The Citi Open is Frances Tiafoe’s hometown event, which he first played seven years ago as a 16-year-old. But this might be one of the most special editions yet, as 88-time tour-level titlist Rafael Nadal is making his debut.

“It’s just unbelievable that he came here to D.C.,” Tiafoe said. “Having a player of his calibre here is pretty legendary.”

Tiafoe, who is from Maryland, is set to compete in the ATP 500 for the fifth time. The American noted how important it was for him to have stars play the tournament when he was younger, and how having someone like Nadal could help motivate the next generation of local athletes.

“This tournament’s big. For guys around the area, to see pro players, this is the real thing. Coming here and seeing Del Potro win here, seeing James Blake, all these guys coming and playing here, legends, Lleyton Hewitt. You’re like, ‘Wow, I can maybe play with these guys one day, even be in the same locker room as these guys,’” Tiafoe said. “I think those experiences definitely helped me to be the man I am today. I love this tournament being here, and I hope it can be here for years and years to come.”

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The 23-year-old also took time to reflect on the year World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has had. Tiafoe pushed the Serbian to four sets in the second round of the Australian Open. Since then, Djokovic has won the first three major championships of the season and at the US Open will try to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam.

“The guy’s special, man. He can play on all surfaces, he’s moving so well, his serve has gotten a lot better. Mentally, just the toughest in the world. Not necessarily he has the best forehand, backhand or whatever, just mentally he’s so, so good,” Tiafoe said. “As you raise your level, he’s going to keep raising it, keep raising it, really make you beat him. He goes to a place that people just don’t quite want to go to it seems like. He’s always got an answer for you. He’s on the be brink of achieving something crazy special.

“As much as I love seeing greatness, I’d like it to stop, someone else win, preferably me. We’ll see how it goes in the end.”

For now, Tiafoe will focus on the task at hand: the Citi Open. The home favourite has never advanced past the Round of 16 in Washington, but he is confident after a good grass-court season, during which he upset Stefanos Tsitsipas in the first round at Wimbledon.

“I won Nottingham, quarters of Queen’s, the run at Wimbledon. I haven’t won that many consecutive matches in a long time. I think I can play well, but so sporadically,” Tiafoe said. “To have that many wins in a short span was really nice. To beat a high-calibre player in a major, and so convincingly, that gives you a lot of confidence. I’m just ready for what’s next. Hopefully I can keep on this road. Also I’m extremely happy right now just in general.”

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Tiafoe is seeded 16th in Washington, and he will play former World No. 5 Kevin Anderson or recent Newport finalist Jenson Brooksby — who lost to Anderson in that championship match — in the second round. No matter the opponent, the 2018 Delray Beach titlist will be ready.

“[It is] the best I’ve felt in a while. I’m playing some great tennis. I’m ready to go,” Tiafoe said. “I’ve put some good matches in on grass, feeling good, feeling less jet lag from the Olympics now. By the time I go, I’ll be ready to go.”



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