Sunshine brings out the best in everyone

Sunshine and blue skies.

That’s a big deal.

When you’re attending a professional tennis tournament, rain is Enemy No. 1. A couple of drops and the white lines get slippery, halting play.

The past two years, my oldest son and I saw as much rain as we did good tennis at the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati. Indeed, the Thursday evening session got rained out two years in a row.

Not this year.

We saw just a few white puffy clouds – and lots of sunshine. No raindrops at all.

Wonderful surprise

Best of all, my middle son surprised me by flying in from Denver to join us for the event. He and my oldest son worked out the arrangements shortly after last year’s tournament ended, and kept the surprise until last week.

Both of them played varsity tennis in high school, so that peaked our interest in the sport.

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This was our fourth year attending the Western & Southern Open, which many of the top men’s and women’s players in the world use as a tune-up for the U.S. Open, a “grand slam” event in early September in New York City.

Cincinnati is a lot closer to our homes than New York is, and a heck of a lot cheaper. We gain close access to the world’s best without spending an arm and a leg to do it.

Cheap probably isn’t the right word, though.

Gotta eat

While the price of admission is much less than for the U.S. Open, the motel we stayed at jacked up the price for the week, because they know they can do that and still sell out. Capitalism at its finest.

And food costs a lot more on the grounds of the Lindner Family Tennis Center than it does outside the venue. We bought four meals there – lunch and dinner on Thursday and Friday (the motel provided breakfast, such as it was). A basic hamburger cost $9. We also got pizza and calzones one time.

The other meals were specialties of the house. Skyline Chili is a Cincinnati thing. It comes three-way, four-way or five-way: spaghetti topped with chili and cheese are the first three items. Four and five are beans and onions, either or both. It’s delicious.

We also ate “brisket mac and cheese.” For 15 bucks, we get a container of macaroni and cheese – the good stuff, not the boxed “dinner” you get at the grocery store for less than a dollar – topped with BBQ-flavored brisket. While expensive, it was very good.

We also bought a 20-ounce soft drink – for $4.50 – and refilled the bottle with water all afternoon and evening. Since the sun shone bright and temperatures reached the 80s both days, we got some sun and stayed as hydrated as we could.

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We ate one of our meals in Center Court in between matches. We sat in on a U.S. Professional Tennis Association Midwest Division Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Two people were inducted – one of whom, to my surprise, is from Avon Lake, Ohio, near where I live.

Among other things, Mary Herrick “has developed a number of accomplished tennis players including state champions, Division I collegiate athletes, and two National AAU Junior Olympic Gold Medal Teams. She previously served as a coach for nationally ranked players for the United States Tennis Association (USTA).”

https://yellowballtennis.com/tennis-professionals/mary-herrick/

That was cool.

The women

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Between the white lines, we saw many new players in the two days we attended of the week-long event. We also saw several superstars – including Venus Williams for the first time. Her sister, Serena Williams, dropped out before her first match with back issues. We still haven’t seen her play (but we saw her in the stands watching Venus play; in the photo above, she’s in the corner, first row).

On Thursday, we saw Venus defeat Donna Vekic of Croatia in three sets. Venus struggled early, then kicked it into gear and won the match.

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We saw the No. 1 seed, Ashleigh Barty (left) of Australia, twice – on Thursday and Friday. She didn’t impress us, really. Barty should have lost on Thursday to Anett Kontaveit (right) of Estonia.

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Barty survived 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. On Friday she did a little better, defeating Maria Sakkari of Greece, 5-7, 6-2, 6-0. (She got crushed in the semi-final on Saturday after we left for home.)

The best women’s match we saw, up there with Barty-Kontaveit, was American Madison Keys – who would go on to win the tournament – defeat Simona Halep of Romania in the standing-room-only Grandstand. Keys won 6-1, 3-6, 7-5.

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Halep (left and below, playing Keys), a former world No. 1 player, has a strong following, even playing against an American in Cincinnati. While most of the crowd roared for Keys, we heard chants of “Simona … Simona …” once or twice as well.

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The men

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On the men’s side, the star of the tournament was a young Russian we weren’t familiar with. Andrey Rublev (right), only 21 years old, turned heads by defeating Roger Federer in a jam-packed Center Court, 6-3, 6-4 (the main photo). Federer (below) did not play badly; Rublev just played better.

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That’s what the tournament is all about.

Did we see a coming-out party for the newest star in professional tennis? Time will tell, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did.

Rublev lost on Friday to eventual men’s champion Daniil Medvedev, another Russian, who is one of the world’s top 10 players. Medvedev, on Saturday after we left, shocked Novak Djokovic by defeating him in a three-set match.

We saw Djokovic (below), the defending champion, defeat Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain in straight sets on Thursday.

On Friday, in addition to seeing Medvedev defeat Rublev, we saw Richard Gasquet of France defeat Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain in three sets.

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Worth the trip

Our local newspaper gave little to no coverage of the Western & Southern Open, so professional tennis must not be very big in Northeast Ohio. The paper covers youth tennis (and other youth sports) extremely well. But this is a football town, and the Browns are in the headlines every day, even though the NFL is still in its preseason.

Even professional golf and motorsports get more ink than professional tennis does.

But there are other ways to enjoy the sport. The best is to see it in person.

With family.

What an awesome two days.

(Madison keys being interviewed after defeating Halep; Medvedev, taken by The Associated Press.)

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.