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Pro tennis in Ohio's flat, green suburbs: What makes the Western & Southern Open special?
The combined ATP and WTA 1000 event may move from its longtime home in Cincinnati to Charlotte. What would be lost if it did?
Published Aug 16, 2023
WATCH: Defending Cincinnati champion Bornic Coric joined the Tennis Channel desk after his first-round win.
CINCINNATI, Ohio—“Always happy to be back in Cincinnati,” Venus Williams said Monday after her first-round win at the Western & Southern Open. “It’s like my home away from home.”
How would Williams feel if the tournament moved somewhere else?
That’s the question of the moment in these parts: Will the Western & Southern Open remain at the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason, or will it head for Charlotte, N.C.?
In 2022, Charleston-based Beemok Capital—owned by Ben Navarro, father of WTA player Emma Navarro—bought the event from the USTA. Charlotte has proposed building a $400 million facility to house the dual-gender ATP and WTA 1000 event, which is planning to expand to 12 days and 96 players (up from 56) in each singles draw. Ohio officials have countered with a major renovation proposal of their own for Lindner. Beemok, which will pay two-thirds of the revamping costs wherever the tournament ends up, says the decision will not be a matter of money, and that, rumors in Cincinnati aside, a move to North Carolina is not a foregone conclusion.
“I would miss the memories, that’s for sure,” said Williams, who has been a semifinalist and a quarterfinalist here. “I love midwest people. Some of the finest people on the planet.”
That said, she also believes “moving it somewhere else would obviously be an investment, and they are looking to grow the event, and I would try to support that vision.”
The Cincinnati tournament dates back to the 1890s, and has been played at Lindner since the 1970s. What would be lost if it moved? Here are a few impressions from the perspective of a New Yorker on what it’s like watching pro tennis in the flat, green, gusty, big-skied suburbs of Ohio.
Court 10, 12:30 P.M.
“Welcome back, Caroline!”
Those words were shouted from at least two corners of Court 10 when Caroline Wozniacki’s name was announced before her first-round match with Varvara Gracheva. This small, sunken arena, now known as the Porsche Court, is a favorite of many tennis aficionados. It’s easy to see why. The steep bleachers put you on top of the players. If you get there on time, you can walk down and pick any seat you like, as close as you like—there are no corporate boxes blocking your way. And wonder of wonders, the benches have backs on them. Two fans in the row behind me seemed especially pleased to see, and hear, Wozniacki again. “She’s not a screamer,” one said appreciatively.
Wozniacki wasn’t quite as happy. In her second tournament back, she lost in straight sets. Still, “it was a nice court,” she said.
Practice Court 9, 1:00 P.M.
“Do you want to stand in front of me?”
Yes, that’s what a fan said to a member of the press who had a camera in her hand, and was trying to get a shot of a practice session between Daniil Medvedev and Holger Rune. The woman kindly switched places so the photographer could move up for her shot. I’m having trouble imagining that happening in New York or Paris.
Watching the pros practice has become a highlight of the tennis-tournament experience everywhere. People want to see stars as much as they do matches. Cincy tennis offers a lot of opportunities for celebrity sightings, and the practice courts are more conveniently located than they are at Flushing Meadows. The crowds here, like U.S. crowds in other places, call out to the players as if they’re old friends.
“There she is!” a couple wrapped in Tunisian colors cried as Ons Jabeur jogged past them onto a practice court.
“That’s OK, Iga,” a supportive fan said after Swiatek missed a shot.
Carlos Alcaraz, naturally, received a greeting worthy of a rock star. As he walked through the gates of his practice court, a group of a dozen or so ladies in cowboy hats and “No Escape from Alcaraz” T-shirts stood up and proclaimed their allegiance to Carlitos. Every delicate drop shot and rocketed forehand he hit drew a squeal of excitement from them.
For a hacker like myself, the chance to watch the pros practice is a chance to see the sport in a utopian state. Even the players who might be inconsistent in matches—like, say, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova—make immaculately powerful contact with virtually every ball in practice. Some casually show off shots they never try in a match. It was a wonder today to see Medvedev slicing through long, smooth, flat, fully-extended one-handed backhands, over and over, every one of which buzzed along a straight line, about two inches above the net.
In that way, the pros are just like us: They do things in practice that they can’t do under match pressure.
“It’s like the French Open in here.”
The man with the Southern twang had a point: Stadium 3 felt a lot like Court Philippe Chatrier on Tuesday afternoon, as Gael Monfils made a stirring comeback against Cam Norrie.
There were the same dark, low, threatening clouds that pass over Paris in springtime. There were hundreds of fans stomping on the bleachers after every point Monfils won. There were even a few midwestern stabs at “Allez La Monf!”
And there was Monfils himself, still putting on the same show at 36 that he was putting on when he joined the tour half a lifetime ago, at 18. Like Venus Williams, Monfils has embarked on what at first seemed like a quixotic late-career comeback. Could he really overcome age and injuries one more time? Wouldn’t his all-world acrobatics finally desert him? Not so far. He made the round of 16 in D.C., the quarterfinals in Toronto, and now has two Top 20 wins in as many weeks. If the crowds in Cincy are any indication, tennis fans will never get tired of his act.
“When you get older, now with the family, sometime you’re like, ‘Hmmm, maybe home is good, too,’” Monfils said. “I mean, lucky or not to have my wife [Elina Svitolina] who is pushing me to stay on the tour.
“I love the U.S. swing all the time. Stay here, felt good energies. Is great. Really love the courts, the venues. It’s always special for me to come back playing in the States at that moment.
“So, you know, I'm quite happy.”
“You got this, J.J.”
The most raucous welcome of the day was saved for Cincinnati native J.J. Wolf. The young man with the mullet, the goatee, the face paint, the gold chain, the earrings, and the bright yellow shoes, looked every bit an all-American boy, circa 2023. And then he lost the first set 6-0.
Earlier in the day, Wolf’s fellow Cincinnatian Peyton Stearns was asked about the tournament’s status.
“Everyone here really hopes that it stays, and we’re doing everything we can to keep it that way,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s not in our hands. It’s higher up than us. All we can do is show how great this tournament is and how much Cincinnati loves having it.”
“I think people are getting the memo and coming out to show how much this means for us,” she added, referring to the sold-out sessions so far this week.
Stearns is right, the decision will be made by those higher up, for reasons of their own. There’s nothing wrong with having the event in North Carolina. People love their tennis there, too. But the state does already have an August tournament in Winston-Salem.
Walking through the parking lot here, you see license plates from Missouri, Texas, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kentucky, Iowa lined up in a row. If the Western & Southern heads south, fans from a big part of the U.S. won’t have a tournament of this magnitude to call their own.
It will still be a Masters 1000, and will still attract the game’s stars. But a a popular, unique, century-long tradition come to an end.