NEW HAVEN, Conn.—For all the history made by Monica Puig, tears wept by Novak Djokovic and forehands fired by Juan Martin del Potro, Olympic tennis is firmly in the rearview mirror, if not completely out of sight. But one American is still feeling the reverberations from Rio. Yes, Ryan Lochte is an acceptable answer. But sticking to tennis, it’s Anne Worcester, tournament director of the Connecticut Open.
“Early on, the Olympics helped us because everybody knew they wanted to play New Haven,” Worcester says on a sun-splashed afternoon on the idyllic Yale University campus. “When our initial entry list came out, we had 20 of the Top 30 players in the world.”
That impressive depth included Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Johanna Konta and Madison Keys, whose face is seen on advertisements around downtown New Haven which tout the tournament and local merchants. All five notable names pulled out of the Connecticut Open due to the mileage they accrued over the summer, most not long before the event began.
“And then players who made it back from Rio and went to play Cincinnati tired out,” says Worcester. “The Olympics is always two more weeks of wear and tear on these players’ bodies. And it has always wreaked havoc on the summer season.”
Worcester targeted rising players to commit to the tournament earlier this year, and her eye for talent has shone over the past few weeks. Pliskova captured her first Premier-level title in Cincinnati, while Keys reached the final of Montreal and the semifinals at the Olympic Games. From a tournament director’s perspective, it’s great to see participants build up their name brands with improved play—as long as they participate in the end.
“That one hurt,” Worcester admitted about the loss of Keys, now up to ninth in the WTA rankings.
But for all of the defections from this final U.S. Open women’s tune-up, a strong field still descended upon Yale, like so many undergraduates on this back-to-school week. Petra Kvitova and Roberta Vinci were in action on Thursday, along with wild card and top seed Agnieszka Radwanska. Fan favorites Caroline Wozniacki and Eugenie Bouchard also received wild cards into the main draw.
It’s hard to bet against Vinci this time of year, considering her exploits across Long Island Sound one year ago. When you see her slice backhand up close, you can understand how it would trouble anyone, even a 22-time Grand Slam champion. But the second-seeded Italian was undone on this day by 62nd-ranked Johanna Larsson, one of the tournament’s six lucky losers who earned a place in the draw thanks to the rampant withdrawals.
It would be fitting, in a way, if lucky loser Larsson went on to win this installment of the Connecticut Open, and she looked the part of a champion against Vinci. She took an early 5-3 lead over the savvy veteran, stayed calm in the face of collapse when the first set went to a tiebreaker, and showed the patience necessary to outfox one of the game’s most skillful players. When Larsson took control of rallies, her groundstrokes looked positively fearsome compared to Vinci’s slow-moving backhands. After winning an extended tiebreaker, Larsson ran away with the second set, 6-1.
While Larsson is making the most of her second chance in New Haven, Vinci will use her half-week’s worth of matches as preparation to defend her runner-up finish in New York.
“We’ve always been lucky that the top women players prefer to play into form as opposed to practicing into form,” said Worcester. “They play two of three sets at the U.S. Open, so many of the top players want tough matches to get them ready. And they also like coming here—it’s the same surface, it’s the same climate, same time zone. Ninety-minute drive to New York when they’re done.”
Lindsay Davenport, who played New Haven seven times in her career, once called this tournament “the calm before the storm of New York.” In 2005, she won the title, defeating Daniela Hantuchova—“The Cover Girl,” according to a delicious promotional poster—along the way. That edition of what was known as the Pilot Pen also featured Elena Dementieva (“The Sweetheart”), Tommy Haas (“The Stud”) and, my personal favorite, James Blake—“The Harvard Guy.”
It might be forgotten now, during a summer when the competition for top-drawing tennis talent is fierce, but the Connecticut Tennis Center once boasted the third-largest tennis stadium in the world and attracted such prominent names including Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe.
“I didn’t love losing six or seven players out of the main draw, we were so lucky to start with such an uber-strong draw,” says Worcester. “It’s like we went for the gold and got the silver.”