Sunday, September 2, 2012

Winston-Salem Open: A very intimate tournament

There are many wonderful things I can say about the Winston-Salem Open in a bid to convince you all to go next year. This was my first year of attending this event that inaugurated just last year on the ATP schedule. I plan to make it an annual event. I only made it this year for the semi-finals and finals. Next year I think I will spend most of the week there. It is so worth it.

It was clear that the event was still having some teething pains. Ushers weren't always sure where people were supposed to sit. The section with the TV cameras wasn't cordoned off, causing a poor volunteer to act like a Femi-Nazi as she ushered people away from the camera-man. The woman making the slushy-margaritas dumped a pile of salt inside the margarita instead of just lining the lid of the glass. Tiny mistakes, all very natural at a brand new event, facilitated by brand new people at a brand new stadium. I overlooked them all in favor of enjoying this event.
Like I said, I only made it to the semi-finals and finals. So apart from the doubles teams, I can only speak about Jo Wilfred Tsonga, Sam Querrey, Tomas Berdych and the eventual winner, John Isner.

So this is what local support looks like, I thought, as the crowd geared up en masse to help Isner ride the wave of Berdych challenges to final victory. I have never seen a crowd as happy. Not even the folks at the US Open who seem to be trying their best to give Roddick a proper send-off, come close to the folks in North Carolina, proud as peacocks about their local hero, vocal and unrestrained in their joy.

And John basked in their love. Children and parents formed a long line of well-wishers and he patiently signed autographs. One young boy called out to him to remind him that they had met before and Isner dutifully responded, “Hey, how are you doing buddy?” My friend got in on the act and asked him to sign her fan. I looked at the scrawl afterward wondering where in there I could find either John or Isner. Truly it seemed random. But I know that it was not. Isner is too heartfelt, much too desiring to please.

But Winston-Salem as an event, needs to outgrow him. It has to attract the top men in the sport who can see the benefit of playing an event so closely scheduled to the US Open. And that remains its only possible detraction – that it is scheduled the week before the US Open. Thus far this has hurt neither Isner nor Berdych. But both Tsonga and Querrey are already out of the US Open. I can't say that I blame this on Winston-Salem because both men also lost there.

What I especially liked about the Winston-Salem Open was the intimacy of the event. The stadium is small. No seats can really be considered nosebleeds because you are never that far from the action. Always I was close, so close that it felt like I could talk to the players and give them pointers if I dared. I did not dare. I was too busy being in awe. But up close I realized that the speed of their strokes is not as fast as it seems on TV. And their getting to some of these returns is not as amazing as it seems when you're watching from a distance.

At the same time, I could get a closer look at the intelligence that goes into the crafting of a point. And I could see clearly those moments on which the outcome of a match can turn – like when Berdych went for an aggressive backhand volley on match point and ended up dumping it into the net, when a simple easy, soft play would have won him the match. That's the kind of perspective you get when you go to an event that truly gives you a close-up view of tennis. And that's why I am going back next year.
In the meantime, here are some of my favorite photos. Who knew Berdych had such a fine-looking butt?

all photos remain copyrighted by the tennis chick and may only be used with my permission

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