WASHINGTON – A Sunday stroll through Rock Creek Park Tennis Center offered the chance to see some of the biggest names in tennis the day before the Citi Open began in earnest.
There was Sloane Stephens, obliging fans with autographs near one of the outer courts; Andy Murray, maneuvering his way through a mob to get to his practice session; and Nick Kyrgios, standing in Murray's path and grinning as the Brit hauled his tennis bag through the crowd and paused to sign a few autographs for kids before making his way through.
"See? He's not nice at all!" Kyrgios teased as the mob laughed.
Stephens, Murray and Kyrgios had their fans to contend with ahead of the Citi Open, which begins Monday and runs through Aug. 4. But the weekend's biggest crowds were there to see Coco Gauff, the 15-year-old phenom who defeated Japan's Hiroko Kuwata, 6-1, 6-2, on Sunday in her second-round qualifying match to gain entry to the main draw.
Gauff, the youngest player in the field, drew the largest crowds in recent memory for the tournament's qualifying round – around 3,000 spectators for each of her two matches, most of them sitting in direct sunlight and enduring 90-plus-degree heat to get a glimpse of tennis's most ascendant star.
"I just think it's crazy how literally three, maybe four weeks ago not many people knew my name," said Gauff, who will face Zarina Diyas in her first-round match Tuesday.
The teenager, who earned an ardent following thanks to a run to the round of 16 at Wimbledon that included a win over Venus Williams, is hardly the only player at the Citi Open to offer fans a peek at the future of tennis. But she is the highlight of a group of accomplished youngsters who will compete at Rock Creek Park this week.
Washington's hard-court classic has long been a friendly place for young players to cut their teeth. As a WTA International tournament and an ATP 500 event, the Citi Open is a rung below the top tier but challenging nonetheless; this year's field features four of the top 10 men's players in the world.
Stephens first played here at age 19 in 2012, the first year of the women's event, and she won her first WTA title here three years later. Alexander Zverev, the men's champion in 2017 and 2018, burst onto the scene here with a run to the quarterfinals as an 18-year-old in 2015.
This year's field mixes stalwarts such as Murray, who will compete only in doubles with his brother, Jamie, as he continues to come back from a hip injury, with a heavy dollop of notable up-and-comers.
No. 28 Sofia Kenin, a 20-year-old Russian-born American, joins Gauff as rising young players in the women's field. Like Gauff, Kenin knows a little something about weathering the flood of attention and expectations that accompanies defeating a Williams sister: She defeated Serena in the third round of the French Open this year.
On the men's side, Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 20-year-old ranked sixth in the world, leads the pack. But Canadian sensation Felix Auger-Aliassime, ranked 23rd and at 18 the youngest man in the top 100, is perhaps the most intriguing young player in the draw.
"For a guy ranked at my level, it's important to have these types of tournaments on the schedule; they're always good to get your groove in coming into the Masters, the Grand Slams," Auger-Aliassime said. "Also I'm young, so it's good for me to play."
Auger-Aliassime was born in Montreal to a Togolese father and a French Canadian mother, and he rocketed up the rankings this spring after cracking the top 100 for the first time in February. He turns 19 on Aug. 8 (Roger Federer's 38th birthday) and has no titles to his name but has landed on nearly every pretournament "player to watch" list lately, evidence of his potential and perhaps the sport's yearning to anoint the next great Grand Slam contender.
In the spring, at least, it looked like the 6-foot-4 Canadian might fit the bill: He notched his first win over a top 10 player, Tsitsipas, at Indian Wells and then became the youngest man ever to reach the semifinals at the Miami Open.
Speedy Aussie Alex de Minaur, a 20-year-old ranked 34th, is back after making last year's Citi Open final, and he has claimed his first two career titles this year. The first trophy came at the Sydney International in January, and he won the second Sunday at the Atlanta Open, where he beat Taylor Fritz in straight sets in the final. In the semis, he ran through another up-and-comer slated to play at the Citi Open: Reilly Opelka, one of two 21-year-old Americans in the field, joining No. 41 Frances Tiafoe.
The 6-11 Opelka, ranked No. 57, is having the best year of his young career after capturing his first ATP title at the New York Open in February. Opelka and his ilk will have to run through more established players to have a chance at the Citi Open title, but the young American said he sees a generational shift happening in tennis - if not at the Grand Slam level, where Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic maintain an iron grip on the top of the sport, then at tournaments such as Washington's.
"I think the guys born from 1995 to 2000 have had a pretty, almost extra tough time because this generation that's playing now, there are so many great players over 30 that are playing well," Opelka said. "Guys like (Gilles) Simon, (Feliciano) Lopez, let alone (Kei) Nishikori, (Marin) Cilic. They're so good, and it's been so difficult for young guys to break through. So I think now it's just going to start transitioning and getting just a little easier with those guys getting older."