The champions of the Western & Southern Open receive a curious trophy for their efforts in the summer heat of Mason, Ohio. While most tennis tournaments these days hand out trophies made from crystal or gleaming silver plates, Cincinnati’s champions receive intricate earth-colored pottery from Rookwood Pottery, a company that was on the brink of extinction nearly 50 years ago.
Rookwood Pottery rose to fame as an artisan ceramics company in the late 1800s, and reached its peak prior to the Great Depression, after which it struggled to survive. Known for its unique, nature-inspired vases, Rookwood eventually grew its business to produce architectural tiles that were used in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, as well as in the homes of prominent people in the area.
It seemed that Rookwood Pottery would be resigned to history after operations ceased in 1967, but for the efforts of dentist and art pottery collector Arthur Townley. Improbably, Townley used his life savings to buy Rookwood, and held onto the company for 20 years with minimal production and certainly no profit, before he found a group of Cincinnati investors ready to bring the company back to its southern Ohio home, and to focus on its tradition of artisanship and adaptation. And it is this resurrected Rookwood Pottery that has been supplying the trophies for the Western & Southern Open since 2010.
Thus, it is fitting that the person who has collected the most Rookwood pottery from the Western & Southern Open, including the one he won this past weekend, is Roger Federer. Like Rookwood itself, Federer has proven himself to be as good at surviving through adversity as he was at dominating in his peak. After spending over a month away from the Tour, Federer seems to have doubled down on his strengths – reflexes, shotmaking, and aggressive play, instead of trying to beat his younger rivals in their wars of attrition. Famously, he pounced on second serves with a new kamikaze rush, but the most striking part of watching him play this weekend was the sustained aggression that was palpable from the first shot. Federer spent much of his early career as a chameleon – using his broad range of skills to adapt to the styles of his opponents. The latest iteration of Federer is no longer interested in how the other guy wants to play – instead, he is looking to play the game in a way that capitalizes on the skills he still feels can beat the field. Whatever one’s allegiances are in tennis, it’s hard not to be excited watching Federer unleash all of his tricks against his biggest rivals, especially at this stage in his career. Whether this form will hold on a slower surface in a best-of-five format at the US Open remains to be seen, but it certainly adds a level of excitement to any match he plays, which may prolong his impressively long career even further.
Perhaps no player has had as many Lazarus moments as Serena Williams – and, as such, her win this weekend certainly reflects the indomitable spirit of the trophy she claimed. For Williams, each set, and many games began in a hole that she had to dig out of – and dig she did, leaving a fit and determined Simona Halep with no answers for Serena’s superior play. Halep has acquitted herself well over the summer hard court tune-ups, with two runner-up finishes against quality opposition. But, as always, the match was Serena’s to win or lose, and, as she has so frequently as of late, she won. And so, as has been the case for over a decade, the takeaway for the US Open is that it is Serena’s to win if she can hold her nerve.
The traveling circus of the professional tennis tours rarely stop in a place like Mason, Ohio. From the incongruous sight of seeing European multimillionaire athletes waiting for tables at Applebee’s to the once-a-match contests to award chili to a row of spectators, there are a lot of things about Mason that distinguish it from the more jet-set tournaments in Paris, Monte Carlo and Shanghai. Federer himself noted that Mason felt like Switzerland to him and thought that might explain his success there. While I’m pretty the Swiss countryside isn’t dotted with Waffle Houses and drive-thru RöstiShacks, Federer has a point. Mason is a place where breakfast spots on Saturday mornings are filled with kids’ soccer teams and cheerleading squads, where the bar at Applebee’s is a place to catch up with friends, and the local stores all stock team wear for the two rival high schools. Even if your childhood isn’t rooted in American suburbia, that feeling of community and family pervades the town and the tennis tournament it hosts – where the stands are filled with long-time tennis fans from the area rather than Anna Wintour and Michael Jordan.
By being rooted in a community itself, the Western & Southern Open throws into relief the community that envelops the tennis tours. While in Mason, it’s easy to see that the tennis bubble – the players, their families and teams, the tournament organizers, and the journalists and sponsors who follow the circus around all form their own ecosystem. While the players may have come from places like Mason, they are no longer of those places. Years on the road, traveling through big cities, competing against and practicing with each other, and running all of the machinery that makes professional tennis possible have turned the tours into their own unique microcosms.
For the spectator, this makes the Western & Southern Open perhaps the best place to watch the tennis ant farm up close. While the stakes are bigger at the majors, the huge venues, and layers of sponsors and VIP guests make it hard for an ordinary fan to get close to the action. Even other Masters events, like Indian Wells and Miami, are harder to crack, because Los Angeles and Miami exert the same gravitational pull as Melbourne, Paris, London and New York. But, in Mason, even the most crowded day will still yield plenty of space to watch the practices of top players, and the friendliness of the volunteers and the low key atmosphere helps everyone let down their guard. It’s a place where a passion for tennis is what motivates the crowds to pile in, year after year.
At the end of the week, the tennis road show piles into New York, ready for high profile promotional events, and VIP meet and greets. The next few weeks of the tennis calendar will be filled with celebrities, hyped matches, and the highest stakes in the sport. But, for many of us in the stands, a week in Mason might be as good as it gets.