Mon­fils, Puig are com­mit­ted to play at Citi Open

The Washington Post Sunday - - WASHINTONPOST.COM/SPORTS - BY KELYN SOONG kelyn.soong@wash­post.com

Over 14 sea­sons as a glo­be­trot­ting pro­fes­sional ten­nis player, Gael Mon­fils has com­peted in the big­gest, most-cel­e­brated sta­di­ums around the world. The 30-year-old French­man, known for his elec­tric shot-mak­ing and charis­matic per­son­al­ity, is a top at­trac­tion nearly any­where he plays.

There are, how­ever, only a few stops where Mon­fils has truly felt com­fort­able and con­fi­dent ev­ery time he en­ters. The Citi Open in Wash­ing­ton, the site of Mon­fils’s great­est ca­reer tri­umph last year, is one of them.

“I love the city,” Mon­fils said, “and I re­ally like the sta­dium. The sta­dium is nice, and I love the at­mos­phere. Peo­ple are su­per nice to me and bring me a lot of great en­ergy.”

In three trips to the tour­na­ment — in 2007, 2011 and 2016 — Mon­fils has never lost be­fore the semi­fi­nals, and the fan fa­vorite re­cently com­mit­ted to play at this sum­mer’s Citi Open to de­fend his first ATP 500 ti­tle. Mon­fils has never won two championships at the same tour­na­ment.

Rio Olympic gold medal­ist Mon­ica Puig of Puerto Rico will head­line the women’s draw.

“We couldn’t be hap­pier with this player field,” Citi Open co­founder Don­ald Dell said. “The field is con­sid­er­ably stronger than last year and prob­a­bly a bit bet­ter than 2015 when we had [cur­rent world No. 1] Andy Mur­ray.”

The 11th-ranked Mon­fils is not the only for­mer cham­pion who has made an early com­mit­ment to the sum­mer hard-court tour­na­ment, which will run July 29 to Aug. 6 at Rock Creek Park Ten­nis Cen­ter. Three-time win­ner Juan Martin del Potro of Ar­gentina is also set to com­pete, as are Amer­i­cans Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan — the most dec­o­rated male dou­bles pair of all time who claimed ti­tles in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2015.

Amer­i­can John Is­ner, ranked 22nd, and Aus­tria’s Do­minic Thiem, a first-time com­peti­tor who is the high­est ranked player in the field at No. 9, also have com­mit­ted.

Tour­na­ment of­fi­cials ex­pect to an­nounce more play­ers in midApril.

“Wash­ing­ton is a great ten­nis town,” Dell said. “We have a tremen­dous fol­low­ing in ten­nis here.”

De­spite los­ing in the sec­ond round in her first visit to the Citi Open last sea­son, the 23-year-old Puig par­tially cred­its her prepa­ra­tion in the of­ten-suf­fo­cat­ing sum­mer weather in the District for her Olympic suc­cess.

“Oh, I love it,” Puig said. “Me be­ing from Puerto Rico and ob­vi­ously train­ing in Mi­ami, the heat and hu­mid­ity don’t re­ally af­fect me that much. I just have to em­brace it, and I feel very com­fort­able in it.”

Sim­i­larly, Mon­fils points to his Citi Open vic­tory as the start of a suc­cess­ful run dur­ing the sum­mer hard-court swing. Just days after hoist­ing his cham­pion’s tro­phy and watch­ing as his name was added to the blue awning sur­round­ing sta­dium court along­side the names of his child­hood he­roes, Arthur Ashe and Yan­nick Noah, Mon­fils ar­rived at the Toronto Mas­ters, where he reached the semi­fi­nals.

Sev­eral weeks later, Mon­fils bat­tled to the U.S. Open semi­fi­nals, and he ended his sea­son at the ATP World Tour Fi­nals in Lon­don with a ca­reer-best world No. 6 rank­ing.

“I was rid­ing the wave,” Mon­fils said of the mo­men­tum he started at the Citi Open. “I think the con­fi­dence [gave] me a stronger be­lief I could make it, and it put me in a great spot.”

For the first time since 2000, the Citi Open will have a new tour­na­ment di­rec­tor after Jeff New­man stepped down in Fe­bru­ary.

Re­plac­ing New­man is Keely O’Brien, who started with the tour­na­ment as an in­tern in 2004. O’Brien, 34, is the only fe­male tour­na­ment di­rec­tor of a com­bined ATP and WTA tour­na­ment.

The Citi Open be­came a shared event be­tween the two tours in 2012.

“I feel truly grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity,” O’Brien said. “We’ve had and con­tin­ued to have in­cred­i­ble fe­male am­bas­sadors in this sport . . . and I wake up ev­ery day and feel ex­tremely lucky.”

In her new role, O’Brien said she hopes to en­gage with diehard ten­nis fans and those who may have never ex­pe­ri­enced a ten­nis tour­na­ment be­fore.

O’Brien’s team is work­ing on a Citi Open smart­phone app that will be launched in time for the tour­na­ment, an at­tempt to con­nect with the so­cial-me­dia ac­tive gen­er­a­tion and at­tract new fans.

“We know we have to go out­side the core au­di­ence so that it’s not just a ten­nis event but an event in the sum­mer,” O’Brien said. “We are try­ing to find out ways to en­gage com­mu­nity mem­bers in all eight wards in D.C. and Mary­land and Vir­ginia and also peo­ple from across the coun­try. It’s all about fo­cus­ing [on their] ex­pe­ri­ence and the plan­ning that goes into that.”

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