Southern-Fried Tennis

by: Peter Bodo | July 23, 2014

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Before playing Atlanta, the 6'10" Isner teamed with 5'0" Megan Moulton-Levy in Mylan World TeamTennis. (Matt Fitzgerald/Mylan WTT)

When the headline reads, “Ginepri, Isner To Face Off,” you know it’s midsummer. You’re in North America. You can bet the heat is torrid and the air feels like a damp Kleenex against your cheek. And somewhere near the courts, a baffled player from France or Peru is asking, “What is a corn dog?”

The headline may be puzzling to some; it would be roughly like being afoot in the Czech Republic and coming across the headline, “Zahlavova Strycova to Face Krejcikova.” But while the Czechs may have the better players, the U.S. has a tennis infrastructure so well established and endowed that an entire summer series of tournaments, for both men and women, was created to lead into the U.S. Open.

Everyone in U.S. tennis establishment has stepped up, but for the male players. They’re still trying to punch through a collective, post-Roddick swoon that currently features no domestic product who’s never been ranked higher than No. 9. That would be John Isner. He’s No. 12 now and the top seed this week in Atlanta.

Robby Ginepri, the other half of that red-white-and-blue match-up, is 31 years old, but he’s been ranked as high as No. 15. His career was terribly set back, and nearly ended, when he broke an elbow in a cycling accident—owing to his attempt to avoid running over a squirrel. You have to love the guy for that, right?

The BB&T tournament in Atlanta this week is the first of the five ATP events in the U.S. Open Series (the WTA has four events), two of them Masters 1000s. Isner knows where his bread is buttered; he’s gearing up to play all of them. Show this guy a hard court and he runs right out there and serves them up, sort of like Rafael Nadal on clay.

Isner is not just an American, he’s also a southerner. That helps explain why he’s a “sir” and “m’am” kind of guy, and also why he recently posted on Instagram proudly lofting a big-bellied largemouth bass by the lower jaw. 

Some of you may remember that Isner was so miffed after the crowd lavishly supported his French opponent, Gael Monfils, during the American’s winning effort at last year’s U.S. Open last year that he later tweeted, “I miss the south.”

As Isner said after that match, “I’m not going to sugar-coat it. If I was playing him in France, it certainly wouldn't be like that.” It also wouldn’t be like that were those men to meet in Atlanta, or in the final U.S. Open Series event for the men, the Winston-Salem Open—which, truth be told, could just as easily be called the “Isner Open.”

This cuts to the heart of the matter. As popular as Monfils is in France, I don’t think he’s as closely identified with a tournament as Isner is with Winston-Salem. The promoters more or less built a tournament around the success of Isner, which is a provincial thing to do. But it works, and that sure beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

“Southern” and “regional” are almost synonymous, and the lords of American tennis were wise to stage three U.S. Open Series events in the south (Washington D.C., Atlanta and Winston-Salem). Unlike the opinionated globalists in media-saturated New York, the folks in the South aren’t going to pull for a guy who’s butting heads with a homegrown boy. The regional loyalty gene remains strong in the south, regardless of race, creed, or color. It’s a cultural thing.

Like the European resort towns of Bastad, Sweden, and Gstaad, Switzerland, a tournament like Winston-Salem offers a terrific, intimate fan experience. But even in a full-on metropolis like Atlanta, the promoters work hard to bring in fans—a problem the U.S. Open does not share. So they offer a “military night,” as well as a “college night.” The south has always taken war and sports (particularly college sports) to its bosom.

Eleven American men started in Atlanta this week, including three wild cards in Ginepri, Ryan Harrison, and the University of Georgia’s Nathan Pasha. Five of them are still in the hunt, which isn’t bad these days, even for an ATP 250. Enjoy the show, and have a corn dog.

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