“Let’s see if we can find some shade,” Lynn says.
“How about over there, behind the baseline?” I respond.
We work our way around the tennis court stands. The south end has a large shady section that’s beginning to get filled. We find a small space midway from the top. It has a good view of the court. We’ll have a birds-eye view of the player on this end.
I unroll the match schedule and glance at the names. It’s qualifying day at the Western & Southern Open here in Mason, Ohio. The players today are lower ranked and are trying to win a match or two to qualify for actual tournament play, so most of the names are unrecognizable. But the name “Tipsarevic” jumps out. I’d seen him on TV, competing in one of the big Grand Slam events. I’m surprised he has to qualify here. But it’s not too unusual. Sometimes the big names get injured, their rankings drop, then they have to work their way back up again. Maybe that’s the case with Tipsarevic.
Tipsarevic is from Serbia. Same country as Novak Djokovic, one of tennis’s best and most well-liked players.
The other player is from the U.S. He’s a tall, thin, African-American named Chris Eubanks. I’d seen him practicing earlier on one of the side courts, and he looks good. Should be a fun match.
The emcee on the court says a few things, as the last spectators take their seats. It’s a hot day, so a lot of people head to our shady area. Lynn and I are packed in tightly. The guy next to me looks to be in his 60s. In front of him is a pregnant Asian lady with her husband or boyfriend. Just below us are two older couples holding small, plastic glasses of champagne. They’re conversing and laughing like old friends on a yachting excursion. I hear the name “Isner” mentioned several times. This would be John Isner, the second highest-seeded American player, ranked 19th in the world, a 6’11” power server who will be playing later this evening.
Other than Serena Williams, Americans haven’t done well in tennis lately. Especially the men. There are Isner, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, Stevie Johnson… names known to tennis fans, but not the general public. Distant are the days of Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Ashe, and Connors.
Just before the players are introduced, three men approach our section. The guy in the rear stands out. He’s pale and chunky, and he’s wearing baggy blue jeans. Not your typical tennis fan. His two companions, though, look more the part. They appear to be in their 40s. One is athletic looking, and has scruffy grey whiskers and wraparound sunglasses. He’s holding a drink and smiling.
“… from Georgia Tech, his first Western & Southern appearance, please welcome CHRISTOPHER EUBANKS!!” announces the emcee. The crowd cheers. Several young guys seated close to the court stand up and swing their arms.
“They must be college friends of his,” says Lynn.
The three men who arrived late take seats several rows behind us.
Then the other player, Tipsarevic, comes into view. He’s a tanned, muscular guy with a close-cropped beard and shiny black hair. He’s wearing a bright turquoise shirt. He also wears two large wristbands, and a pair of white plastic sunglasses. Looks pretty sharp, like he stepped out of a GQ ad.
“… and from Serbia, the former number 8 player in the world… JANKO TIPSAREVIC!!” The crowd cheers, but noticeably less than for Eubanks.
The players begin a casual rally, warming each other up. Baseline shots, some net practice, some soft overheads, then a few serves. Eubanks is closest to us. He’s extremely tall and wiry, looking more like a basketball than tennis player. But his shots are crisp and clean.
Tipsarevic looks good, too. Very relaxed. He’s seeded third amongst the qualifiers, whereas Eubanks is unseeded, so it should be an easy match for him.
But soon after the match starts, Eubanks breaks Tipsarevic’s serve. In these days of power tennis, that’s not a good sign. However, Tipsarevic appears unconcerned. He doesn’t push himself to chase down balls. His cool, relaxed manner seems to say “Hey, no big deal.”
“Come on, Chris!” several spectators call out, getting excited. “Looking good, keep it up!” Eubanks wins a few more games. He pumps his fist at the stands several times, egging the crowd.
The applause is very one-sided. But this is expected. U.S. tennis fans, like everywhere else, are partial, and they’re hungry for a homegrown star, another Sampras or Agassi. Eubanks is young, fresh out of college. Like many others throughout the years, he could be the “future.”
Like Isner, Eubanks is a powerful server. But his backhand looks weak, and he favors his forehand.
“I wish we could see his service speed!” says one of the champagne ladies.
“Me too, but I think the speedometer’s broken,” says her companion.
Behind us, the grey-whiskered man with the wraparound sunglasses has kept up a loud chatter. “Yeah, I got some games off him, but I think he was deliberately hitting soft” he says to his companions, describing some match from his past. As the match continues, though, I hear him make a few comments about Tipsarevic, mispronouncing his name. It starts when Tipsarevic questions a line call.
“I’m surprised he could even see it, he has no depth perception with those awful sunglasses.”
Then, toward the end of the first set, Tipsarevic wildly mishits into the stands what should have been an easy return. The man claps.
This is considered dirty etiquette in tennis. Imagine a golfer missing a putt and a member of the gallery clapping. It just isn’t done.
Eubanks wins the first set, 6-3. A few people leave our area. Lynn suggests moving up a row, near the aisle. Not because of the man, but because of her claustrophobia. We move.
Eubanks rolls through the second set. Tipsarevic doesn’t seem energized. When he should be chasing balls, he sacrifices points. About halfway through the set, he re-strings one of his tennis shoes. A few points later, he removes his shoe, walks to the sideline, then asks for an injury timeout. The trainer arrives and examines his foot.
“Just go ahead and forfeit!” comes the loud catcall behind us.
“I wonder if he’s faking injury to shift momentum,” says Lynn.
“You never know,” I reply.
After a five-minute break, Tipsarevic returns to the court.
“Come on Chris, make him move, he can’t even walk!” hollers the loudmouth. Tipsarevic wins a few points. Then Eubanks regains the edge. The score is 4-2. Only two more games for Eubanks, and he’s got the match.
Tipsarevic is now serving. His first serve goes into the net. I hear a slow clap behind me. Again, it’s the grey-whiskered man with the wraparound sunglasses. He’s the only one in the stands to clap, so the sound is jarring.
I turn partway. I want to yell something like “Grow up.” Then I think, no, just explain that it’s impolite to cheer when a player misses a serve. But I stay silent.
Tipsarevic makes his second serve, but loses the point.
He serves again. The first serve, once again, goes into the net.
Clap…clap…clap…clap…clap…clap. The only sound in the grandstand. Nobody turns around. Nobody tells the man to shut up.
Then something cool happens. Tipsarevic, who is right below us, turns around. I’m certain he doesn’t know who clapped. But he stares upward, straight at the man. His white sunglasses shield his eyes, so it’s hard to tell whom he’s looking at. But he appears to be staring straight into the man, who is maybe 20 rows up. He holds the frozen pose for a full ten seconds. Not long enough for a time violation, but just long enough to make his point.
I join him. I’m not sure if anyone else does, but I turn around and stare at the man. He makes a few nervous giggles. Then the match resumes.
There are no more hate claps from the man.
The tennis match in Mason, Ohio was no “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. There are many differences. But there are also similarities, whether hate-clapper didn’t like “the foreigner” or only his sunglasses. There’s always been ugliness in society. It just seems like we’re seeing more of it these days, more adults behaving like petulant children.
Humans are imperfect creatures. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, prejudice, religious intolerance, misogyny etc. will continue to taint society. But maybe we need to reassess how we react to such hatred when we see it, whether it’s on a large stage, or on a bleacher seat away from the cameras.
Maybe, instead of either ignoring hatred or freaking out about it, we need more long, cold stares.