A Qualifying Debut Clervie Ngounoue Will Always Remember

Clervie Ngounoue (photo: Dakota Moyer/Mubadala Citi DC Open)

WASHINGTON, July 30, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

Although the Mubadala Citi DC Open doesn’t begin main draw play for another day in this first-of-its-kind ATP/WTA 500 combined event, the fans came out in full droves – braving a heat wave that saw temperatures reach in excess of 95 degrees – to watch the first day of qualifying at William H.G.FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park on Saturday.

There were plenty of intriguing and compelling storylines, especially on the women’s side of the qualifying draw, where there are four main-draw berths up for grabs in the 28-player field.

First, 17-year-old Wimbledon junior girls’ champ Clervie Ngounoue, a native of Washington, D.C. who trains in Florida, upset the top seed Anna  Blinkova of Russia, ranked 37th, 6-3, 6-2, in an hour and two minutes on the Stadium Court with plenty of friends and family watching. Ngounoue hit five aces, won 89 percent of her first-serve points and saved both break points she faced. Ngounoue converted all three of her break-point opportunities and outpointed Blinkova 54-35.

“It’s such a blessing to be here,” the 313th-ranked Ngounoue said, quoted by the tournament website. “It’s such a huge opportunity. Playing in this tournament that I grew up running around the grounds and asking for people’s autographs, it’s surreal. …

“So many of the faces I saw today are the same ones I used to come to this tournament with,” Ngounoue added. “We’d try to get tickets and stay at the stadium late at night. So, it was just so special to see many of those faces again, but in a different circumstance where I was on the court.”

After receiving a qualifying draw wild card, the teenager who used to play at the Rock Creek Tennis Center while growing up in D.C., is a win away from reaching her first Tour-level main draw. Ngounoue’s next opponent will be No. 7 seed Magdalena Frech of Poland, who advanced by retirement over American Kayla Day. Frech won the first set 6-2.

Second, 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez of Canada, eliminated No. 2 seed Varvara Gracheva of France, ranked 86th, 6-4, 6-3, on Stadium Court. The 86th-ranked Fernandez dominated play, both on points won on her second serve as well as points won on Gracheva’s second serve. She outpointed her opponent 66-55.

Next, Fernandez will face British No. 1 Katie Boulter of Great Britain, who is ranked 74th. Boulter bested 120th-ranked American Elizabeth Mandlik, 7-5, 6-3, in one hour and 34 minutes on the Grandstand, by converting six of seven break points and outpointing her opponent 71-59.

Also, No. 4 seed Lauren Davis defeated fellow American Alana Smith, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, to advance against No. 120 Ashlyn Krueger of the United States, who beat No. 8 seed Rebecca Peterson of Sweden, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5). Finally, No. 5 seed Peyton Stearns of the United States beat Iryna Shymanovich of Belarus, 7-6 (4), 7-5, and will face fellow American Hailey Baptiste, who upset No. 3 seed Alycia Parks of the United States, 6-3, 6-1.

In the men’s qualifying draw, in which six will advance to the main draw with a pair of weekend wins, eight seeded players – including No. 2 Sho Shimabukuro of Japan and No. 6 Brandon Holt of the United States – won to reach Sunday’s second round. No. 3 seed Denis Kudla was eliminated by New Zealander Kiranpal Pannu, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. No. 1 seed Juncheng “Jerry” Shang of China was a game from beating American Gage Brymer, ahead 6-3, 5-2, when lightning stopped play across all courts about 4:20 p.m.

Play finally resumed at 7:10 p.m. following severe thunderstorms that blanketed the region. Quickly, Shang closed out the win to advance against No. 12 seed Thai-Son Kwiatkowski of the United States, who defeated Peter Polansky of Canada, 6-2, 6-0.

Practice partners draw notice of fans

As the qualifying draw got underway and fans packed the outer courts and made their way into the Stadium Court, there was plenty of interest and excitement on the practice courts – both the main five, which face the side of the Market Square food court, and the quainter Practice Court 6 and Practice Court 7 courts situated on either side of the John Harris Court.

Late Saturday morning, about 11 a.m., lucky fans got to see two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka play a practice set with 2019 tournament titlist and current World No. 4 Jessica Pegula on Practice Court 6.

Over on Practice Court 7, it was 2022 NCAA champion Ben Shelton working out with Thanasi Kokkinakis. Later, on the same court, three-time major champion Andy Murray tested skills with Felix Auger-Aliassime.

Meanwhile, on Practice Court 5 in front of a big audience of fans, Frances Tiafoe held court with Gaël Monfils.

Around the Mubadala Citi DC Open

Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka were among the pros who took part in the annual Kids’ Day clinic on the Stadium Court Saturday morning.

Opening day was a sell out, Day 2 will be, too.