by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
Tennis was a huge part of my childhood. I played it, watched it and followed it religiously. Tennis players were rock stars to me; I worshipped them. I constantly dreamed of going to Wimbledon and the French Open, so much that I ate strawberries and cream, or croissants, for breakfast each year when I huddled around our living room TV set to watch the finals of both tournaments. I bought stacks of tennis magazines, flipped through the sports section of our local newspaper for anything tennis-related and regularly loaded up on tennis gear, from Wilson rackets to cases upon cases of Penn tennis balls.
I was a fanatic. And still am! So, I found myself in heaven last year when I attended the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. The pro tournament, a warm up to the US Open, attracts the absolute best men's and women's players from around the world for one week in August, who compete for major titles in singles and doubles.
The Western & Southern Open actually takes place in Mason, Ohio, about a 20 to 25-minute drive from downtown Cincinnati, at the Lindner Family Tennis Center. Like any big tennis tournament, the event grounds include show courts - Grandstand, Center Court, etc. - for the main matches and multiple outer courts for the remainder of play, plus a surrounding of food stalls, bar areas, gift shop and lots of outdoor space to hang out in between the action.
Over the years I've been fortunate to attend several pro tennis tournaments, including Wimbledon, but there's something unique about the Western & Southern Open. It was the most interactive and fan-friendly tournament I've ever experienced. I spotted American star John Isner getting out of his car and he politely posed for pictures as he went into the tennis center, and I walked right up to another American, Jack Sock, currently ranked #26, as he approached an outer court before his match and asked him to take a photo with me, which he kindly did. I said hello to towering Canadian player Milos Raonic as he left the players' cafeteria, and though he had no clue who I was, he politely turned around, walked directly to me and shook my hand. I stood ten feet away from a legend, Roger Federer, during a practice session, caught a smile from Maria Sharapova as she spoke into her cell phone, and watched Mardy Fish play one of the last matches of his professional career (he retired at the US Open a few weeks afterwards). Impressively, all of this happened in just one afternoon.
Throughout the week, fans not only have the privilege of watching their favorite players on court, but special events like 'Kid's Day,' 'High School Day,' 'USTA Day,' and 'Service Appreciation Day' sometimes provide opportunities to meet them in person. Tournament guests are allowed to see the players' arrivals at the tennis center, many of whom greet people politely on either side of a red carpet as they make their way into the facility. This isn't the case at other tournaments, where players are heavily guarded or brought into the venue through restricted entrances. Many of the athletes randomly stroll the grounds and will stop briefly to acknowledge excited fans and sign autographs.
At the Center, about a dozen local restaurants serve a variety of great food for all appetites. High on my list of recommendations is the 'Chicken and Waffles' at Taste of Belgium and the 'Small 3 Way' at Cincinatti's own Skyline Chili. Finish it off with premium ice cream and gelato from Graeter's, or wash everything down with a cold beer, glass of wine or bubbles from any of the on-site bars.
On July 14, the complete field of entrants for this year's Western & Southern Open will be made public, but assume the majority of top players, especially those ranked #1 through #32, will compete. Barring injuries or suspensions, this means Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Andy Murray, Petra Kvitova, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer, plus John Isner and Jack Sock, are expected to qualify for the event. The Draw Party, revealing the tournament brackets, is set to happen live at the tennis center on the Friday before the Open begins.
Tickets are on sale now for all sessions of the tournament. In 2015, the event set a record by drawing 199,217 people, beating the previous mark of 191,752 fans in 2014. Don't hesitate to purchase tickets now, as many of the day and evening sessions will sell out weeks before the tournament.
If staying in Cincinnati, I recommend the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati (21cmuseumhotels.com/cincinnati) in downtown. Its prime location puts you within walking distance of restaurants, shopping centers, sports stadiums and a few blocks from the hip neighborhood of Over The Rhine. The hotel itself is a place to both sleep and explore, operating as a boutique property with 156 modernly furnished rooms and a museum with 8,000 square feet of exhibition space.
The Western & Southern Open also partners with host hotels in the city, if interested, and that information can be found on its website. Getting to and from the Open from Cincinnati will require a car rental, or I suggest using Drivr (godrivr.com), a personal car service similar to Uber that transports you whereever you need to go in a Tesla. Free parking is provided at the tennis center.
Accommodations closer to the tournament are also available in Mason, home to an amusement park and waterpark.
From one tennis fan to another, get yourself to the Western & Southern Open. This year's dates are August 13-21. For tickets and further details, visit wsopen.com.
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