We wind through the parking lot while glancing at license plates. There are cars from all over the eastern U.S. and Canada. This year’s crowd appears unusually large. It’s a polyglot of young and old, white, black, Asian, Indian. We hear a few European languages. There are even some women wearing burqas. Not exactly a baseball or NASCAR crowd. Lynn and I feel lucky to live just a few miles from this popular tournament.
Each year in August, we attend the first day of the Western and Southern Open, an ATP tennis tournament located northeast of Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s the last major tournament before the U.S. Open in New York, and a lot of pros use it as a “tune-up” for that Grand Slam event. This first day is qualifying day: unseeded players compete for a chance to gain a first-round spot in the tournament. We like opening day because the tickets aren’t pricey, it’s an all-day pass, and one can see some frenetic matches between the lower-ranked players.
Also, we get to rub shoulders with the top seeds, many of whom emerge to hit the practice courts.
We step inside the main gate and head toward the neon marquee displaying today’s scheduled matches and practice sessions. A few names we recognize: Benjamin Becker (no relation to Boris), whom we saw in a tough qualifier last year; Urszula Radwanska, younger sister of former No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska; grass-court specialist Nicolas Mahut… but our eyes light up when we see who will be practicing on Court 8 at 3 p.m.: Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.
We must find a spot for this one. Federer could be the greatest ever. He has won a record 17 Grand Slam events. He held the World No. 1 spot for an astounding 302 weeks. Now, at age 34 (geriatric, for tennis), he’s ranked No. 2. He recently reached the finals of Wimbledon, where he lost a close match to No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic. When Federer does finally retire, tennis may never see his like again.
Federer’s also fun to watch. He glides around the court like a low-flying raptor, and his serve and ground strokes are as smooth as butter. He never gets rattled, barely perspires, and his game has no weakness. Off-court, he’s just as smooth. He’s a devoted husband and father, has an easy smile, and speaks seven languages. So far, he’s avoided celebrity “foot-in-mouth disease.” Everyone loves him, including the players he regularly trounces. If there’s such a thing as a “perfect” athlete, it’s Federer.
Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka is no tennis slouch, either. Wawrinka’s steadily risen through the ranks. He’s currently World No. 5, and he won the French Open just last spring (he’s also tied to a recent controversy involving foot-in-mouth player Nick Kyrgios, which I won’t go into).
If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll overhear some tennis tips from former No. 1 Stefan Edberg, who now coaches Federer (and who has a sportsmanship award named after him, that Federer’s won 10 of the last 11 years). Lynn and I are in agreement: the practice session at 3 p.m. on Court 8 will be the highlight of the day.
But first on the agenda is the Becker match. It’s a quickie. Becker loses to a 17-year-old German kid, who could be a dominant force in years to come. Next, we swing by Court 8 to watch Serbian Jelena Jankovic, a former World No. 1. Lynn likes her distinctive facial features. I like other things about her.
Then it’s over to the food garden for some expensive cuisine and irritating music. As the clock approaches 2:30, we head back to Court 8 for the Federer practice.
The crowd is queuing up. We stand for about 20 minutes, until two chairs suddenly become available. I’m an inveterate people-watcher, so while we’re waiting, I scan the crowd. The first thing I notice are the hats. Baseball caps with a serif-laden “RF” on the front. It’s Roger’s personal brand, courtesy of his biggest sponsor, Nike.
A chunky African-American woman in front of me dons one of these caps. She’s sandwiched between a few other “RF” caps. The woman next to her has a button of the Swiss flag pinned on her purse. The word “Roger” is printed on the white cross. Then I see a skinny man wearing, not only an “RF” cap, but a faded “RF” t-shirt as well. He seems to be jockeying for a prime viewing spot. Then he sees the chunky woman and moves toward her.
The two of them begin talking. The man has a sort of New Jersey accent. I lean forward in my chair to catch some of the conversation.
“Where are you staying?” Jersey guy asks, with a large grin.
“I’m at the (something),” says smiling Jersey guy.
The woman says something that I can’t hear. Smiling Jersey guy responds with “You just never know!”
By this point, all sitting and standing positions have been taken. I allow a boy and girl to sneak in front of me. They have difficulty seeing over the railing, so I offer my chair for them to stand on. They look at me suspiciously, but hop up on the chairs anyway.
“Be careful, guys,” says Lynn. “Those chairs can wobble.” But they stay on the chair.
Then I see a movement behind the outer fence on the opposite side of the court. It’s a golf cart. There’s a low drone from the crowd. The drone builds. There are oohs, aahs, then loud clapping. A group of autograph seekers behind the fence begins chanting “Fed-er-ER! Fed-er-ER! Fed-er-ER!”
A volunteer wearing blue and yellow Western and Southern garb swings the gate open. Federer and Wawrinka emerge onto the court. They’re accompanied by two guys, probably trainers or coaches. No Edberg.
The chunky woman is craning her neck. Smiling Jersey guy offers one more “You just never know!” then moves closer to the court. He squeezes into the viewing fence line, next to several kids holding yellow and pink, autograph-laden tennis balls the size of basketballs.
Federer is wearing a turquoise shirt and his trademark Nike headband. He’s at the far end of the court. Wawrinka is nearer to us. Neither has yet cracked a smile. They begin exchanging baseline shots. Some of the shots fly beyond the baseline, but they return everything. They remind me of boxers repetitively jabbing an overhead punching bag. Business as usual.
A couple of Federer’s shots skid off the top of the net. Wawrinka swings wildly at them. Now they’re both smiling.
Lynn and I watch for about 10 minutes, then leave to watch the Mahut qualifier. This match is on a stadium court nearby. As we’re walking, I glance at the top of the stadium. Maybe a hundred people are gathered on the top row. Brightly colored flags of various nations fly above them. The observers look like passengers standing along the railing of a departing ship. None of them are watching the Mahut match. They’ve all turned to see Federer and Wawrinka exchange practice shots.
We cross the walkway. The crowd has grown even larger. Lynn has claustrophobia, so she hangs back. I manage to squeeze up the ramp toward the viewing fence. I can barely make out the players. Their shirts are now wet from perspiration. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen Federer sweat. Cincinnati humidity.
Soon, they finish their practice and stride toward the opposite gate, near the golf cart that will whisk them to the locker room. They sit in their chairs, towel off their faces, and gaze across the empty court. They gulp some liquids. Then they stand up and slowly walk toward the viewing fence, toward the fans. The crowd erupts. The blue-and-yellow-clad volunteers smile benignly.
Federer begins at one end of the viewing fence, and Wawrinka at the other. In strategic but genial fashion, they sign their names at whatever is thrust toward them. Then Federer smiles and raises his hand. The crowd erupts again. Wawrinka’s cue. He stops signing, and both walk side-by-side toward the waiting golf cart. The volunteers adopt positions between the players and the crowd, hands behind their backs, military-like.
Many of the kids run down the ramp, fuzzy basketballs clutched tightly to their chests. They scoot down the walkway, hoping to skirt around the practice court and intercept the two pros before the golf cart departs. Two middle-aged men rush out with them. One of them is cradling a book with colored photos of Federer.
I look for smiling Jersey guy, but can’t find him in the mass of people. Maybe he found a new spot, at the outer fence, near the golf cart. Did he snag an autograph?
You just never know.