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The cozy confines of the Citi Open bring fans and players together

Shobitha Nandi of Rockville, Md., has enjoyed the intimate setting of the Citi Open, where players are accessible to fans. (Maansi Srivastava/The Washington Post)
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Shobitha Nandi is a “stalker tennis fan,” she said through laughter.

Seven years ago, Nandi, 59, moved to Rockville from New York City, where she was a regular attendee of the U.S. Open in Queens. One year, she waited outside the gates until 2 a.m. just to get a glimpse — and hopefully, an autograph — from Rafael Nadal. But once she moved to Maryland, she realized the Citi Open’s unparalleled access to players made it the tournament for her.

She loved it so much that this year she chose to spend her 59th birthday at the Citi Open.

“[The players] are so chill walking from the player lounge to the courts, and then you can catch them back and forth and see them on the practice courts,” Nandi said. “It is so involved with the players, with going to their games and you can chat with them and take a picture with them. But that’s not the same in the bigger tournaments.”

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Despite the event’s lower-level status, one of the Citi Open’s main selling points is its high level of player-fan interaction. Part of that comes down to the small footprint of Rock Creek Tennis Center. The venue’s various match courts and practice courts are scattered across the site, so players need to walk through fan areas to get virtually anywhere, even into the player lounge itself when they arrive in the morning. For fans, this means brushing elbows with everyone from Nick Kyrgios to Emma Raducanu.

But the Citi Open, led by chairman Mark Ein, chooses to lean into that tightness.

The tournament publishes daily practice schedules so fans can peer into the fenced-in practice courts and watch their favorite stars train and work on their games. The tournament also has begun hosting daily “Tennis Talks” in front of the Market Square food court, where former professional tennis player Prakash Amritraj conducts a silly simulacrum of a news conference with a competing player. There are daily autograph sessions in the same spot — all of which, Ein said, are part of the tournament’s mission.

“It’s a big part of what makes this tournament so special,” Ein said Thursday. “The tournament is big enough that you have a lot of the best players in the world, but it’s intimate enough that fans can get close when they’re playing. They can see them when they’re walking around the grounds. And we get a ton of positive feedback from both players and fans that the accessibility is a big part of why they love the tournament so much.”

For their part, players in D.C. have shown their willingness to interact with fans. Ajla Tomljanovic had back-and-forth banter with the crowd and took pictures with fans after her “Tennis Talk” on Wednesday. On match point of his first-round win over Marcos Giron, Kyrgios turned to a fan in the crowd and asked her where he should serve, both shocking and delighting someone who may have been expecting a trademark emotional outburst from the Australian.

Ein also pointed out the myriad local tennis stars who enjoyed the tournament as kids — Frances Tiafoe, Denis Kudla and Hailey Baptiste among them. After defeating Christopher Eubanks on Wednesday, Tiafoe recalled how much he valued the experience as a young tennis player, brushing elbows with greats such as Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt.

In the same breath, though, the Hyattsville native, ranked 27th in the world, also pointed out the challenges on players’ ends that come with greater fan interaction: “It’s good and bad.”

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“Tonight, me trying to come here was quite a lot from the locker room area over here,” Tiafoe said in the interview room after having walked through fans following his win Wednesday. “For me, it’s different. I’m a hometown guy. . . . But maybe soon, they are probably going to have to make it a little easier for the players because [the tournament is] having better and better player names coming here and they want to feel like they can come and go as they like.”

When asked about player safety, Ein scoffed, lauding the quality of the event’s security team before saying that, if a player didn’t already bring their own security team, they could request a security detail at any time.

Thursday was the 20th consecutive sold-out session of the Citi Open, dating from 2019, according to Ein, and the high level of fan-player interaction has brought fans such as Nandi back out to Rock Creek.

“It’s a really, really nice tournament, a small tournament, but you have big, big name players coming here,” she said. “... I love this tournament.”

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