro three years ago.

“I’ve had a really good year so far,” Korda said. “Sometimes you don’t realize how great of a year you’ve had. A year ago I was ranked 220 in the world. Now I’m in the top 50 competing for tournaments. The process has been sped up super fast … Sometimes you don’t realize how well you’re doing. I really noticed that after Wimbledon. I kind of sat down and just thought about the year, how it’s gone. Yeah, just super happy with how everything’s going. I’m putting in the work. Every day I’m just super grateful to be out here.”

Whenever Korda traveled to D.C. with his dad and Štěpánek, he would be reminded of his family’s connection to the Citi Open. In 1992, Petr—Korda’s current coach, the 1998 Australian Open champion, and a former world No. 2—won the tournament, then called the NationsBank Classic, as the No. 1 seed. Their last name adorns the blue awning that surrounds stadium court. Štěpánek’s name is also there. The Czech native won the 2011 edition of the Citi Open.

Korda plays the winner between Sinner and Emil Ruusuvuori in the third round tomorrow.

“It would be super cool,” he said of potentially winning a tournament his father won. “My dad winning it, then Radek, he won here as well. I think that would be really awesome, just having my dad coaching him, then coaching me. If we were somehow to pull it off and win this tournament, it would be something super special, that’s for sure.”

On July 31, Korda walked onto the stadium court as Rafael Nadal’s practice partner. The two faced each other in a fourth round match at the 2020 French Open, which Nadal won in straight sets. Korda first met Nadal, who makes his Citi Open debut tonight, long before that. He was 8 and at the Miami Masters with his father when he saw Nadal leaving the locker room. Nadal came up to him to say hello.

“Ever since I started playing tennis, I kind of really looked up to him,” Korda said. “Now to be able to practice and play against him is a dream come true. Hopefully we can have many more battles against each other.”

Nadal was equally effusive and predicts big things for the kid he met 13 years ago. The two are on opposite sides of the Citi Open draw and could meet in the final if both advance that far.

“Good physical look, good serve, good shots from the baseline. I think he’s a great guy, complete player,” Nadal said of Korda. “He has a lot of things to do in the next years in our sport. I think I always believe since I saw him play that he going to have the chance to be one of the best players of the world … I think he has all the things that he needs to be a definitely top guy. Of course, then things are not easy and you need to keep improving. But I definitely believe, if you ask me, he going to be a great one.”