The Western & Southern Open kicked off in grand fashion Aug 13, spotlighting the renovations to the Lindner Family Tennis Center that now allow it to accommodate both men’s and women’s action simultaneously. More importantly, the immediate impact hit when the news arrived (at day’s end) that Saturday drew an all-time record for attendance with 13,204 tennis fans taking in the new digs, a strong line-up of qualifying matches as well as opportunities to catch top names tuning up on the practice courts and the undeniable fun of Kids Day activities.
Kids from summer tennis leagues throughout Cincinnati gathered on Court 9 to engage in light competitive events against each other and select professionals like 2007 Western & Southern finalist James Blake, who over the years has become an unofficial U.S. Tennis ambassador. Blake, a former top 10 player who has faced adversity throughout his career and openly shared his experiences, jumped right in, playfully challenging groups of aspiring youngsters in volleying competitions, deftly switching from a standard racket to a Teflon-coated skillet.
For regional fans who, throughout the Grand Slam season, find themselves glued to televised coverage, the Open grants up-close access to players thanks to the court-side seating at the facility’s practice area. Where else can you be mere steps away from Jelena Jankovic, a former No. 1 women’s player, as she warms up for her first-round match? Decked out in purple, Jankovic displayed the solid footwork and sharp forehands that she will need to make a run here and prepare herself for the year’s final Grand Slam, the U.S. Open.
Minutes later Andy Roddick attacks the practice courts with his still-explosive serves and strong strokes (both forehand and his reliable two-handed backhand). Roddick is fascinating to watch during practice, because even though the fans are only a few steps away, he refuses to hide his frustration over minute miscues. It might just be practice, but he gives free rein to his unfettered passion in pursuit of the perfect game (which he came closest to achieving during the epic Wimbledon final he lost against Roger Federer in 2009) without fear. To see it live and in person speaks to the supreme focus and dedication needed to compete on the professional level.
Qualifying matches provide another perspective on the competitiveness of the game. It's curious to watch the lesser names and the up-and-comers grinding their way into the main draw, or the journeymen and women, the solid mid-levelers, possibly returning from injuries seeking to play their way back into contention, or the crafty veterans looking to make a last run. Each point matters, and this is where strategy and execution meet guts and heartache.
The first match of the day on Center Court featured Vania King and Sania Mirza battling for a spot in another qualifying match, another chance to break into the main draw against Maria Kirilenko, Jankovic or Serena Williams. King folded in the first set tiebreak against Mirza, but charged back and captured the second set easily. She fell behind in the third set, but again dug deep to force a decisive third set tiebreak, which went back and forth as the two traded mini-breaks early.
The key to the match, though, came on a missed call by the baseline judge during a long rally. One of Mirza’s shots was obviously long (easier to catch from the vantage point in the press box) but play had to continue because the challenge system was not active during the opening matches on Center Court. King lost the point (due to her frustration over the missed call and her inability to stop the point) and then flubbed match point. She immediately tossed her racket on her way to net, where she shook hands with Mirza, but failed to greet the chair umpire.
It would be simple to dismiss her actions as unsportsmanlike, but such an assessment fails to consider what’s at stake for a player like King. The time on the road and the expense, the hours of practice, the sacrifice of the routine pleasures of life for a chance to step out on court, to step up to a moment where maybe, if the ball skips off the line just right and the proper calls are made in key moments, there’s a chance to beat Kirilienko or Jankovic or one of the Williams sisters here. Which could open a doorway, an easier path into the main draw at the next tournament where with rest or more time to practice and strategize, another win might make the improbable a little less so.
(View Brian Taylor's Day One photos, including the one of Roddick above, here.)
The second match of the Day Two on Center Court features Sania Mirza taking on another American player, Alexa Glatch, who dispatches Mirza in rather pedestrian fashion (6-2 and 6-4). Having watched Mirza engage in such an intense back-and-forth match the day before, it is surprising to see her fall here so quickly, but Glatch works her over with both power and technique and with zero drama.
The anticipated highlight of the early session, though, is the next match on Center Court, the first main draw pairing on the men’s side — Juan Martin Del Potro vs. Andreas Seppi. Del Potro, working his way back into competitive form after a wrist injury, had his best year in 2009 when he reached the quarters at the Australian Open, the French Open semis and won the U.S. Open (dethroning Federer). He dashed off to a quick break of Seppi to kick things off and held serve, which is not surprising for the tall Argentine who not only has power but places his serve with pinpoint accuracy.
On the other hand, it was obvious that Seppi, a solid player, was not on his game. By the time DelPo’s lead hit 4-love, Seppi signaled for the trainer. He returned to win the next game after the consultation, but retired immediately that.
With only more qualifying matches on the docket, it was time to wander the practice courts for another glimpse at the daily training regimens of the professionals.
First up was Li Na, the first Chinese woman to win a Grand Slam title (2011 French Open). Prior to her win at the French, Li Na reached the Australian Open final, so she is certainly a player to watch as the tour season heads towards the final major of the year. Listed at 5’7 1/2”, she is much more solidly built than many of the taller, leaner players on the women’s circuit and she definitely generates great power, but the more fascinating aspect of watching her practice session was her mental game. While there were few exchanges between Na and her coach, the fierce determination in her eyes gave off a sense of the strategic wheels turning before every swing of the racket. That machine-like purpose paired with good health bodes well for her. Following her session, like any savvy rising star, she mingled with the fans, signing autographs and posing for a few photos.
The next court over, it was all business for Petra Kvitova, the newly crowned Wimbledon champion from the Czech Republic. Working with her coach, she ran through a series of placement drills aimed to recondition her grass court skills to the different feel of the hard courts. One-legged forehand drills to hone her balance, constant attention to keeping her wrist strong and her grip tight, this session with its focus on repetition was the definition of practice.
Contrast that with the afternoon session of Ana Ivanovic, the former No. 1 player, who reached the Australian Open final in 2008 and won the French that same year. Although she has had less success at the Slams since then, she continues to move well on court and exhibits sharp shot placement. Intriguingly, her practice round illustrates that, for some professionals, the game is still a game and one that they actually enjoy.
Ivanovic jokes around with her coach and hitting partner, smiles during each rally and radiates an infectious charm that draws the gathered crowd in. Fans cheer well-played points and offer encouragement and light-hearted razzing to her hitting partner.
For a game that is played with such regimented decorum, it's likely these moments, when a player and the fans can truly connect and have fun, that matter more to the sport than all the titles and statistics.
(View Brian Taylor's Day Two photos here.)