by Bobby Chintapalli
MASON, OHIO — Sunday was a good day to be out on the practice courts of the Western & Southern Open. It’s one of five tournaments outside the majors that simultaneously hosts top-tier ATP and WTA events, and top names were out perfecting their skills. As qualifying matches continued and men’s main-draw matches began, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and many others hit the practice courts with hitting partners, past and future opponents, even their dogs (that would be Venus Williams’s dog, Harold). The Lindner Family Tennis Center, situated on 19 acres of land and in the third year of a three-year renovation, boasts 16 total courts. Below are scenes from a few of the 10 courts used for practice on Sunday. (The picture of Roger Federer is courtesy of Jennifer Mauer, and the one of Serena Williams is courtesy of the Western & Southern Open.)
Serena Williams (9:25 – 9:50, Court 10)
Gates open two hours before the start of play, which was 10:00. By 9:25 kids were running — several of them and not figuratively — towards Court 10. There, in purple tights that hugged her muscles and curves, with a white baseball cap on her head and a sturdy brace on her left ankle, Serena Williams reigned over the proceedings.
She hit groundstrokes mostly, those bread-and-butter backhands and forehands she relies on when an ace isn’t readily available. She took a few balls out of the air, sliced more backhands then expected and ended one or two points with (mediocre) dropshots. A few times she hit approach shots for winners, garnering applause on a practice court, as Nikolay Davydenko toiled in relative anonymity on the next court and as six people watched U.S. Open defending champion Sam Stosur practice two courts over.
On Serena’s court nearly every spot by the fence along the sideline was taken, and the bleachers along the other sideline and one baseline were filling up. Onlookers watched Serena’s shots knock the fuzz off the ball. There was no puff of glitter like in those WTA Strong Is Beautiful videos, but judging by the reactions this was enough. The economy of Serena’s shots, the ease with which she hit them, and the effect — oh, the effect! — were enough.
With every new person who approached, by choice or chance, there was new excitement. Every new person had something to say.
“That’s Serena,” said one thirtysomething woman.
“No, it’s not,” said her male companion.
“That’s Serena!” the woman repeated.
The man looked closer. “She looks too little in real life. I thought she was huge,” he said. One part of her anatomy assured him it was, in fact, Serena. “Her arms are still huge.”
Hardly 10 feet away Serena kept hitting, without smiling, without hesitating, without missing.
Sam Stosur (9:52 – 10:05, Court 13)
“I’m not being negative,” said Sam Stosur, putting more emotion into it then you’re used to seeing from her on a tennis court.
The words came after a break during which Stosur and her coach, David Taylor, had a long, animated conversation.
Practice resumed and with it normalcy, as Stosur turned her attention back to groundstrokes. The trademark spin was impressive as ever. But after 25 minutes of Serena, Stosur’s groundstrokes seemed to lack something. Depth, power and — it wasn’t hard to feel, especially from so close by — a certain oomph.
Yaroslava Shvedova (11:15 – 11:25, Court 10)
Back on Court 10 Yaroslava Shvedova’s shots lacked the oomph of Stosur’s, fierce as they were. It was like ‘The String Theory’ by David Foster Wallace. Dan Brakus was “a very good tennis player”. Just not as good as Michael Joyce, who was just not as good as Andre Agassi.
Not that everyone was talking about Shvedova’s shots. Some wondered who she was. (Several knew she was from Kazakhstan and said the word, even if they pronounced it in a variety of ways, and they knew she was the top seed in qualies.) Others wondered where Serena was.
“Serena was on this court,” said a woman on the bleachers to the inquiring boy beside her. “I tell you what — there was a big group.”
Roger Federer (11:27 – 11:52, Court 5)
I tell you what — there was a very big group for this guy. By now more ticket holders had made their way through the gates, and many checked the practice schedule and went in search of Roger Federer. More people watched Federer than the actual matches on adjacent courts, where Eleni Daniilidou and Kateryna Bondarenko played a qualifying match on Court 3 and Sesil Karatantcheva and Olga Govortsova played another on the smaller Court 6. Fans packed the bleachers on both sides of Federer’s court, while amateur photographers with professional cameras clicked away as though Maria Sharapova was serving and adults told kids to move to the right so they could see.
What fans saw was a man who wasn’t going all out. Some of the practice felt like the strenuous part of a picnic. Federer wasn’t lolling about eating sandwiches and potato salad. But it didn’t feel more intense than a serious game of frisbee. Maybe he made it look easy — he’s Roger Federer, isn’t he? — or maybe that’s how he practices.
In practice there’s something about Federer that’s childlike. Maybe it’s the carefree walk, the lighthearted way he picks up balls and tosses them to Severin Luthi or how he plays with them on the frame of his racquet and back and forth between his legs. In practice Federer doesn’t have the gravity you see on TV. In its place is a gaiety that’s unexpected, refreshingly so. It makes Federer seem years younger than Serena, who’s months younger than him but whose intensity during practice is akin to what you see during matches.
Chances are though, today’s practice isn’t how Federer always practices or wants to. He made numerous errors off both wings. It didn’t perturb him until he did that, oh, 10 times. At that point he grew slightly dissatisfied and easily distracted. When Govortsova’s grunting got a little loud Federer looked over, just like he had 10 minutes before, but this time longer.
Federer being Federer, he still managed to make his hitting partner run without trying, still made a backhand overhead volley like it was your standard forehand. There were plenty of ‘ooh!’s. And whether balls landed in or out, onlookers watched with appreciation and more.
Said one fan reverently, “Nice! A little of everything.”
You could say the same thing about practice courts.