Tennis in the United States is currently on life support. The lack of American star power at the top of the men’s rankings has relegated the once popular sport to the entertainment cellar. The Yankee goodwill garnered by past champions such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras has grudgingly given way to the European dominance of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. Unless a Sam Querry, Jack Sock, or John Isner breaks out and wins an upcoming Major tournament, the resurrection of American tennis will unfortunately remain as hopeless as my backhand.
It hasn’t always been this way. Back in the 80’s, tennis was HUGE—not only as a spectator but as a participation sport. Believe it or not, people actually bought racquets, took lessons, joined clubs, and played on public courts. The adult tennis league at Shillito Park was rife with wannabe tennis buffs striving to capture the coveted T-shirts for winning their respective divisions. My hard-fought championship in the 4.0 singles league (inexplicably, everybody played up rather than sandbagging in those days) remains a highlight of my less than stellar foray into the world of cut throat athletic competition.
What I lack in physical talent, though, I usually overcompensate with dogged perseverance. That’s why I’m on my way to the Western and Southern Open Tennis Tournament in Cincinnati to provide you the best coverage money can buy. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been to this event as a spectator a couple of times before—once as my teenage daughter went gaga over heartthrob Roger Federer and once when I went gaga over fellow Asian Michael Chang. But this time I’m not going as a paying customer–I’m going behind the scenes as a full-fledged media member. It’s also your lucky day, because you’re coming with me to get all the journalistic scoop.
The Lindner Family Tennis Center is not actually located in Cincinnati. It’s in Mason, Ohio, right under the shadows of the roller coasters at Kings Island Amusement Park. Driving onto the massive parking lot, you get the feeling of a big-time tennis event complete with small town hospitality. Many of the big names in tennis are here, not only because the tournament serves as a warm up to the US Open in New York, but also because of the aforementioned friendliness. Prima donnas like to be coddled and if there’s one thing I’ve gleaned over the years, it’s that tennis stars are the penultimate prima donnas.
Seven-time champion Roger Federer and 2013 winner Rafael Nadal are the two top seeds this year on the men’s side of the tournament draw. On the women’s side, defending champion Karolina Pliskova–who recently held the WTA’s No. 1 ranking–headlines an entry list that also includes three previously ranked No. 1 players: Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, and Venus Williams. I’m bummed I won’t get to see Serena Williams play as she’s expecting her first child later this month. My contention is that she’s one of the greatest athletes of all time. Even while pregnant, she’s still good enough to dispatch ninety percent of her healthy competitors.
Media members also like to be coddled, so I’m anxious to see whether tennis hospitality also extends to the press corps. Will I be dining on shrimp cocktail between matches like Roger? Is there limousine service available to shuttle me from court to court a la Rafa? How about a masseuse during rain delays as per Venus? What are professional tennis players like off the court and away from the cameras? What really goes on at post match press conferences and within the confines of the mysterious “players only” lounge? Join me, on special assignment for Bluegrass Sports Nation, as we dive into the world of international tennis intrigue. Whether fact or fiction, jocks or jerks, etiquette or etouffee, I’ll be searching for the best experiences to hopefully, bring the sport of TENNIS back from the dead.
John Huang is a guest columnist for Bluegrass Sports Nation. If you enjoy his writing, you can reach him at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.