It was but a window on the “Rafa effect,” triggered by Nadal’s announcement in early July that he would compete in the hard-court event for the first time. It included a tournament sellout and a waiting list of 15,000 would-be ticket-buyers, according to Mark Ein, who took over the event’s management in 2019.
“We were 90 percent sold out before Rafa,” Ein said. “His entry took it to a completely different level.”
For the crowd that streamed through the gates Saturday at 10 a.m., two hours before the day’s qualifying matches began, simply getting a glimpse of one of the greatest players in tennis history blasting practice balls was enough.
Unlike many pros his age who tend to throttle back the intensity of their workouts to prolong their careers, Nadal practices much like he competes — focused, intense, systematic and relentless. That unstinting effort is largely what Nadal fans pay to see and tune in to watch, Tennis Channel President Ken Solomon said.
“From a commercial standpoint, it’s no secret: Rafael Nadal is a human rating point,” Solomon said. “Every single ball is the next most important moment in his life. That doesn’t matter whether it’s practice, whether it’s a first-round match or the final of a major. There is no modulation of his commitment, effort and passion.”
Nadal’s Citi Open debut comes at a historic moment: He is locked in a three-way tie with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for the most Grand Slam singles titles in men’s tennis, 20. Nadal twice has been denied a record-breaking 21st this season — in February at the Australian Open, where he fell in the quarterfinals to Stefanos Tsitsipas, and in June, when his bid for a 14th French Open title ended with a semifinal loss to Djokovic.
The Citi Open marks his return to competition after a nearly two-month break to recover and regroup. It is also his first hard-court tournament in nearly six months and a logical starting point to prepare for the season’s final major, the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 30 in New York.
After the pandemic scuttled the Citi Open in 2020, Nadal’s Washington debut — which officially arrives at 7 p.m. Wednesday when he plays as the top seed — amounts to a boffo reopening. It coincides with upgrades throughout the tournament grounds designed to give fans more options to eat, drink and gather outside. There’s a new play area for kids, and a large patio with tables and umbrellas is in front of the Market Square food court.
But Saturday morning, Stadium Court is where fans wanted to be.
Nadal was met by applause when he walked onto the court in a gray sleeveless shirt and shorts and a lime green hat and sneakers with Roig and physiotherapist Rafael Maymo. All of the spectators seemed to have cameras of some sort, whether cellphone, handheld video recorder or traditional, eager to capture not only Nadal but their own presence at the scene.
With Roig feeding him arcing balls, Nadal fired back each in systematic fashion — forehands down the line and forehands cross-court, driving them deep into the corners — as Roig offered occasional guidance via a few words of Spanish or pantomime of the ideal stroke. Backhands followed.
During a Friday practice without fans, Nadal paused early in the session to inspect the edges of a stencil positioned just behind the baseline that read “Washington DC.” The stencil wasn’t fully anchored to the court, and the upturned edges clearly troubled him. By Saturday, the stencils were gone, but Nadal still bent down to pick up a tiny shred of what appeared to be rubber or tape before proceeding.
A Nadal practice is just like that — meticulous and efficient, with nothing left to chance.
Standing ovations and shouts of “We love you, Rafa!” aren’t typically part of the script. And on Saturday, they coaxed more than one broad grin from the all-business Nadal.
By the time the session ended at 11:30 a.m., Nadal’s shirt was plastered to him and fans massed above the court-level exit holding cameras and oversize tennis balls aloft.
Nola Jones, 13, of Frederick, Md., and Lauren Finn, 12, managed a selfie that captured part of Nadal’s head and theirs amid the mayhem and took off running toward the parking lot, following a gaggle of other fans headed that way.
A few moments later, they returned breathless and in disbelief, with Nadal’s autograph in the book Finn had brought with her.
“He smiled at us!” Jones said. “It was crazy!”
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