The crowd swelled to a few thousand spectators at least a half-hour before Roger Federer’s 4 p.m. practice session at Court 15 of the Western and Southern Open Tournament in Cincinnati last week. About 4:10, the court’s entrance gate swung open as fans frantically positioned themselves for optimal video and photo opportunities. A bald, middle-aged man with a security shirt, looking nothing remotely like Mr. Federer appeared on the court offering a “gotcha” chuckle and smile.
Approximately five minutes later, Federer arrived with his coach/fellow tennis legend Stefan Edberg and a handful of others in tow. For the next 45 minutes, fans not only by Court 15 but overlooking the top rows of both the adjacent Grandstand and Center Court stadiums watched Federer prepare for his match later that night against Andy Murray. The scene reminded me of photos I’ve seen of basketball fans of all ages, sitting in trees and standing on rooftops hoping to get a better view of Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Connie Hawkins play pickup basketball at Rucker Park in New York.
As Federer gradually increased the intensity of his workout with an extremely talented junior player (who rallied with ATP World No. 1 Novak Djokovic earlier in the day), Federer’s fluid game became apparent. Despite the grinding nature of tennis, his court movement truly appears balletic and his forehand, known around Wimbledon as the Whip of the Swiss Maestro, generates incredible racquet head speed with a modicum of effort. Federer closed practice with a deft volley that deadened the ball like a well-placed golf shot a few feet from the hole.
Seeing Federer live, whether it’s during a match, practice session or press conference, is always a unique experience (I’ve been afforded the luxury of attending all three), but the appeal of the Western and South Open is its fan-friendly access to all the players.
Are you a Djokovic fan? No problem, you can go see Nole tussle with Tommy Robredo on Center Court. Perhaps the Williams sisters (Serena and Venus) are more your cup of strawberries and cream? If that’s the case, both will be practicing on Court 5 today for your viewing pleasure. During my two-day stay in Cincy, I saw Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Milos Roanic, Gael Monfils, the Williams sisters, Sloane Stephens, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep among many other players all within 20 yards.
The intimacy of the Linder Family Tennis Center, which hosts this wonderful summer staple of the American hardcourt tennis swing, reminds me of Major League Baseball’s spring training.
When I lived in Florida, 1987-1995, every spring I would visit Vero Beach to see my favorite team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. I loved the fun house nature of “Dodgertown” where at every turn I could accidentally bump into Fernando Valenzuela or exchange a brief greeting with Vin Scully. Heck, one year I even asked former Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros if he had seen my wallet which I lost somewhere along Sandy Koufax Lane.
In Cincinnati, the assemblage of professional athletic talent is even more impressive and certainly more diverse than any spring training visit. Top male and female tennis players from around the world converge on cozy suburban Mason, Ohio one week in mid-August to vie for rankings points, prize money and the coveted Western and Southern Open title, which is a ATP Masters Series event (one rung below the four majors). The players sign autographs freely and genuinely interact with the fans. It’s not uncommon for several of the players to take in a late-night dinner at the local Applebee’s.
Aside from Federer, the two players I enjoyed covering most in Cincinnati were Gael Monfils from France and Fabio Fognini from Italy. Monfils, who resides in Trelex, Switzerland, is a wildly entertaining, 6-foot-4 player blessed with speed and strength. In his straight-sets victory over Spain’s Roberto Buatista Agut, the unpredictable Monfils (pronounced “Mon-fiss”/means, “my son,” in French) employed two no-look volleys, three jumping backhands and a questionable black and lime T-shirt and shoes ensemble.
As for Fognini, currently ranked No. 17 in the world, I saw him edge Yen Hsun Lu in three highly entertaining sets on Court 3. Aside from his impressive shot-making ability, Fognini is worth the price of admission for his antics alone. Repeatedly, the charismatic Italian engaged in an animated discussion with the French umpire while his Taiwanese opponent watched incredulously.
Fognini exclaimed to the umpire: “Palla da tennis fuori, palla da tennis fuori,” which loosely translated means, “Ball out, ball out.” He proceeded to demonstrate how long the ball was out with his hands and called the umpire an “idiota.” That’s one I’m sure you can translate on your own.
Next summer, I will attend Cincy a fourth straight year with my friends and fellow tennis enthusiats Steve, Kayla, Karl, Jaleel and Dustin. See you then, Roger, Gael and Fabio.