News & Politics

Washington Tennis Pros Get Ready for Rio Olympics at DC’s Citi Open

Denis Kudla serves during a Citi Open in 2015. Photograph by Josh Rosenblat.

Denis Kudla and Frances Tiafoe played their first doubles match together Wednesday at the Citi Open at the Rock Creek Park, but the pair are far from strangers.

Kudla, 23, and Tiafoe, 18, are products of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, where they were brought together by their loves for tennis and the Washington Wizards. Their relationship was clear Wednesday from the high-fives and smiles exchanged between every point of their two-set loss to the tournament’s third-seed pair, Florin Mergea and Horia Tecău of Romania.

“I’ve known Frances forever, pretty much his whole tennis career,” Kudla says. 

Tiafoe and Kudla lost in the first round of singles play in the Citi Open, but both aspire to a long tennis careers. In 2015, Tiafoe was the youngest player in the top 200 of the ATP World Tour. He is currently ranked No. 156 in the world, a career-high for him. Kudla reached the third round of Wimbledon last year and is currently ranked No. 100 with a career high ranking of No. 53. Both aim to crack the top 100 of the ATP’s rankings by the end of the year.

Growing up, Kudla and Tiafoe went to the tournament that is now the Citi Open and looked up to the players who dominated in the 1990s and early 2000s, like Andre Agassi, who won the tournament five times when it was still called the Washington Open.

“Agassi was incredible, he had some great matches, he had some meltdowns even, and to see different sides of a player of that caliber was pretty incredible,” Kudla says.

Tiafoe’s favorite player was Juan Martin del Potro. Tiafoe met his hero earlier this year at the Indian Wells Masters tournament in California. “We practiced together and it was a dream come true,” Tiafoe says.

Kudla is also one of four American men who will represent the United States at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, along with Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, and Brian Baker, all of whom entered the Citi Open men’s draw. “We’re trying to get closer as a country and go down there and try and represent US as best as possible,” Kudla says.

Kudla got his Olympic shot after the the top-ranked US players, John Isner and Sam Querrey (seen recently upsetting world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the third round at Wimbledon) pulled out, partly over concerns about the outbreak of the Zika virus.

“I’m not worried,” says Kudla. “It’s gonna take a lot more than that to not go to the Olympics,” Kudla says. Because he had not played in a Davis Cup match, one of the criteria to be eligible in the Olympics, Kudla appealed to the International Tennis Federation, which granted his appeal, and he was officially named to the team this month.

Roger Federer, Kudla’s idol growing up, is a strong contender for a medal in Rio (the Swiss great won the silver medal in London in 2012). “To see him play in the Olympics would be cool, maybe we’ll swap pins,” Kudla says. The draws for the Olympics will be released a few days before the start of competition. “I’m hoping for the easiest draw possible,” says Kudla. “But it’d be pretty cool to play one of the top guys.”