Practicing in Washington’s midday sun is a trifle less glamorous than Usue Arconada’s most recent tennis experience, Wimbledon’s Champion’s Ball, but the 17-year-old isn’t complaining.
Sure, the All England club had racks of dresses for Arconada to choose from once she won the girls’ doubles championship, hairstylists and makeup artists to make sure she was looking her best when she snapped a picture with men’s champion Andy Murray later that night.
But Washington, too, holds a special place in Arconada’s heart. Just after midnight Tuesday morning, it became the site of her first ever WTA main draw victory.
Arconada, one of a trio of players in action on Day 1 of the Citi Open who trained at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, beat Canada’s Francoise Abanda, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, in front of a small but dedicated cheering section.
“It was pretty cool,” Arconada beamed as another friend came to offer a hug, knocking her off-balance in the process. “I mean, I’m really happy that all my friends get to come out and support me.”
Coaches and friends rained praise and cheered on the 5-foor-2 sparkplug of a baseliner when she grunted her final, satisfied “C’mon!” as midnight struck. She became the latest local to join Arlington native Denis Kudla and Frances Tiafoe in claiming Rock Creek Park Tennis Center as her home court.
Arconada is not as well-known as Kudla and Tiafoe, returning to play their sixth and second Citi Opens, respectively, and she has yet to turn pro. But the Argentine-born, Puerto Rican-raised sprite has trained in College Park for the past five years with coach Frank Salazar. She now considers Washington home.
“That means a lot to her because that’s been her home over the last 51/2 years,” said Arconada’s coach, Frank Salazar, who also coaches Tiafoe. “She came here before her 12th birthday. She’s very supportive, very loyal. Lived away from her parents and her family, and she’s been very committed. She gives back in the program. She mentors younger kids coming up. She’s very good role model for not only the community in Washington, D.C., but also in College Park because she goes out and teaches tennis for community outreach as well.”
Kudla, the oldest of the College Park-trained trio at 23, knows what it’s like to have that type of support in Washington, even if he doesn’t reap the benefits of playing on his home turf.
The JTCC alum always enjoys an extra bit of attention in Washington and enjoys the community, but not the tournament’s conditions. He’s 0-6 in his career at the Citi Open and has yet to make it out of the first round.
Kudla lost his opening match to 65th-ranked John Millman of Australia, 7-5, 6-0, on Center Court. His match followed a 40-minute rain delay Monday.
“I’m not really a fan of these conditions, to be honest. Not the heat, just the court speeds. Just in general, every tournament has its own court speed, the balls, I’m just not a fan of it,” said Kudla, ranked No. 100 in the world. “It just sucks that it happens to be my hometown tournament. Nothing against the tournament, I just don’t like it personally for my game.”
Kudla, who’s headed to his first Olympics at the beginning of August, was able to enjoy that his fellow JTCC students were able to join him in the main draw at the start of the tournament.
He’s known Tiafoe and Arconada for years, and watched their games develop.
“I’ve seen them since they were really, really young,” Kudla said. “It’s pretty cool to me. Not only are we in the same community, but the same academy, a lot of us the same coach. It makes this meaningful.”
Tiafoe played his first-round match against France’s Adrian Mannarino late Monday night and fell in two sets, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5.
Arconada’s confidence is still surging after she won the girls’ doubles tournament at Wimbledon with partner Claire Liu, a 16-year-old from California. Salazar has helped mold her game since the two met in Atlanta in 2011, working mainly on fundamentals like footwork and assertiveness on court, designed to help her play stand up against professionals who are stronger, more experienced and bigger than she.
Arconada said she was happy to get the type of competitive match experience she can’t on the junior’s circuit or in training at the tennis center in College Park. She hoped the academy would gain in stature with three of its graduates featured in the main draw.
“The academy has grown a lot of good players,” Arconada said, “and honestly, they’re one of the best in the country. The coaches and other kids push you so hard. If I can help them out back, I would love that.”
Ray Benton, the academy’s chief executive, said the local exposure is important, but he’ll have to wait until the end of the week to see if its reputation grows outside of those in the know.
“Our kids have won a lot,” Benton said. “They’ve played in Grand Slams, played all over the world. But this, here, is special.”