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

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Shobitha Nandi is a “stalker tennis fan,” she said, laughing.

Nandi, 59, moved to Rockville seven years ago from New York City, where she was a regular at the US Open in Queens. For a year she waited outside the gates until 2am just to catch a glimpse – and hopefully an autograph – of Rafael Nadal. But when she moved to Maryland, she realized that the unprecedented access to players made the Citi Open her tournament.

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

“[The players] are so relaxed when they go from the players’ lounge to the courts and then you can catch them back and forth and see them in the practice courts,” Nandi said. “It’s so connected to the players when you go to their games and you can chat with them and take a picture with them. But that’s not the case in the bigger tournaments.”

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Despite the event’s subordinate status, one of the key selling points of the Citi Open is the high level of player-fan interaction. Part of that is due to Rock Creek Tennis Center’s small footprint. As the venue’s various playgrounds and practice areas are scattered throughout the site, players have to go through the fan areas to get practically anywhere, even to the Player Lounge itself if they arrive in the morning. For fans, that means touching elbows with everyone from Nick Kyrgios to Emma Raducanu.

But the Citi Open, led by chairman Mark Ein, choose to lean into that tight spot.

The tournament publishes daily training schedules so fans can take a peek at the fenced off training pitches and watch their favorite stars train and work on their games. The tournament has also started hosting daily “Tennis Talks” outside the food court at Market Square, where former pro tennis player Prakash Amritraj conducts a goofy simulation of a press conference with a competing player. There are also daily autograph sessions at the same location – all of which, Ein said, are part of the tournament’s mission.

“That’s a big part of what makes this tournament so special,” Ein said on Thursday. “The tournament is big enough to have a lot of the best players in the world, but it’s intimate enough that fans can get close as they play. You can see them walking around the grounds. And we’re getting a lot of positive feedback from players and fans that accessibility is a big part of why they love the tournament so much.”

For their part, players in DC have shown a willingness to interact with fans. Ajla Tomljanovic had a back-and-forth with the crowd and snapped photos with fans after her “Tennis Talk” on Wednesday. On the match point of his first-round win over Marcos Giron, Kyrgios turned to a fan in the crowd and asked them where to serveboth shocking and delightful for someone who might have expected a typically emotional outburst from the Aussie.

One also pointed out the myriad local tennis stars who enjoyed the Washington Open as kids – Frances Tiafoe, Denis Kudla and Hailey Baptiste among them. After beating Christopher Eubanks on Wednesday, Tiafoe recalled how much he enjoyed the experience as a young tennis player, rubbing elbows with the likes of Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt.

In the same breath, the Hyattsville, Md. native, ranked No. 27 in the world, but also pointed to the challenges for players that come with greater fan interaction: “It’s good and bad.”

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“Trying to get here tonight was pretty much from the dressing room over here,” Tiafoe said in the interview room after walking through fans following his win on Wednesday. “It’s different for me. I’m a hometown guy… but maybe they’ll have to make it a little easier for players soon because better and better player names are coming over here and they want to feel like they can come and go as they like.”

When asked about player security, Ein scoffed and praised the quality of the event’s security team before saying that if a player doesn’t already bring their own security team they can always request a security detail.

Thursday marked the 20th consecutive sell-out session of the Citi Open dating back to 2019, according to Ein, and the high level of fan-player interaction has brought fans like Nandi back to Rock Creek.

“It’s a really, really nice tournament, a small tournament, but big, big names come here,” she said. “…I love this tournament.”

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