Witnessing tennis history

My oldest son and I saw a piece of history last week in Mason, Ohio, 25 miles north of Cincinnati.

In between raindrops, we saw tennis superstar Novak Djokovic of Serbia struggle to win three-set matches on Thursday and Friday against Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria and Milos Raonic of Canada, respectively, on his way to winning the Western & Southern Open title.

Dimitrov won the title last year. Raonic has a huge serve – he routinely topped 140 mph on his serves, the fastest we saw during our two days at the weeklong tournament.

The men

Djokovic won the Cincinnati title for the first time. He became the first player to win all nine Masters 1000 Series titles – a group of tournaments around the world that rank in importance just below the four major championships. (Djokovic has won all of those as well.)

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On Sunday he defeated Roger Federer of Switzerland in straight sets to enter the record books. Federer had won the Western & Southern title seven times, never losing in the finals until this year. In contrast, Djokovic had reached the finals five times previously, losing all of them – three to Federer and two to Andy Murray of Great Britain, who lost in the first round this year.

This was our third year attending the Western & Southern Open, a tune-up for many of the tennis world’s top players before the U.S. Open, the final major of the year, which concludes Labor Day weekend in New York City.

We have attended Wednesday and Thursday matches because we figure many of the top players will still be in the tournament, and there’s enough matches scheduled on multiple courts to make the days fun.

Of course, there always are upsets. We have yet to see either of the Williams sisters play. Last year, Serena was pregnant and didn’t come, and Venus lost early. This year, Venus didn’t play and Serena lost before we got there.

Maybe next year.

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The highlight of our week was seeing Federer play. He didn’t compete in Cincinnati the previous two years because of injuries. At age 37, the married father of four continues to play at a world-class level.

Federer was scheduled to play Thursday night, but for the second year in a row, the Thursday night session got rained out.

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Unlike last year, it rained during the day as well. We walked from our motel to the tennis center, about three-quarters of a mile, in a drizzle that morning. Play was supposed to start at 11 a.m. but didn’t start until about 3 p.m.

During that delay, we learned that Aretha Franklin had died earlier in the day. A somber moment in a dreary morning.

When action started we saw less than one game of a match between Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina and Hyeon Chung of South Korea before the rains came again – only for about 10 minutes, though.

But that was enough to drench the court, and it took the ballboys and others nearly an hour to dry the playing surface.

Eventually, we saw del Potro defeat Chung in the grandstand, then Djokovic play Dimitrov on Center Court. After a couple of rain delays, the public-address announcer said, at about 9 p.m., that the day-session match was postponed until Friday. (The Center Court seats got crowded as day-session and night-session ticket holders decided who would sit where. Since the match was considered a day match, even though it was well past dinner time, the daytime seat-holders took precedence.)

The rainout forced Djokovic, like many players – including Federer, for the first time since 2004, he told the crowd in a post-match interview – to play two matches in one day. Djokovic dispatched Dimitrov, rested for a couple of hours, then defeated Raonic in a late-afternoon match.

The women

Oh, yes: The women played as well. Last year, for whatever reason, the women’s bracket provided the better matches, while this year, the men’s side did. Each tournament is unique, for sure.

On Thursday, we saw two women’s matches. Elise Mertens of Belgium upset Sloane Stephens of Plantation, Fla., and Madison Keys of Rock Island. Ill., defeated Angelique Kerber of Germany.

On Friday – a day with no rain and plenty of good tennis – we saw two more women’s matches. Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic beat Mertens in a difficult three-set match; Mertens easily could have won.

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Later, Simona Halep of Romania, the No. 1 seed and top-ranked women’s player in the world, defeated Ashleigh Barty of Australia. Halep eventually would lose in the final to unranked Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, who won the biggest title of her career.

Takeaways

We saw del Potro play three times in two days – two full matches and a snippet of his middle match, against Nick Kyrgios of Australia, one of the more entertaining players you’ll ever see. He frequently hits the ball between his legs during a match – most of the time landing the ball in play. He also has a wicked serve, but del Potro managed to outlast him.

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After defeating Kyrgios early on Friday, del Potro had to play later that day against David Goffin of Belgium, who I didn’t know anything about until this match. He’s an excellent player and defeated del Potro, then retired in the semi-final against Federer with a shoulder injury. All those rain-compressed matches took their toll. (On Halep too, I would guess – she ran out of gas in the finale.)

In the past two years, we’ve seen far too much rain. This year, Cincinnati got 5 inches of rain on Thursday – shattering the rainfall record for the day. At that rate, I’m surprised we saw any tennis at all.

Rain affects all outdoor sports, tennis more than most because the court must be completely dry for the players. Even a drizzle halts play, making the surface too slippery for the running, sliding athletes.

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I’m always impressed how hard the players hit the ball, both men and women, and how low to the net they keep it. They hit the lines and corners routinely. They serve hard, and place their serves exactly where they want them.

It’s what they do for a living, so they practice a lot. It shows. Many of them get upset when they miss a shot – and give a fist pump when they nail one. Emotions remain just below the surface, until the point ends.

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Sportsmanship is paramount, for the athletes and the fans. As spectators we are to remain quiet during play. No cell phones or loud camera clicks either.

Respect for the game. World-class athletes performing at the highest level.

 

Especially in the grandstand and court 3, the spectators are very close to the players. We see their facial expressions, their muscles tense as play begins, the squeak of their shoes as they chase down a shot.

It doesn’t get any better than that.