Southern Ohio certainly has a rich athletic history. The birth of professional sports took place just a few hundred miles away with the establishment of the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1864. Of course, the Portsmouth Spartans played in the first “unofficial” NFL Championship game against the Chicago Bears in 1932. World class athletes from Jim Thorpe to Ken Griffey Jr. have called the region home.
But, for as much sports history as the region offers, it’s hard to think of southern Ohio as a tennis hotbed. But once a year, the tennis world turns its head just a few miles west of Portsmouth to Mason, Ohio.
What began as the Cincinnati Open in 1899 has exploded into the Western & Southern Open, perhaps one of the most prestigious non-major tennis tournaments of the year. An important final tune-up for the US Open in early September, the world’s best players make the annual pilgrimage to the Ohio valley.
On the men’s side, nine of the top 10 players in the world will be competing in this week’s tournament. However, the one absence is a notable one. Rafael Nadal, the world’s second-ranked player, is ailing from a wrist injury that he hopes can heal before the start of the US Open later this month. Top-ranked Novak Djokavic and world No. 3 Roger Federer will both be competing after their thrilling match in the Wimbledon final.
The past few years have been troubling for men’s tennis in the United States. An American man has not won a tennis major since Andy Roddick captured the 2003 US Open, and since Roddick’s retirement in 2012, the United States has not had a prominent competitor to be the face of its program. John Isner, the highest ranked American player, currently sits 19th in the world rankings. The next best American, Donald Young, is ranked 48th.
Despite the Americans lack of competitiveness on the men’s side, Ohioans continue to flock to the Lindner Family Tennis Center to see the world’s best. Last year, the event set record attendance numbers by attracting nearly 200 thousand spectators in just a week.
The Americans have fared much better on the women’s side, thanks to the Williams sisters. Serena and Venus, who have been the face of women’s tennis for over a decade, are ranked first and twentieth in the world, respectively. Both have made the trip to Cincinnati for the Open.
Last week, Venus shocked the tennis world by defeating Serena in three sets in the Rogers Cup semifinals in Montreal. Having been written off as being not as dedicated as her sister, Venus’ victory could announce a return to prominence.
“It was a good match,” Serena said to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The better player on that day, I think, won. Haven’t seen her play like that in a while, which is good. It’s just taking her game to a better level.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter