The Atlanta Open passes as a major hit during the heart of the hot summer period
For most residents who call the South region their home, the lion’s share of those people could easily testify that dealing with blistering, scorching humid days during the summertime is the norm. Heat waves galore, if I might add.
The masses of individuals who attended the Atlanta Open, a professional men’s tennis tournament that takes place over the course of a week at the Atlantic Station in the thick of Atlanta towards the end of July, had a front row seat to just how overwhelming the Georgia heat can be, as well as getting a chance to check out some quality tennis — a sport that fans in Atlanta (more so across the entire state of Georgia) have really no invested interest in.
In a city like Atlanta, where football takes precedent (Falcons, Georgia Bulldogs, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets) over every other sport (Yes, you too Braves), you can’t expect a niche sport like tennis to catch on in a city where the three biggest and most celebrated games in America (basketball, football, baseball) rule the everyday media print and online headlines. So when tennis in Atlanta rolls around during the middle of the summer, when football is about a month away from kicking off, it’s the offseason for basketball and the baseball campaign is heading into its stretch run with two months away until postseason play in October, July fits the ideal time on the sports calendar for one of my three favorite sports to take center stage in the ATL.
The venue for the Atlanta Open (first year of the tournament was in 2010) couldn’t be at a better site in town. Outside of where the action goes on, is a collection of shopping districts, entertainment options, boutique spots and food selections that will surely keep you busy for a full day. Even better is the grand view in the background of the main tennis court while watching a match. As a media member, I had the privilege of sitting near the top where I had a straightforward view of the Wells Fargo, Dillards and BB&T buildings in the backdrop. Turn a little towards your left, and there sits more of the city, along with vehicles zooming up and down the usual frenetic highway.
Being that this was my first pro tennis tournament I was covering as a sports writer, the setting was better than I anticipated. I attended the first semifinal match on Saturday afternoon between Australian Matthew Ebden, and hometown favorite, John Isner. Traveling to the event, I have to say I was pretty disappointed that I wouldn’t get the chance to witness young American hopeful, Frances Tiafoe, and the once promising American, Donald Young, who both lost in the fourth round. More so than missing those two in person, was top-15 ranked Nick Kyrgios, the mercurial, whimsical, uber-talented 25-year-old Aussie, who is easily the biggest enigma in men’s tennis today (Kyrgios retired during the second set of his quarterfinal match on Friday with an apparent injury).
Observing from the sidelines and close to the play, it felt like a flamethrower with people in attendance waving their fans in the blazing sun in attempt to stay cool. There was no chance of staying cool in this heat, only surviving long enough until it was time to exit the match. Maybe other than the Australian Open and Miami Open, I can’t think of another yearly ATP tournament on the tennis calendar hotter than the Atlanta Open.
There was a ton of quick points throughout this match, with both players mindset clearly on avoiding extending rallies, at all cost. With Isner standing at a towering 6‘10” and possessing one of the most lethal serves in the sport, Ebden opted to position himself a good five feet from the baseline to help with his return game. After Isner won the first set 6–4, both guys dug in for a well-played second set that went into a tiebreak. Isner began the tiebreak cracking two aces and it appeared that he was on his way to the final, however Ebden held his ground off his serve and capitalized on a few Isner errors that led to him winning the tiebreak 8–6, after a surprise Isner double-fault that ended the set.
From the start of the third set, Isner jumped out to a fast 3–0 lead and while up 3–1 with Ebden threatening to break, the four-time Atlanta Open champ pulled off a great hold to push the lead to 4–1 as the big man hollered “Come on!” much to the fans delight. Isner ran away with the final set 6–1 and recorded 26 aces to his opponent’s eight.
The second semifinal jumped off at 7 p.m. between American Ryan Harrison and little unknown British, Cameron Norrie. The obvious crowd favorite Harrison, started off sloppy, spraying forehand errors like crazy in the first game. The left-handed Norrie didn’t have much pop in his game but played to his strengths as he stayed consistent with his groundstrokes early, and played clean, calm tennis, while throwing a little off-speed action to Harrison, as he grew more frustrated and his game more erratic. Norrie won the first set comfortably 6–2.
A better start by Harrison allowed him to get out to a 2–1 edge in the second set and by employing more of a serve-and-volley strategy, he took the set 6–3. After getting broke in the opening game of the third set, Norrie’s game vanished. From there on out, Harrison moved better, controlled more points with his serve and was more on the receiving end than Norrie was when it came to winning the rallies. Harrison moved into the final by winning the set 6–2.
Sunday’s All-American final would feature a rematch of last year’s championship match between Isner, the highest-ranked American on the ATP Tour and the 26-year-old Harrison. By the time the first ball was hit at 5:10 p.m., the temperature stood at a firm 90 degrees and it almost felt like an inferno was slapping me across the face. Either way, the show had to go on. At least there were plenty of cold beverages attendees could purchase around the vicinity. As for me, I had a bottle of water and a raspberry Bai antioxidant drink to keep me refreshed.
The first serve was the key in the opening set, with both Americans holding serve at 5-all in the first 10 games. Harrison would get the first break of the match, after connecting on a cross-court, on-target, two-hand backhand off a rocket Isner serve, that he was unable to return. Harrison closed out the set 7–5 with two aces. In a critical service game at 1–1 early in the second set, Isner faced three break points that could have broken the match wide open for Harrison but Big John fought each one off to stay on serve. Up 3–2, Isner broke Harrison for the first time in the final for a 4–2 lead and eventually won the set 6–3.
Luckily for me and everyone at the match, the weather began to cool down once the decisive set of the final started. The final set involved some fierce baseline exchanges with both players pushing each other, which certainly turned out to be the best set of the tournament’s final three singles matches I witnessed. After breaking Harrison’s serve in the opening game with a laser forehand winner, Isner would hold serve the rest the way. Up 3–2 and serving, Isner nailed three straight bullet aces to win the game, and superbly highlighted, even at the age of 33, that his serve is still one of men’s tennis’ most imposing equalizers. It more than makes up for the other deficiencies he has in his game, especially on the hard courts.
Home-court advantage worked in Isner’s favorite once again (he graduated and played tennis at the University of Georgia in Athens), as he took home his fifth Atlanta Open title (5–7, 6–3, 6–4) over Harrison.
Maybe it’s just me but it feels like the Atlanta Open is slowly becoming a fan-favorite caliber sporting event on the tennis calendar (Hey, it was televised on ESPN2 this weekend!) and it has always been one well-organized event. The high fan turnouts exhibit just that.
Who would have thought that tennis would catch on in Atlanta?
Well, it has and the Peach State is soaking it up, even if this sweltering July summer heat can be downright unbearable at times.