August 26, 2016

Cincinnati: An unlikely tennis oasis

By Taylor Soule In Stories

I came home to a place I had never been; that’s sport at its core, an entity that reminds me that I am at my best when I simply, unapologetically like what I like. And that, of course, is tennis, the game I’m willing to wake up for at 2:25 a.m. on a Thursday morning during the Australian Open… or travel 10 hours to a tournament.

This past weekend, I went to Finals Weekend of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, an ATP Masters 1000 and a WTA Premier 5 event and my first in-person pro tennis experience. The Midwest’s own tennis oasis, the Lindner Family Tennis Center welcomed me with a variety of local Cincy fare and, of course, world-class matches featuring world-class players. There’s underrated comfort in the knowledge that I could walk up to any fellow fan and start talking about my Roger Federer fandom, Serena’s firepower or the Bryan Brothers’ practically inhuman inability to return any shot hurtling at the net. That was Cincy Tennis, a place of fast friends, instant understanding and Graeter’s raspberry chocolate chip ice cream.

Roger Federer didn’t play in Cincy, but RF hats were practically the uniform of the tournament. That’s the thing about being a tennis fan, especially in the Midwest; who’s at the tournament matters, but not as much as the opportunity to be there, to get close to the sport in a somewhat unlikely place… an Ohio suburb.

The practice courts were a natural first step upon arrival at the tournament. I caught up with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Milos Raonic and the Bryan Brothers. My first match of Finals Weekend was Steve Johnson versus the resurging, Grigor Dimitrov. Stevie just didn’t have it, for which I don’t blame him, considering he just won a bronze medal in doubles with Jack Sock at the Rio Olympics last week. I often try to bribe my Des Moines friends with baked goods to watch tennis with me at home, so it was refreshing to cheer with fans who weren’t there just for the promise of free muffins. I was in my place, among my people.

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Doubles doesn’t get enough primetime love, and seeing it in person was further proof. I found myself holding my breath every time Bob and Mike Bryan charged to the net, gasping as they blocked back shots from Jo and Lucas Pouille, both of whom hit with a lot of power. The pace of doubles is mesmerizing, and the packed stadium made it all the more electric. Doubles has never come naturally to me, and this experience made me appreciate and respect it on a new level.

The sound of the ball off the racket sounded louder, somehow, in person. And with players like Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova, power-hitting wasn’t hard to find. The women’s final was a battle of two similar styles: resourceful, human-backboard types (players after my own heart). Pliskova played the match of her life and out-Kerbered Kerber in stunning, quick fashion.

After getting more Graeter’s ice cream and laughing at Daren Cahill’s suit jacket and shorts TV commentary attire, it was time for the men’s final. The undoubtedly fresher Marin Cilic beat 2016 Olympic gold medalist, Andy Murray, in straight sets with ridiculous winners from both backhand and forehand sides. He was hitting his spots on Sunday and left me saying, “Well, not much Murray can do about that,” on the regular. And finally, Cincy granted us a rain-free day, clouds framing Center Court.

A surreal introduction to live tennis, the Western & Southern charmed me, and I’m already plotting a trip back after I graduate from law school in a few years. I feel connected to the game in a renewed way. I’m embracing my status as a diehard fan in the Midwest. Like I said, there’s something about tennis in unlikely places that gets me.

Photos by Tony Carmody (@tjc05)

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