Lars Eller is a serious tennis fan. The 32-year-old Washington Capitals center tries to watch all of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments on TV, and back when he played for the Montreal Canadiens, Eller and his wife, Julie, attended the ATP Tour event the city hosts a few times. Eller also played tennis growing up in Denmark and still gets on the court for some match play in the offseason.
“I usually play maybe like once a week or so here in the offseason,” Eller said Wednesday at the Citi Open tennis tournament ahead of Rafael Nadal’s second round match against Jack Sock. “It’s just something—a sport that I really enjoy playing and watching.” (Disclosure: City Paper owner Mark Ein manages the Citi Open.)
In 2007, the St. Louis Blues selected Eller 13th overall in the NHL Entry Draft, making him one of the highest Danish-born players ever to be drafted into the NHL. Eller was traded to the Canadiens in 2010, where he spent six seasons before joining the Capitals in 2016. Two years later, Eller scored the clinching goal in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final to help the Caps win their first Stanley Cup title, and he has become a hero in his native country.
Throughout his NHL journey, Eller has accumulated a number of tennis partners. He’s not the only player on the Capitals that likes to play the sport.
“The Swedes, like [Carl] Hagelin and [Nicklas] Backstrom, also played a little with [Evgeny] Kuznetsov and Brenden Dillon a lot this summer,” Eller said when asked to name his tennis-playing teammates. “When I was in Montreal, I used to play with Tomas Plekanec, the Czech guy, and he was a great player. He was really good tennis player. So yeah, there’s a lot of hockey guys that enjoy playing tennis.”
Eller hesitated to say who is the best tennis player on the team but gave former Caps winger Ilya Kovalchuk a shoutout. “He’s probably the best player we had that I’ve seen play, for sure,” Eller said. “He was great, a really good tennis player.”
While Eller plays tennis mostly for fun, he also uses it as conditioning early on in his summer training.
“Once you get into … the second and third phase or month of offseason training, you have to do some other things,” he said. “But it’s a great supplement for me.”
On Wednesday, Eller watched Nadal beat Sock in a three-set thriller in the lower section behind the baseline on stadium court. After the match, Eller presented Nadal with a custom Washington Capitals jersey with Nadal’s name and No. 21 on the back. It was the first time Eller, who calls the 2008 Wimbledon final where Nadal beat Roger Federer in five sets “one of the best sports games of all time,” saw Nadal compete in person. Nadal, 35, lost to South Africa’s Lloyd Harris in the third round of the Citi Open on Thursday night in only his second match since the French Open.
“I’ve always enjoyed watching Federer. I think he’s just amazing on so many levels. I admire him as a person [and] as an athlete. But the same thing with Nadal,” Eller said before Wednesday’s match. “I really admire their humble personalities, and the fact that they’ve been able to stay on top of their sport for so many years—you know, decades. I think that’s the most impressive thing, to have them playing, [Novak] Djokovic, all three of them in the same era. I think arguably the best three players of all time, so having to see them battle it out at every Grand Slam is special.”