I have attended the following tennis tournaments at least once: Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Newport, the US Open, and Washington, DC. I also attended the USTA 18 and Under National Clay Court Championships when it was hosted in Louisville, KY as well as an exhibition match between two former top ranked players in Lexington, KY. I enjoy going to top level tennis events a great deal due to the carnival atmosphere that includes practice sessions, odd doubles pairings and of course great singles matches. My first trip to an ATP event was the 1996 edition of the hard court event in Washington, DC. At the time it was sponsored by Legg Mason, but now Citi is their sponsor.
Who can be too angry at large financial institutions when they keep sponsoring tennis events?
Loving the Practice Courts
I did not exactly know what to expect as my co-workers (all higher paid than me, their student intern) decided to take me along to the Legg Mason Classic and pay for me once they heard I liked tennis. The first sight upon entering the facility was the show practice court where Michael Chang was practicing with his brother Carl. Michael Chang was thick. He looked far more imposing live than on television. His intensity on the practice court sent a message that he was the man to beat at this event.
Chang wrapped up his practice session, and Patrick Rafter came out to warm up for his featured evening match (see post script). Rafter’s entire practice session involved serving and making a first volley over and over again. His obvious athleticism made one of my companions say, “This guy is bound to break through.” I was impressed with his athleticism too, but I doubted his return of serve and forehand. I obviously should have listened more intently that day.
Matches: Joyce and David Foster Wallace
No pro ever wants to lose 10 points in a row even if it is against Pete Sampras
I saw Richie Rennenberg beat someone from the front row of a side court and was impressed with how solid Rennenberg’s game was. From the front row of another court, I saw Michael Joyce lose to Paul Haarhuis in a gut wrenching fashion. Joyce led 6-3, 4-1 with a double break and simply ran out of gas. Haarhuis should have held to keep his deficit to a single break and looked irate to be down 3-6, 1-4. I always liked Haarhuis because of his US Open wins over Becker and McEnroe as well as his 4 set loss to Jimmy Connors in 1991. Still, I was pulling for Joyce because I had just read David Forster Wallace’s profile of him in Esquire. Haarhuis mercilessly clobbered Joyce to win 11 of the next 12 games as I continued to watch out of loyalty born from Wallace’s look at a guy trying to become a regular on the main ATP Tour.
No other matches stick out today in terms of specific memories, but I found the day exceedingly interesting. I loved being able to get close to the action on side courts and see world class players a few feet from the sidelines. I had never had that experience prior to 1996. I encourage anyone making a first visit to a professional event to spend as much time as possible on the side courts and practice courts rather than buy tickets to an evening session offering only a few matches. Evening sessions are fun, but I think a first visit to a tennis tournament should come during the day session on the first or second day of the event to see how jam packed the facility is with tennis.
The festival atmosphere at professional tennis events caught me off guard. Watching tennis on television involves watching tennis and then finding something to do or watch during commercials. I got to the DC event and saw any number of companies pushing products not related to tennis. Andre Agassi and Perry Rogers’ business venture Andre Agassi Enterprises had a presence at the 1996 DC event that included paying people to hand out free sample packets of “Agassi Saw Dust” to use for a dry grip when playing tennis (perhaps business ideas like these are why Agassi and Rogers had a falling out). I got a free sample and wish I knew what I did with it. I probably composted it/sprinkled it in the grass, but I would love to have it today.
Who doesn’t want to look into purchasing a new car, explore life insurance options, or get hooked on free samples of tennis themed saw dust while checking out matches and practice courts? I found the whole scene to be eccentric in an intoxicating way. As a kid, I had always argued against friends who said tennis was an uppity sport. I wish I had those friends with me in DC that day because the festival side of the tennis event was not blue blooded as much as it was certifiably campy. People should buy a ticket to a tennis event and get hooked on the almost stream of consciousness nature of events found in the first few days of the events. In 1996, I went to the opening day of the DC event and for me tennis was preaching to the choir. I was converted nonetheless.
Post Script – Agassi Double Booked?
Did Agassi want to play in this heat before the 96 Olympic Games?
As a student at Georgetown University, I knew that Andre Agassi was always a threat in DC. The Tombs, a local Georgetown bar and restaurant that looks like a speakeasy, has booths dedicated to different college rowing teams. It also has an Agassi booth due to Perry Rogers being a Georgetown grad and taking Andre to the Tombs when he played in DC. Agassi won the event in 1995, but I, along with every other person looking at a calendar, knew he was not a serious threat to win DC in 1996. Agassi was playing in the Olympic games and the tennis event began during the final weekend of the DC event. Was Andre going to head off to seek gold feeling leg weary and having to play a compact schedule in Atlanta or would he lose early in DC? For the record, Patrick Rafter beat Andre Agassi that evening after Agassi won a close first set. Agassi to my mind wanted to get in some battle practice at an event he liked and got that in the first set. The next two sets went quickly, and Andre was off to Atalanta where he did win gold. (A quick fact check shows that Rafter won 6-7, 6-0, 6-2)
PPS – This wrap up of the 2013 Indian Wells event has a spot on comment describing how odd the crowds and atmosphere are at tennis events. I think that experience is something that tennis tournaments need to promote as in my mind nothing is quite like having 5-10 matches to choose from, having 5-10 practice courts to choose from, seeing fans walking around with odd attachments and pronounced rooting interests, and encountering companies handing out free stuff while being surrounded by the trappings and traditions of tennis.