News & Politics

A Guy on the Citi Open’s Grounds Crew Practices With the World’s Best Tennis Players

How former DC high-school tennis star Leon Vessels got back in the game.

Leon Vessels prepares a court for a Citi Open match. Photograph by Josh Rosenblat.

Leon Vessels hadn’t picked up a tennis racket in a few years. The DC native had received an All-Met honorable mention during his senior year at DeMatha Catholic High School in 2005 and ranked as high, he estimates, as No. 150 in the US junior rankings, but he was nervous. It wasn’t some recreational player standing across the net.

It was summer 2010, and Vessels had just graduated from Hampton University, where he was supposed to play tennis but never joined the team because he was “gassed out.” As a summer job, Vessels landed a spot with the operations team at the Citi Open at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, maintaining the grounds for the week-long tournament.

But American pro Rajeev Ram needed a practice partner, and a tournament official asked Vessels to step in.

“He got me pretty much good with the cobwebs out,” Vessels says. “And once it was like, ‘Oh, he didn’t complain?’ they kept sending me out there.”

Vessels, 28, has become a staple on the Citi Open’s practice courts, preparing players for their matches and rediscovering his passion for a sport he had fallen out of love with.

“Like five years man, I’m just sitting with you and thinking about the people I’ve hit with,” he says.

Vessels says he is no longer starstruck by the players because he “realizes they’re just regular human beings,” even the practice partners who have cracked the ATP World Tour’s top ten. He pulls out his phone, and pulls up a video of him serving toward Frenchman Gael Monfils (career high No. 7). Vessels claims he isn’t serving his hardest, just “getting them in the box” so Monfils can practice hitting returns. After a few lackadaisical returns, Monfils rockets a forehand past Vessels.

The fast-talking Vessels is full of energy when talking about his favorite memories playing with the pros. He mentions the time Monfils cleared a four-foot railing with a standing jump just to retrieve a ball. He remembers hitting with Alexandr Dolgopolov, whom he now considers a good friend, almost every day en route to the Ukranian’s 2012 title.

But Vessels’s main responsibilities lie with doing odd jobs around the tournament grounds to make the week run smoothly. One night he’s drying courts after a short rainstorm; the next day he’s depositing Gatorade in the players’ lounge, but he’s always dressed to hit a few volleys.

The operations staff is a tight-knit group of tennis lifers, many of whom work the tournament every summer. Kyle Ross, who manages the stadium courts, used to spend time running operations at various ATP tournaments around the world but now only works at the Citi Open. Alex Cordier, the practice courts manager, flies in from Dubai, where he works in advertising, every summer and schedules Vessels’s practice sessions with the players.

But for Ross, Cordier and the rest of the operations group, their years working the tournament together still has a missing piece.

“The operations crew is pushing me,” Vessels says. “They’re like,‘Come on man! Get in the tournament!’ Every year they see me improve.”

For now, Vessels can only dream about the players he practices with. Most don’t really keep score during practice so he doesn’t have a concrete idea of how he would fare in the actual draw.

But, he says, “if they give me the opportunity, I’m not going to waste it. I’m gonna put in work for them, man. I’m gonna represent for the ops crew.”