Saturday, August 15, 2009

Big-Time Tennis Comes to Town

                                            Dinara Safina

Dear George,


This is a phenomenal year for big-time tennis in Cincinnati.  We’ve had a major men’s ATP tournament in suburban Mason for three decades now, but this year they up-graded the women’s tournament to a top-tier event, which, when they merge completely next year, will make Cincinnati one of the top four tennis destinations in the nation, along with the U.S. Open, Indian Wells, and Miami.  The 16 top-ranked women in the world are currently at Mason, and the 44 top-ranked men are arriving this weekend.  Thanks to our friends and fellow tennis fans, Paula Dubeck and Tom Jenkins, Katja and I enjoyed the luxury of gift tickets to the women’s tournament on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, and it was a real treat. 


The ATP was formerly known as the Western Tennis Tournament, and it was held at the Cincinnati Tennis Club’s clay courts when we first came to Cincinnati in the late 1960’s.  Our friend Clyde McCoy used to organize expeditions for Soc grad students and faculty, and we saw a host of stars in those early days: Stan Smith, Cliff Ritchey, Tom Gorman, Ken Rosewall, Guillermo Vilas, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe.  From 1975 to 1979 the tournament moved to Coney Island, and our favorites included Harold Solomon, Eddie Dibbs, Peter Fleming, Ilie Nastase, Connors, and Roscoe Tanner.  We’ve gone to the ATP at Mason many years since it moved there in 1979, and we’ve seen a lot of stars, e.g., McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Chang, and  Katja’s all-time favorites, Frenchman Henri LeConte and Swede Matts Wilander.


We got out to the ATP early on Wednesday evening to stroll around and take in the atmosphere.  There are many merchandise booths as you enter with names like Cute Tennis Stuff or Gee Bee Charming.  I tried to dissuade Katja from buying a pink $18 Adidas baseball cap, but she said she needed to spend some money.   Tournament T-shirts were on sale for $20, but, apparently because of legal restrictions, these simply said “Cincinnati 09” and were unappealing.  I’d eaten a Lean Cuisine at home to avoid inflated food court costs, but Katja dined on a $7 burger which she said tasted like Styrofoam.  The $5.50 lemonade was higher quality, and I’ll have to admit to splurging on a $4 salted pretzel.


The really big store on the grounds was Midwest Sports Tennis which occupied a 10,000 square foot tent on the stadium grounds and handled every conceivable tennis-related item, much of it at hefty prices.  We were interested because the business is owned by Marty Wolf and one of his brothers.  Marty was the metro area tennis champ for years when our son J was a teenager, and, in fact, J worked one summer as an assistant tennis pro for him at Losantiville Country Club.  It was good to see Marty Wolf so successful.  His store in Sharonville is the largest tennis outlet in the country, and they are the number one online vendors as well.


The grounds were buzzing as we walked around, and you would not mistake anybody in the crowd for a Wal-Mart shopper.  Because Serena Williams was playing in the premiere match on Wednesday night, there were probably five times as many African American fans as usual (with the result that the crowd was only 99.5% white rather than 99.9% white).  There were lots of people in tennis outfits, many slim tanned women with blond hair, kids carrying huge tennis balls to get players’ autographs and appearing to be junior tennis players, and a crowd which looked as though it were disproportionately from Indian Hill, Kenwood, and surrounding affluent suburbs.  It’s fun to mingle with the hoi poloi and definitely a prime people-watching location.  Except for Paula and Frank on the second night, we didn’t see a single person that we knew.  It’s a big change from twenty years ago when J was the top junior tennis player in greater Cincinnati.  Back then we enjoyed some spin-off parent celebrity status as a consequence, so we would see many other parents from the junior tennis world at the ATP.  It was weird to have your social status determined by your teenager’s success, and our current anonymity is clearly more relaxing.


Seeing Serena Williams play in person was very exciting.  She’s a foreboding presence on the court, muscular, broad-shouldered, busty, with powerful thighs – basically the template of a Marvel comics super-hero.  While her opponent was gifted, the match’s outcome was never in doubt.  Serena seemed very methodical and low-key, which made sense when the newspaper reported the next day that she was sick and had spent the day in bed, but the power of her serves and groundstrokes were simply too much.  On Thursday night we had seats in Tom’s private box in the Grandstand Court (court 2), where we saw some excellent doubles, but we also snuck into Center Court to watch Dinara Safina, currently ranked No. 1 in the world.  Safina’s gotten a lot of bad press because she is ranked number one, but has never won a Grand Slam tournament.  I’d never seen her play before, and seeing her in person dispelled a lot of the snippy criticism.  She overwhelmed a very solid player from China, and her groundstrokes, particularly her backhand, were devastating.


We ran into Paula and Frank in the parking lot as we were leaving on Thursday night.  Katja has been carrying Paula’s Xmas present in the trunk of our car for the last eight months, so they drove us over to our parking space where Katja could give it to them.  It was a nice way to wind up our tournament visits.  Katja and I watch the major Grand Slam tournaments on TV every year, but it’s a much more powerful experience to be at the ATP in person .  Now we’re looking forward to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal being in town.







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