Much thanks and love to former Kenoshan Rick Limpert for allowing KSE press access to this wonderful tournament. Rick has been the media director for this event for several years and was happy to have a media request from his hometown. The event was attended by and the story written by Ms Karen Cohen.
I’m sure there are more women like me who enjoy watching pro sports. I just haven’t met too many of them. I can watch almost any pro game from football to ping pong. I watch for the athleticism, the skill, feats of the extraordinary. I watch because I get to see top athletes – the best of the best (or soon will be) – do what they’d sacrificed and trained all their lives to do. There’s an understated grace, an elegance of physicality among top athletes that has the power to take my breath away.
Every year, at least for all the years I’ve lived here (21 of them if I’m being truthful) the city of Atlanta has hosted a pro tennis tournament at the end of the overly hot and humid month of July. In a nod to transparency, I admit that I’m a tennis player and a fan. But you don’t have to be either one to enjoy a pro-level tournament, especially ones held in smaller venues.
The event sets up in midtown Atlanta in a location that’s both accessible and charming called Atlantic Station, a mixed use community that offers residential condo living interspersed with commercial shops and restaurants. It’s clean, hospitable and safe to walk around in and it has a fantastic view of the Atlanta Skyline to the east.
On the grounds of the The Atlanta BB&T Open are two courts, one stadium court for the matches and one, just out of earshot, for practice. Off-site there are 4 more practice courts and at various times during the early days of the tournament, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of some of the contenders as they warm up.
Something else I should admit, I don’t often choose go to live sporting events if I don’t have to. I don’t like crowds, I don’t like fighting traffic. And excessive noise at high volume makes me want to rape and kill.
I like the convenience of watching at home (I can yell at the TV and no one cares. I can go to the bathroom without having to wait in line and I can refill my snacks and drinks quickly and for free). Friends tell me I’m missing the “authentic” experience. I tell them I’ve already had it (at least once) and I’m still able to remember them in fine detail.
Prior to the BB&T OPEN, my last sports outing was an Atlanta United soccer match. I can simulate all of it in my own home (minus the inconvenience of travel) just by splashing some beer on the floor and asking Alexa to play screaming hyenas mixed with even louder vuvuzelas set to an endless loop. Afterward, even though Atlanta won, I wanted to go to one of those places where you smash plates for fun. So no, I prefer the big screen TV in my family room and instant replays. However…
I make exceptions for Tennis tournaments like this one, held in small and comparatively intimate settings where you can see the player’s expressions from the top row without having to check out the jumbotron. In fact, I’d be a regular attendee even if it meant a repeat of suffering my WAZE app to take me through parts of Atlanta that I’d never seen before (and wouldn’t lose any sleep knowing I’d never see them again).
I’m not kidding. Going there took all of 17 minutes on a familiar but heavily trafficked route from my garage to the tournament parking garage. On the return trip, vehicles were required to exit from the rear of the venue onto a series of poorly lit rather desolate one-way streets, including one that should be reserved for use only on Halloween. It took a full 40 minutes to get home. Nevertheless, despite the inconvenience and a few choice expletives for WAZE, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
A mild but steady breeze, uncharacteristically low humidity, a cloudless sky and a temperature that barely broke 82 degrees all combined for exceptional playing conditions. I had a seat in what once upon a time we would have called the PRESS BOX. It actually was a box and situated as it was in the southwest corner of the stadium, it didn’t have the best view of the court. But I was close enough to see the player nearest me form beads of sweat on his neck that dripped down into the wet stain that was his shirt.
Upbeat music for modern gladiators blasted during the breaks while between sets, the boys and girls who fetch the balls and attend the players, lined up in an orange shirted, logo adorned row facing me. As Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger began to play, for a moment I amused myself imagining the ball kids breaking into a flash-mob dance routine.
Tennis has come a long way from its early days. The biggest change, besides attire, is the racquets; they’re lightweight and maneuverable, made of graphite or titanium or some combination of the two, and have been technologically designed to create more power than body mechanics alone can generate. A good racquet, wielded by an aggressive player, is a weapon of mass destruction. But a racquet that doesn’t fit your swing speed and style can do more damage to you than your opponent.
Some time ago I was just coming back to the game after a long absence. My old racquets no longer suited whatever game I still had. To compete, I needed a racquet that would give an edge to my old-school Stan Smith style of play (yeah, I’m THAT old).
I’d always liked my weapons head heavy and a bit more flexible than the current batch of Babolats. I play-tested racquet after racquet for months. Every make and model. Most of them are designed for a new breed of player, the young guns who’ve been taught a loose-wristed, whipping forehand capable of firing off heavy topspin shots that produce a huge amount of spin that makes the ball explode off the bounce at high velocity and even higher trajectory. These days everyone wants to be Rafa Nadal.
My reward for all the on-court research was several months of excruciating tennis elbow that kept me off the court and did nothing to improve my game. Not exactly the best way to get my mojo back. An uber powerful racquet in the hands of a seasoned player makes the game much faster, which means the players need to be faster, more athletic, more efficient and much, much stronger, both physically and mentally.
In a match where the players are fairly equal, mental toughness is probably the most important attribute of a winner. It’s what allows a young player to win against a more skilled one. A large part of tennis is gamesmanship. The guy on the other side of the net wants you to get frustrated and angry with yourself. He wants you to second guess your shots and sabotage your confidence. In effect, he wants you to play against yourself instead of him. Few players can continue to maintain their focus and resolve throughout a tough match. Advantage alternates between the two adversaries and if you’re paying attention, it’s easy to see signs and exploit your opponent’s faltering confidence.
I watched three semi-finals matches, two singles and one doubles. There had been several up and coming players I’d have liked to see, but they either lost earlier matches or had withdrawn prior to the tournament. Alex de Minaur of Australia took out Reilly Opelka in a third set to claim a place in the finals. Taylor Fritz, who ousted the Brit, Cameron Norrie also advanced to the final. I hoped the Americans would win, but the match I really wanted to see was the doubles semi. The U.S.’s best team, the identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan faced off against two players who were totally unfamiliar to me. The Bryans narrowly lost the first set and then lost the match in a second set tie break.
As disappointing as it is when your favorite player loses, it’s not as painful when the matches are close and the tension is high. It’s at those times you really see the players at their best. It’s why I watch sports. Other than the Bryans, I had no favorites, yet the matches were close enough that at the end of any particularly good point (of which there were many) I’d suddenly realize that I’d been holding my breath.