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  • Writer's pictureMichael Augsberger

Rafa upset by Harris at Citi Open in three sets

Tennis Central senior writer Michael Augsberger delivers his notes from our home tournament in DC: What you don't see unless you're there. Read it all at our magazine, The Tennis Curator.

Notes on the Nadal-Harris night fest: 6-4, 1-6, 6-4

Lloyd Harris delivers the surprise of the week by ousting the 20-time Grand Slam champion in the round of 16. Who’d have thought?

The South African kept the points shorter, which Rafa may have been happy to concede given his foot problems, but late in the match he even pulled out a few long rally wins. Those were rare. It went the distance despite a distinctly different tempo to it than the Nadal-Sock epic. (Never imagined I’d say that for a Wednesday in a non-major, but it was exactly that, an epic.) This one only lasted 2 hours 10 minutes thanks to massive forehands, Harris dining on that short-angle, inside-out forehand for winners.

More importantly, Harris did not squander his break opportunities. Harris went 2-for-3 on the night.

Rafa’s trip to DC is cut short. It won’t be forgotten in the capital.

Muses on the Citi Open ambience

  • There’s some grub in the players’ lounge not even the suite-holders get. Sushi? Pasta? This is why the players are fit and the watching public is, well, not so much. But the Biergarten is serious: Brats, Currywurst, pretzels, apple strudel, beers in the shade. How were there no Germans in the singles draw?

  • They didn’t wait to unveil Jessica Pegula’s name in the stadium, commemorating her title last year, until she got here. The 2019 champion will play Friday and Saturday evenings.

  • Interesting format for the ladies. Three will compete: Pegula, Coco Gauff, and Vika Azarenka. Each plays the other two, and whoever has the best record (sets break ties first, then games won) takes the title.

  • Someone read our stuff last night. A makeshift flagpole off to the southeast now hoists the Spanish stripes and coat of arms, between Argentina and Finland, so that Rafa is represented on the stadium court.

Around the grounds

Between the media center and the players’ tent is a turfed space, mostly under a tent with foosball and couches for the players. But there’s an open-air corridor where they share space with writers and photographers. Kei Nishikori goes through his warm-up routine there, the same dry strokes every day without his racquet, tossing and kicking a weighted ball with his coach, ten yards across from the New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg, laptop open.

John Millman is winning friends and influencing people. It’s not easy going up against an American on foreign soil, nor a towering big server who outranked him, Reilly Opelka. You wouldn’t have known it from the massive support he received. More than anyone I’ve seen, he soaks it in, waiting for the entire crowd to leave before he gathers his things, and then walking out with the last of them. He thanked each small partisan group of fans that cheered him through the second-set tiebreak—even chatted with them during the tiebreak. A different sort of rapport than Sock rallied last night.

The contrast was stark. Reilly left without saying a word. It’s no offense. He lost to a lower seed. I wonder what Millman will do if he exits DC without the title. I just don’t think it’s in him to stalk off.

One man said, “You’ve got to say hello to the Gold Coast!” He held up a phone for Millman, Brisbane native, to video chat with a friend.

“Wish I were there!” Millman said. “Help me get back home!”

Once the player turned away, the man beamed among his family and to his friend on FaceTime: “You never thought you’d wake up with John Millman, did ya?”

What we’re reading

As it happened: Nadal v Harris live updates

Another gorgeous night in Washington, DC. Lloyd Harris should be fresher than Rafael Nadal—the South African walked over Tennys Sandgren yesterday, while we all saw the legendary duel that unfolded last night over three hours.

Harris walks out in a very Nadal-like neon shirt and bandana. It was hot and humid during the first two matches here, but now shade covers the entire court.

Behind us, Kyrgios and Tiafoe begin their doubles match at the Grandstand. It’s packed. So is this stadium. And here we go, Rafa to serve. The first one to the body. Expect the next out wide. Not quite wide enough, with a miss long afterward. But it’s the third point that impresses, Rafa in control until Harris hits a superb lob that Rafa chases down, hitting a short ball back that Harris tried to hit offensively, but nets. 30-15.

Harris is having trouble seeing these body serves. He’s unorthodoxly blocking them back. Deuce, but a great wide, shallow serve aces Harris. 1-0 on serve.

The South African is dialed in on his forehand. A few winners already. 1-1.

Another few forehand crackers from the middle of the baseline, creating angles just from sheer power, and Harris draws level 2-2.

Interesting point raised from Citi Open's radio commentary team: Is it not against the rules to wear the same color as the ball? “Harris’ll take any advantage he can get,” they say. “Wouldn’t it be easy to lose the ball in that backdrop?” In baseball it’s illegal to wear something that resembles a ball on the uniform, so hitters don’t wrongly pick that up in their vision instead of the real ball. Perhaps it’s time tennis thinks of addressing it.

Slips off the line, and Rafa misses a second ball in a row. First break opportunity of the match for Harris, 3-3, 0-30.

Rafa forced out wide to the forehand side, and now a chance for Harris that if he can’t convert, he’ll likely see a turn of momentum around. Rafa flings him from one side to the other to save the first. But then a tight shot to the body forces an unforced error, and Harris has a surprising break. 4-3 Harris.

Harris paints two lines in a row for aces, at 127 and 122 mph. Rafa mistimes the second serve return and sprays it. 5-3, Harris.

Nadal misses the next forehand he’d set up wildly. This can’t last the whole match. If that’s the reason he’s down, we’ll probably have more drama. Quickly, he reels off three points with raw power, even serves and volleys at 40-15 (though he missed his serve down the middle). Interestingly, at 40-30, he takes something off his first serves (a let that registers only 97 mph), taking the game forcing an error to Harris’s backhand. 5-4, Harris.

So, how does Rafa look? How is his foot? It doesn’t seem to be bothering him at all. We’ve yet to see many truly protracted points.

Harris to serve it out, and now he’ll get a dose of reality. The longest point of the set. Harris couldn’t finish it off with two overheads with which he was too passive, and Rafa turned two lobs into offense when Harris ill-fatedly ran around a backhand in the corner. After a fine Harris drop shot, a running pass from Nadal that forced Harris to volley at his feet. 15-30.

Ace, Harris. 30 all. And for the first time he misses an inside-out short-angle forehand would-be winner. That’s the nerves. 30-40. The very next point, he hits the same shot perfectly. Deuce.

A venomous pass from Nadal, low and picked up by the righty for a gorgeous dropper. And perhaps the best two shots of the night! Nadal crushes a backhand on set point cross-court, landing near the sideline and service line. Harris hits a running forehand up the line that Nadal just can’t even run for. It’s past him, just like the set. 38 minutes in, 6-4 Harris.

Hardly anyone gets up from their seats between sets—in DC people have never seen one of the Big Three before, and they’re milking it. The Spaniard makes quick work of the first game. 1-0 on serve.

I was just about to write what service games these gents have played, and then bang! Rafa hits two return winners in a row, the first down the line, the second from basically the back corner of the court. But then at 40-30 Harris erases the artwork with an ace. 1-1.

The two have never faced off, and while Rafa has gotten all the press about being here for the first time, it’s also Harris’s premiere at the Citi Open. I’m sure there are plenty of dogs named Harris within the Beltway, but any after him?

The first break points of the second set belong to Nadal. Harris tries to pin him out wide on his forehand side, but after two shots there and coming in behind the second, Nadal has him where he wants him. Passing shot up the line with that trademark quick flip of the racquet, and it’s 3-1 Nadal.

He goes up 30-0 quickly, but Harris crushes a backhand up the line for his first backhand winner of the night. The a net error and a double fault finds the all-time great in trouble at deuce. He outlasts Harris in the first point, the South African hitting long in the rally, and Rafa gets help from the net cord on a dropper to hold serve. 4-1.

Rafa’s changed the positioning on returns, not nearly as far behind the baseline as we usually see. Perhaps it’s putting extra pressure on Harris, who’s crumbled from 40-0 up to now break point. I don’t know how Nadal wins after hitting a short return and a few short balls during that point—his defense is that good, and as soon as Harris fails to jump on them properly, defense goes to offense. Ripped up the line for 5-1.

You can’t say it’s nervy at 5-1. Two set points. Harris smokes the first return down the line. But he can’t touch the ace down the middle at 40-30. Like last night, we’ll play a third set!

After a longer break, Nadal’s back out there with two break points. But Harris saves both and demolishes another short-angle forehand past Nadal’s forehand side. 1-0 on serve.

It’s only 8:30 pm here. Neither player’s really let the crowd go long enough to get really rowdy. It’ll take a bit more time and fuel for this politer mob. Harris going for monstrous shots down the line in each of these points. He connects on the first. The other two miss. He can’t be tired. 30 all after a much safer cross-court forehand that wrong-foots Nadal, who follows a forehand in to hit a smart volley. Another long rally where Harris felt he had to make something happen, and send it long. 1 all.

On serve at 2-1, the most probing point of the match, and the first in which Harris outlasts Nadal, with a rare fist pump from the RSA representative. That makes it 15 all. Harris misses two more tight shots, and quickly it’s 40-15, but a slice error and a big forehand brings deuce. Rafa caps it with an ace. 2-2.

Early signs of a break chance to decide the match: 15-30. Harris silences them with an ace, momentarily. Rafa gets to 30-40, and then the same. Nadal is backing up again to the Citi ads and gets the deuce return back, but is wrong footed on the follow up. Two strokes, and Harris gets out of trouble. 3-2.

15-30 and Rafa plays brilliant points to get to 40-30, even if his drop shot left Harris an opening cross court. Rafa bangs a forehand cross court to stifle the chance. 3-3.

Quick service game for Harris, during which Rafa briefly chats with the umpire—or is it quick? A fine cross court winner and a forced error bring it to 30-40, and then Rafa lobs, earning an overhead smash to get to deuce. But the Spaniard wastes a second serve, and then sails the next return too. 4-3 Harris.

The cheers and claps at 4-all are unanimous. “Let’s go, Rafa.” Now the second service game in a row Harris has sped out to 40-0. And the second in a row he’s given two points back. But he makes Rafa run just enough to miss a slice down the line. 5-4 Harris.

Rafa serving to stay in it. Double fault, just his second tonight. 0-15.

A cross-court rally in which Harris blinks first. 15 all. Nadal goes down the middle with his second serve, and Harris hits long again after a safe but nervy rally. 30-15. A massive forehand up the line that Nadal reaches on a stretch, but the block back hits the tape. 30 all. Rafa has to hit four serves to get one in, brings Harris in on a drop shot, but misses the pass down the line. Match point, 30-40.

And how cruel it can be. Rafa hits the tape, which props the ball up, giving Harris time to set up two passing shots. Rafa blocks the first but can do nothing on the second. Harris celebrates by falling to the court, and deservedly so.

The South African kept the points shorter, which Rafa may have been happy to concede given his foot problems, but late in the match he even pulled out a few long rally wins. More importantly, he did not squander his break opportunities. 2-for-3 on the night.

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