Stephan Fogleman, Tennis East Coast
View From The Top
(MASON, OHIO-August 16, 2014)
It’s a Candy Land for Tennis Fans.
Sitting directly across from King’s Island, made most famous to me by the Brady Bunch episode back in 1973, it’s an awesome childhood-induced feeling to look out on Center Court from the glass-enclosed, air-conditioned Media Center perched atop Center Court and catch a match.
I had no idea, simply no idea, the size of this tournament nor the size of the grounds nor the hordes of teeming fans who trek from Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and more distant places to attend this event every year.
It’s only fitting that the Cincinnati Masters is held with an amusement park in the background, because this is a theme park of all the best of tennis–from the ravenous autograph seekers to the unprecedented access those same fans have to the players. The practice courts are the envy of the nation, as die-hards get a front row view of the world’s top 10 as they warm up every day.
Don’t get me wrong: It still lacks the intimacy of the smaller tournaments on the tour. It will never be Newport or Washington, but it is clearly the Indian Wells of the East.
Maybe even better than Indian Wells itself, because of its immediate relevance to the US Open.
It is not without some problems, most notably the glaring traffic infrastructure failures. It is exceptionally well-attended and there is no such thing as mass transit here, so the only way in and out is by car or hotel shuttle.
There was a four mile backup on Interstate 71 when I drove in Tuesday morning, and it took over an hour to get two miles to a parking space. The Western & Southern Open’s impact on traffic is so pronounced that it actually creates a reverse-commute jam. When day-sessioneers leave the parking lots and head back toward Downtown at 6:00 p.m., it’s madness all the way there heading south, while the northbound lanes heading out of Downtown Cincinnati are relatively empty.
And another thing–people here drive safely. If you’re an I-95er like myself, that can be dangerous. Everyone from the East Coast should be diagnosed with some degree of road rage compared to Buckeye motorists. When Ohioans stop at a stop sign, they really stop. For like 10 seconds. No ‘California Roll’ here. Be advised.
I spoke with many fans this week who drove as many as 18 hours to attend this tournament and have no intention of attending the US Open. Two told me that the expense of traveling to and staying in New York was a big disappointment since they spent more time waiting in lines and looking for celebrities.
It makes sense. For me, the biggest draw of the US Open is its relative proximity to the rest of the Mid-Atlantic, about a 3 1/2 hour drive for me from Baltimore. It’s twice as far to the Western & Southern Open, but instead of the pushiest fans on the continent, everyone is well-behaved, the concessions are more reasonable, and there are a variety of non-frightening lodging choices nearby that deliver a big bang for the buck. Most importantly, there’s no Queens here. Instead of auto body shops, ‘dodgy’ motels and a creaky subway above, there’s a water park, golf courses and the Faux Eiffel Tower of King’s Island overhead.
The New York press grumbled about the lack of high-end dining options all week, as I’m told they always do, but there were more than enough choices, especially for folks who spend 16(!) hours each day at a tennis tournament.
The Food Court options were impressive, with several local restaurants and caterers serving up amazing dishes.
‘But Where Will We Eat?’, They Say
Speaking of amazing, one gauge of the lack of gouge at the concessions was the Skyline Chili booth–‘The Official Chili Of The Cincinnati Reds and the Western & Southern Open’. After Maria Sharapova dodgily pooh-poohed the ‘3way’ on Monday, I raced to a Skyline drive-through and got the Cincy-famous dish for $5.54.
At the Skyline Food Court location on tournament grounds, the same chili, spaghetti and cheddar cheese combo ran me $7.00. Impressively Populist. I love it.
Fan Protip: You can buy a can–a whole can–of used match Penn ATP/WTA tennis balls for $1. That’s right. $.33333 for each match-used ball with the Western & Southern logo stamped thereon. You have to keep asking every day, and it’s one can per person, per day.
Best fandom deal in pro tennis. Cash Only. Ask daily at the tournament’s information booths, because supplies are extremely limited.
And here’s a Fan Protip: If you’re buying upper-level tickets, try the 320s. From there, you can use the restrooms below which are adjacent to the interview rooms used by the players and media. A steady stream of players come and go from there for interviews. If you’re a ticket-holder in the 320s, you’re also entitled to ride the elevator up to your seat. That elevator is often packed with players early in the week. It’s also a gruelingly-slow ride, and it stops at the players lounge, the interview level and the upper deck, giving you plenty of time to chat with players in the elevator.
The list of positives grew even longer when I stopped in at the Great Wolf Lodge to visit my good buddy, @Tennis_Shots, who was the only single guy with no kids to ever check into this indoor water park and wizardry-themed fun fest filled with kids in PJs running with magic wands illuminating crystals all evening throughout the hotel.
That’s when I realized–this is way, way better a family vacation with high-caliber tennis than the US Open will ever be in a million years.
I know I was only here for five days, but this is a drastically better experience than Flushing Meadows for serious tennis fans and families. Let me put it this way. New York is a distraction and a pain when your only objective is to enjoy slam-style matches with your loved ones.
Even a seasoned New York tennis correspondent agreed with my premise off the record: If you want to visit New York, then visit New York. But for all the US Open tennis without the New York Hustle, visit the Western & Southern Open.
And that brings me to Arthur Ashe Kids Day. I don’t think he would even want his name associated with that event at this point because there’s no tennis involved with that particular off-day at the Open. No qualies or anything remotely resembling competitive pro tennis. Just a gaggle of on-court celebs who know very little about the sport. And I should know because I interviewed her on the hallowed Courts of Ashe for two seconds.
You can’t fake family, US Open. The attendees at the Western & Southern Open ARE FAMILY, and you can’t hold a candle to them.
Take notes, USTA. Next year, I think I’ll head out Route 70 and skip the hot mess that you so fancifully hype.
Alright, maybe I’ll go to USO qualies, but that is it. :)
(Disclaimer: The USTA owns 80% of the Western & Southern Open. The other 20% is Pure Magic.)