Upsets, sportsmanship and great tennis

“The first two matches we saw ended in upsets,” I told the woman sitting next to me, who has attended the tournament for 10 years.

“You need to leave,” she said – in jest, of course.

We were watching unseeded Bernard Tomic of Australia defeat No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori of Japan last Thursday during the third round of the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament in Mason, Ohio, north of Cincinnati.

My oldest son and I spent two days at the Masters Series tournament, a high-profile event two weeks before the last “major” of the year, the U.S. Open in New York City.

Nishikori showed flashes of brilliance in his match, but we figured he was exhausted after winning the bronze medal at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the week before.

After watching a string of upsets that day, it’s only fitting that the men’s and women’s champions both were underdogs. Karolina Pliskova from the Czech Republic, the No. 15 seed, defeated Angelique Kerber of Germany, the No. 2 seed, in the women’s final on Sunday. Immediately following that match, No. 12 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia beat No. 1 seed Andy Murray of Great Britain (who defeated Tomic in the semi-final) for the men’s title.

Rain, rain …

The true winner of the tournament almost was the weather. It rained every day except the last one. My son and I didn’t see it rain Thursday; we didn’t stay for the evening matches, when the rain came. On Friday, we sat through an hour delay before the evening matches started.

The parking lot – if you can call it that – was a mud bowl. Thousands of vehicles destroyed a golf course adjacent to the tennis center. Why they haven’t built an asphalt or concrete parking lot, I have no idea. Even after a 200-mile drive home, my car still has mud on the tires from that “lot.”

Midwestern hospitality

During the rain delay, my son and I got dinner and wiped off chairs and a table with free promotional towels we received as we entered the gate. As we ate, two older men asked if they could join us. They came from Delaware, an eight-hour trip, for Thursday and Friday matches, just like we were doing. They’ve done this for several years, saying those are the best days to watch the tournament. We had our pick of many matches featuring a dozen or more of the top tennis players in the world.

Living in Delaware, they attended the U.S. Open in New York several times, but deemed it too crowded. So, they decided to try out Cincinnati. They say the event in our great state is organized extremely well, and it’s easy to park their RV (although this year they couldn’t leave it in the “mud bowl,” or they would have needed a tow truck to get out).

They enjoy the Midwestern hospitality so much, it’s become an annual event for them. Pretty cool.

While watching a quarterfinal match between No. 3 seed Simona Halep of Romania, who eventually lost to Kerber, and No. 5 seed Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, we got a kick out of a young boy in the row in front of us. The boy, about 9 years old, had one of those oversized tennis balls that the athletes sign. His parents said he had nearly a dozen signatures already.

As the Halep match neared its end, the boy darted across the stadium to the players’ entrance. As Halep left the court after winning the match, the boy reached his oversized ball down to her. She signed it. She signed no other. This kid got the only signature from that match.

I was impressed, as were his parents.

World-class athletes

We saw some great tennis. In our favorite match, in the grandstand, we – along with about 5,500 other people – saw the last remaining American, unseeded Steve Johnson, take on No. 7 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France. Johnson won the first set (it’s best two out of three) and trailed in the second-set tie-breaker, 6-3. When the players each win six games in a set, they play a tie-breaker by points: the first to seven wins, but they have to win by two.

Tsonga, then, had three “set points,” which meant he had three chances to win a point and the set. But Johnson won five consecutive points – and the match. The crowd went crazy!

Tennis is a gentle game, with sportsmanship far more important than in most sports. Some players, however, do have tempers. We saw a couple of guys kick their racquets in frustration. We saw only one player break a racquet by slamming it on the court after a bad game. That was No. 2 seed Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, who did not play well in a loss to unseeded Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria.

We saw Dimitrov win two matches. After defeating Wawrinka, he beat Johnson, ending the American’s run. (Dimitrov then lost to the eventual champion, Cilic.)

Seeing the stars

On Thursday, we saw three complete matches. On Friday, we bounced around to several courts and saw parts of nine matches – three men’s, three women’s and three men’s doubles.

My son played doubles tennis in high school, so we had fun watching that. We picked the right doubles matches to watch, as we saw both the eventual champions and the runners-up.

Doubles players have fast reflexes – they frequently stand close to the net and try to rifle the ball past their opponents. Frequently, they do. But when they bat the ball back and forth several times, it gets intense. The players get excited when they win those points.

In singles, all the players, men and women, hit the ball low and hard. They try to make their opponent run from side to side. When a player running sideways at full speed hits a shot over the net, either down the line or across the court, and it falls in, the crowd “oohs” and the player often gives a fist pump. Yes, we saw lots of good tennis.

Will we go back next year? We’ll see. If you enjoy tennis, it’s definitely worth the trip. The tennis center in Mason is right on Interstate 71, so it’s easy to get to.

Let’s hope it doesn’t rain next year.

Photo credit: David Cornish

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