Top Seed Open Matches Are Anything But Practice

WASHINGTON, August 15, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been no paying spectators allowed this week at the Top Seed Tennis Club near Lexington, Ky., to see the WTA Tour’s relaunch on U.S. soil at the Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics. For each match on Center Court, there are just a handful of people sitting under the covered bleachers, such as coaches and family members and, maybe, a few invited club members, too. Plush seats are spaced at a proper social distance and everyone is masked. Applause, when it happens, is scattered and ominous.

There is definitely a club atmosphere permeating around the Top Seed Tennis Club grounds, as captured by the Tennis Channel cameras televising this WTA International event throughout the United States, where the players are competing without any of the fanfare they’ve become accustomed to like elaborate introductions, standing ovations by fans, or DJ music blaring during changeovers. Also, there has been no tossing of racquets or towels into the crowd after a victory and the winning player doesn’t return to the court to wave or blow kisses or even autograph the court-side camera lens before leaving their bench.

While the actual matches may look and seem like practice matches based upon the optics, that’s not the way the players see it. As it happened, by the semifinal round all eight seeds were gone.

No. 63 Jil Teichmann of Switzerland, who has strung together three good wins this week to reach her first hard court semifinal, said: “I’m used to practicing without any spectators. I’m not Serena who plays in front of a full crowd. But I really love to play with spectators because they give me a lot of energy. I enjoy the game. Obviously, I would love to have people watch me again, but everyone has to accept what the situation is.” 

Another semifinalist, No. 49 Jennifer Brady from the United States, is one of three Americans remaining from the original 16 who began the week. She has won each of her three matches in straight sets and has lost just 11 games the entire tournament. She’s been on court just three hours and 18 minutes combined. “The way I’m playing, I’m playing aggressive, playing smart, playing well,” she said. “I’m getting more comfortable with the competitiveness and aware of my surroundings and playing much better.”

American wild card Shelby Rogers, ranked 116th, has enjoyed a breakout week in Lexington as she continues her come back from a knee injury. She’s reached the semifinals after a thrilling 1-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) win over top seed and World No. 9 Serena Williams Friday. “I treated it like another match, but one I felt I could win,” said Rogers.

“It’s definitely weird, there’s not much of a celebration. Okay, it’s done, on to the next match.”

After she lost Thursday afternoon to her younger sister, Serena, Venus Williams told reporters via Zoom it was “a real match, with real points and real consequences.” The sisters battled for three sets over the span of two hours and 19 minutes before Serena prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. It was intense and there were plenty of high-velocity points throughout. Serena fought back from down 2-4 in the final set to string together the last four games of the second-round match.

“It definitely felt more relaxed than in the stadium at Wimbledon or at the US Open,” said Serena Williams, who like Venus, was playing in her first official competition in five months because of the hiatus caused from the COVID-19 crisis that shut down the pro tours in March on the eve of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. “It’s still not like the practice courts’ quiet, but it’s never easy, never easy.”

Of course, when Serena and Venus were done, after the last point of the 193 points (Serena won 99, Venus 94) they played had been hit and Serena prevailed in the final score, there was no opportunity for them to shake hands or hug each other because of the new normal of tennis rules that allows for only a racquet tap. However, if you observed closely, you would have seen that the two sisters exchanged a long, weary look at one another.

Jannik Sinner makes it official: he’s coming to NYC

On Friday, World No. 73 Jannik Sinner of Italy used his Instagram platform to inform his followers and well-wishers that he would be coming to New York City later this month to play in both the Western & Southern Open, relocated from the Cincinnati suburb of Mason, Ohio, and the US Open. Sinner, whose last match was during the first week of March, wrote:

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make with COVID-19 still being present in the lives of so many. I want to thank everyone for making sure that the right safety precautions are in place to make this happen.”

Tennis in the COVID era

All week at the Top Seed Open, part of the pre-match coin toss by the chair umpires has involved the winner of the toss picking which chair color they want to use for dropping their towels on behind each baseline. Seems easy enough, but sometimes it can be confusing. But it all works out.

What they’re writing

If you’re looking for a great, long read for the weekend, nothing better to recommend than New Yorker writer Louisa Thomas’ latest on tennis, “The Fractured World of Tennis Amid a Long Pandemic,” in which she catches readers up on everything that’s happened in the tennis world since the start of the pandemic – and a lot has happened in the past five months.

Passing shots

Former American Top 10 Chanda Rubin has been commenting on the Top Seed Open matches all week for Tennis Channel remotely from their broadcast studios in Los Angeles. After Thursday’s Serena-Venus XXXI match in Lexington, she said: “It was incredible, and not because of their ages. They have shown they’re ageless in this sport. They are great champions, both Venus and Serena. It was just the way they were able to come together and play their best tennis at the same time. That’s incredibly hard for any two players to do let alone when you’re playing a family member – a sister whom you are so close with. 

“They just went toe-to-toe, it was a lot of physical points… In the end, Serena served her way out of trouble. It was incredibly high-level tennis.”

Afterward, Rubin wrote on Twitter …

What they’re sharing on social media

Stefanos Tsitsipas / Passing thought …

Citi Open / A Love Tweet to our fans

Roland Garros / The new look Court Philippe Chatrier