It hit 90° at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, Maryland yesterday. That was fitting, because it was Citi Open Weather. The Citi Open is held in late July-early August just 10 miles away at Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC.
The Citi Open Wild Card Challenge will be staged here at the Center in College Park from June 14-17. The facility has already earned a USTA award as an outstanding venue and is finally getting the credit it deserves for cultivating champions, as the name suggests.
The Wild Card Challenge will result in the winners advancing to the qualifying draws of the Citi Open, an ATP 500 level and WTA International level event.
Yesterday, two of the centers protégés and seven-time grand slam champ Mats Wilander spoke about the event. JTCC CEO Ray Benton and Citi Open tournament director Jeff Newman also discussed the genesis and planning of the event. It was the brainchild of Benton, who wanted to return to the Wild Card event that the Legg Mason Tennis Classic had employed almost 20 years ago.
“We used to have a Wild Card Challenge, for quite some time, starting in 1995”, Newman said. “It was really meant to be a platform for the best talent in the area. We’re showcasing the best talent in the world, and we wanted to have a connection to provide an opportunity for local talent. We had Paul Golstein, Alex Kim and others.”
“Frankly, the talent got less. And Ray Benton gets the credit for reviving it with the talent that he’s brought and developed in this area. It felt like the right opportunity to bring it back.”
Newman also said the Citi Open will be more player-friendly than ever this year.
“We’re continuing to develop some areas that the public doesn’t see. Our player experience is critical as an ATP 500 and a WTA event. Our medical facilities and our locker room facilities are being upgraded.”
The Challenge is open to all USTA players 14 and up. There is a registration fee of $75, but participants who enter this event and the US Open National Playoffs will receive a discount. The Challenge is two weeks after the USONP Playoffs and the Mid-Atlantic portion of the USONP competition will also be decided on the same courts here in College Park. For players already training for the USONP, this is a mighty second chance sweepstakes. In fact, the Challenge offers a big prize of its own. At the USONP, you have to win your sectional tournament and then you go to New Haven to battle it out for a spot in the US Open qualies. At the Challenge, you win out in College Park and you’re in Citi Open qualies.
For some locals, myself included, playing at Citi Open on the hard courts beats driving by Flushing Meadows to go to New Haven to hope to get to Flushing Meadows.
Francis Tiafoe leads the men’s side. After an Easter Bowl win at Indian Wells, he’s happy to be back at home. “I’ve been going to the tournament since I was about 6 years old”, Tiafoe said. “I hope I can play well at the event.”
Having grown up (literally) at the JTCC, you would think Tiafoe is a lock. Instead, he is guardedly optimistic.
“I definitely know these courts better than anyone else. I’m going to go one match at a time and hope for the best.”
Surprisingly, Tiafoe says his life hasn’t really changed since he arrived to conquer the ITF scene.
“My life hasn’t changed much”, Tiafoe recounted. “I’m still just a 16-year-old kid having fun playing tennis. It’s been nice having some wins and getting some more confidence in my game.”
Usue Arconada is ‘excited’ to play in the Wild Card Challenge. Last year, she was granted a qualifying wild card by Citi Open officials and more than earned her keep in winning her first WTA match in straight sets.
Like Tiafoe, Arconada is another heavy favorite at the Wild Card Challenge.
“I train here every day, so I know these courts pretty well”, she said.
What a bonus it was to chat with Mats Wilander yesterday.
Wilander was hired as an advisor here as “somebody who’s done it all”, he said. “I turned pro very young, so I think I know what these kids go through. They’re not worrying about the best guy. They’re trying to fulfill every players potential.”
Mats has rolled out Wilander on Wheels for a fourth summer. He travels by RV across the US (and Europe), appearing at dozens of tennis clubs.