words DOUG GEYER  |  photography DEOGRACIAS LERMA

“You can’t be serious!”

Watching John McEnroe, with headbanded afro, chastise the beleaguered umpire while Björn Borg waited patiently. That is a fond memory—for me, not the umpire.

I experienced world-class tennis on our big and boxy TV back in the 70s when the masters of that day held sway over my other leisure pursuits. Connors, Năstase, King, Evert, and Navratilova. Irrespective of gender or nationality, their athleticism mixed with anger, their grace blended with guts, inspired me to take lessons and try my own hand at the game. As time went by, I watched and played less with other priorities and pursuits filling the void. Like many relationships, I stayed in touch with tennis less and less before we lost touch altogether.

Watching this year’s Western & Southern Open rekindled my love for the game. Sitting courtside, a soft approach shot away, gave me a new sense of tennis as I watched it be played at a level only the tiniest percentage achieve. Their eyes focus in as their rackets hung poised and ready. Wiping away the sweat, readjusting their drenched shirts, mumbling encouragements or admonishments, shots that should be impossible made possible, recalibrating as the matches marched on. All these moments were woven together in a rich tapestry of tennis.

In a tournament that was initially beset by early, high-profile withdrawals (Murray, Federer, Sharapova, Cilic, Azarenka) and a typical tournament’s share of upsets, the 2017 W&S Open opened doors for rising talents eager to leave their mark.

By Sunday’s finals, four players remained, and Center Court was packed. Blue W&S fans flapped in the stifling August air to “cool” the legion of fans who were there to see how it would all play out. Telephoto lenses the size of small telescopes froze moments in time with clarity to help our fuzzy minds replay our favorite shots.

Reigning Wimbledon champion, Garbine Muguruza of Spain took on Simona Halep of Romania. Halep was hoping to claim her first number one world ranking with a win while Muguruza was eager to win her first tournament in America. Unfortunately for Halep, that spot on top would prove elusive as she was unable to secure a foothold. She made Muguruza work, but Garbine still made short work of Simona after two quick sets (6-1, 6-0).

Seated immediately to my right was Muguruza’s trainer and coach. Listening to them spur her on while sharing hopeful celebrations with each other as her dominance exerted itself was a rare treat. Though I didn’t understand the phrases and words that her trainer, Alicia Lebrian, offered throughout the lightning match, it all made sense nonetheless. Her coach, Sam Sumyk, needed only to confirm what we were all seeing with his thick, French accent. “Good play, Gabrine!”

After dropping her racket and rejoicing on the other side of match point, she made her way into their open arms. Her smile and their embrace communicated more than words ever could. Sumyk was elated if not a bit stunned. “She was hitting her shots where she wanted them. Very smooth. We can’t always expect this kind of victory against someone of the caliber of Simona Halep. But we’ll take it,” he smiled.

In less than an hour, the stage was reset and ready for the final match of the day and week: Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria began exchanging warm-up shots with Nick Kyrgios of Australia.

As the first set progressed, Kyrgios channeled McEnroe with some chastising of his own. With rhetorical questions for the chair umpire about how many bad calls he was going to get, he directed his ire at the service line judge on his side of the court. “You’ve only got one line. Not the baseline. The service line. Can you watch it?!” The line judge avoided eye contact.

Kyrgios also looked to a certain woman in the stands throughout the match. It didn’t take long before the fan’s identity was clear—Mom. It’s safe to say she was his biggest and most reliable fan. Later, he would thank her for doing “his washing” during the tournament.

During one of the breaks in the second set, a cheer erupted behind me. A young man rose from his knee while a woman wiped tears from her eyes. She said yes. When the action resumed Kyrgios tried to bring Dimitrov to his knees but his answer was a resounding no. Tripping himself up with unforced errors and double faults, Kyrgios succumbed to Dimitrov’s consistency and power. The final 6-3, 7-5, sealed the weekend’s play.

As he stood on the platform holding his second-place cup, Kyrgios thanked his team and praised Dimitrov. Holding the first-place Rookwood trophy, Dimitrov reveled in the moment—his first ATP 1000 victory.

With fans and players already dreaming of 2018, the money raised by the tournament for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Barrett Cancer Center, and Tennis for City Youth will start working long before things heat up next summer. With just under $10 million given through the years, the tournament’s impact goes well beyond furthering careers and giving local businesses a bump.

Leaving the Lindner Family Tennis Center in the long caravan of cars, I realized that though it lay dormant most of the year, it still had the power to reawaken a love of tennis in me. Finding and dusting off my old, Prince racquet might be the call of the day. And though I won’t sport a headband or yell at my opponents (probably), I’ll be serious about honoring a game that shares so much love.