An American Affair in Rock Creek Park

By Jane Voigt

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Washington D.C., July 20, 2016 — Washington D.C. can be a taxing place. After all it’s the nation’s capitol where the President lives, and where laws are made with mediocre frequency. But get yourself to Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, just north of all the government affairs, and the air clears. The annual Citi Open is on! Up-coming American tennis players were the hot ticket today. 

Kicking things off were friends and the first-time doubles team of Frances Tiafoe and Denis Kudla. Both graduated from the Junior Tennis Champions Center in neighboring College Park, Maryland. 

“We had a lot of fun,” Kudla said. “It was our first time playing together. I’ve known Frances forever. I’ve pretty much seen his whole tennis career. So, it’s a pretty special place to play with each other.”

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Denis Kudla (left) and Frances Tiafoe on Grandstand One today at Citi Open. The two spent more time at the baseline than they would have liked, saying it’s something that wanted to improve. Photo credit Jane Voigt downthetee.com.

Unfortunately for the boys, their opponents — Horia Tecau and Florin Mergera (No. 3) — were too polished in the art of doubles. They won, 6-3, 6-3, in less than an hour. Tecau and Julien Rojer won the doubles title here last year. The two have been ranked and seeded number one at tournaments for part of 2015-16; and, they won the coveted ATP World Tour Finals last fall. 

“We had a tough match,” Kudla went on. “Didn’t really play our best. But hopefully we can get out there, again, and try to get some wins.”

Kudla, who is 23 and grew up in Arlington, Va., trained at the J.T.C.C. in his teens before turning pro in 2010. He was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and now lives in Tampa, Fla., where he trains. He reached a career high of No. 53 in 2015, but has slipped since to No. 100. 

Tiafoe’s journey to pro tennis began at the J.T.C.C. where his father, Constant, worked as a janitor. To keep young Frances out of trouble, the coaches gave him a racquet. He excelled beyond any expectations and became the youngest boys’ singles champion at The Orange Bowl, winning the 18s division. He was 15 at the time. He graduated from the J.T.C.C. in June.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Kudla said about Tiafoe. “Never thought it was actually going to happen when I was younger. Now it has. And I’m pretty sure he could beat me. It’s awesome to see him here and watch his rise. I’m definitely cheering him on.”

The match was pretty straight forward. Tecau and Mergera made strides mostly at the net and off errors from Kudla and Tiafoe. The winners broke once in each set, held on to them and won. One point, though, had fans on their feet. And the accolades were for Frances. He got himself into the net with such speed, after a short ball dropped on their court, that silence filled the stadium. He flicked the ball cross court at such a small angle both opponents were left flatfooted.

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Tiafoe (left) and Kudla strategize on their way to the baseline this afternoon at Citi Open. Photo credit Jane Voigt downthetee.com

“That was pretty lucky,” Tiafoe said, laughing. “But … I’d like to say I’m pretty fast and like to use my speed on the court as much as possible. I think I get that from my dad. He’s pretty fast.”

Watching the match were Denis’s brother, Brian, plus Frances’s brother Franklin, along with a bevy of buddies … all tennis players. Did their presence bother them?

“For me … I’ve been here a really long time and I still have yet to win a match,” Kudla said, which made both laugh. “I’m pretty awful here. But it was definitely nerve wracking the first couple years. Now it’s to a point where my expectations are pretty low. I love coming home and being in front of friends and family, though, but some of the conditions don’t really suit my game.”

“I have a lot of fun playing here,” Frances began. “The crowd support’s amazing. It’s only my second time playing here. It means a lot every time I step out on court. But, maybe, another year me and Denis can go for a deep run here.”

Winning is what it’s all about, in the end, for the players here this week. Unfortunately for another American hopeful, Samantha Crawford of Tamarac Fla., her singles run at Citi came to end today, too. She lost to Kristina Mladenovic (No. 4), 6-2, 2-6, 6-3. Their match started last night, but finished this afternoon after a vicious thunderstorm ripped through the site and ended play. 

“It’s difficult having to stop some times because of rain,” Crawford began. “When we came back out I think I was up 3-1 in the second set and she was serving 30-0. But I played well in the set. Was doing well in the third but lost some momentum. But, she’s a good player.”

Crawford, who is six-foot-two, loves hard court tennis as most Americans do. Her serve is her forte, but she’s yet to win a WTA singles title. She’s earned 5 International Tennis Federation titles in doubles, though. She’s entered in that competition at Citi, alongside American Madison Brengle. 

“I plan on going to Montreal and will play World Team Tennis for the Freedoms,” Crawford said about her schedule. "After that I’ll go to Cincinnati and New Haven and then the U. S. Open.”

With her ranking hovering at 100, Crawford was unsure if she’d have to qualify for the main draw in New York. 

“I think the deadline has passed, but I don’t know. Hopefully I’ll get in without qualifying."

Crawford trains in Plantation, Fla., with Nick Saviano. She also relies on Kathy Rinaldi who coached her for four years, beginning at age 14. “We’ve known each other for a long time.”

Crawford’s best performance was in Brisbane this January. She qualified and made a run to the semifinals, when she lost to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka. 

“I qualified, so I think that was my seventh match when I played Azarenka,” Crawford said. “Yeah … it was a fun tournament. We were the second night match after Federer, so that was cool.”

Crawford and Brengle won their doubles match and “Sam” found out later today that she made the main draw of the Open. Little steps … 

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013