World leaders converging on Washington, D.C. is normal. Leading tennis players from around the globe in town for the Citi Open is uncommon and noteworthy.
We’ll let historians debate the depth in the men’s field, but no recent Washington group included five of the top 11 ranked players on tour. No. 7 Nicolas Thiem is the top seed in the “500” level event, a designation that puts the Citi Open among the top 20 on tour.
That heady bunch of ranked men’s players set to tackle the three H’s – hard court, heat and humidity -- doesn’t even include defending champion Gael Monfils or three-time champion Juan Martin del Potro.
“It really a strong field. One of the best ever I’ve seen for a ‘500’ tournament,” said Thiem ahead of his first event as the No. 1 seed. The 23-year-old rising star added, “For us players, it’s not that great because we have a lot of tough matches ahead. For the crowd, it’s amazing.”
Yet for true rankings heft, flip the page to the women’s draw. Second-ranked and top-seeded Simona Halep makes her Washington debut and becomes the highest-ranked woman ever in this event. That she faces 2015 champion Sloane Stephens makes for a potentially rude welcome.
The WTA portion of the Citi Open formed in 2011, but Washington has crowned a men’s champion every year since 1969. The last four – Monfils, second seed Kei Nishikori, No. 3 Milos Raonic and Del Potro -- are in this field. As an indicator of past issues with attracting talent and this year’s impressive depth, all four are playing here for the first time since winning their respective titles. That means all four can claim defending champion status if so inclined.
All that met with the media on Monday at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center understand the challenges ahead.
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The field "feels very strong this year,” said Nishikori, the 2015 champion.
Advance to the third round and Nishikori could face Del Potro. Injuries halted the Argentine’s career over the years, but the 6-foot-6 masher once again ranks among the top 40 worldwide. Del Potro lost his first-ever match in Washington, but enters the 2017 event with a 14-match winning streak.
“I like to play here. I feel like home,” said Del Potro, a former U.S. Open champion who left Washington with trophies in 2008, 2009 and 2013.
Thiem owns wins this year over heavyweights Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Other ranked headliners include fourth-seed Grigor Dimitrov and 20-year-old phenom Alexander Zverev. The combustible Nick Kyrgios makes his Washington debut as the 10th seed.
American players dominated Washington for decades. Though not as interminable as the Grand Slam drought – no titles since Andy Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open win -- it’s been a minute since any American male ended his Washington week in the winner’s circle.
Starting with Jimmy Connors in 1988, an American won 13 titles over the next 20 years including Roddick in 2007. Del Potro’s win the following year started a run of nine consecutive international champions.
Citi Open staple and three-time runner-up John Isner withdrew Monday with a knee injury, leaving Jack Sock (9), Steve Johnson (14) and Ryan Harrison (16) as the only seeded Americans.
Like Thiem, Halep entered the Citi Open as a wild card. The Romanian said she sought late entry into one of the two WTA tournaments this week. Washington said heck yes to the two-time French Open finalist. Stephens also recently joined the field, which includes Canadian Genie Bouchard and 2016 finalist Lauren Davis.
“The tournament is quite strong,” said 2016 gold medalist Monica Puig during her time with the media.
Halep and others cited this week as their true kickoff for the hard court season, which culminates late August in New York for the U.S. Open. Considering the depth in both the men’s and women’s draws, acing this test would certainly qualify as a strong start.