I had a strange dream. I dreamt I went to Charlottesville, like I do every year for the ATP Challenger. I stayed at the same hotel as I always do. I went to the same brewpubs I always do. I watched some hard court indoor tennis like I always do. Then, I realized the players in the Challenger were women and I woke up.
Days of constant rain in Virginia turned the Boyd Tinsley Clay Court Classic into the spring indoor classic. Madison Brengle, the tournament’s top seed at #100, dispensed shopping tips to the younger players on tour as she sat near the entrance of the facility all weekend
talking about which tournaments offer the best hospitality on the road. (Correction: It was all about shopping, I later learned).
I love qualifying, perhaps because the crowds are lighter or because the players are hungrier. As usual, I was one of two fans in the stands, with a smattering of players, coaches and tournament volunteers scattered throughout the giant Boar’s Head Resort’s indoor facility.
Sunday’s qualifying found the pros relegated to the dungeon courts, where there was no access to watch anything but the match near the net. The University of Virginia women’s team was hosting and they got first dibs on the indoor show courts.
I came for the surface. After Charleston, I can’t just jerk back to hard courts. But Mother Nature had other ideas. And so it was that I didn’t see a single point or practice on the clay.
I did see some ferocious competition in the likes of Julia Elbaba, playing on her alma mater terra sancta and almost qualifying on will alone, or the awkward effectiveness and endurance of Elizaveta Ianchuk (the Ukranian who’s been here three years in a row) or the punchy counter-attacking of Robin Anderson. Or how about 18-year-old racket tosser Ashley Kratzer, ferocious on court like Barbora Strycova but as quiet and mild-mannered as a teen-ager can be off court. How about the quiet clapping of Carol Zhao’s parents, overjoyed by their daughter’s wins but clapping so softly, as if their own parents were in an adjoining bedroom? On another note, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a 9:00 a.m. match start before at a tournament. Some players are barely awake.
The good news, if you live within three hours of Charlottesville is that the weather forecast is about to break wide open as spring’s wild variations usually do. In two days, no one will remember the constant rain in Charlottesville. I will. It can be so lonely on the tour. The rain has a way of incessantly reminding you of that loneliness. And then you look down on court where a 26-year-old is looking back at her coach after an unforced error, and you’re sitting next to him. And she looks almost right at you, asking “why am I doing this?” It makes you question why any of them don’t hang it up if they haven’t reached the top 100 by the time they’re 24. Regardless, they soldier on. That doesn’t take away from the pain in their eyes, the second-guessing, the constant moving about to cheap hotel rooms, traveling like a band of one where nobody’s ever heard their hit song. You have to remind yourself that these players are here by choice. For the most part, they’re adults. You have to remind yourself that these players aren’t forced into this lifestyle by an authoritarian government. But sometimes, that doesn’t seem apparent at first glance. May the heavens shine down on them and make all of them top 20 players someday.
The sun can’t shine soon enough on Charlottesville and the determined women at the Boyd Tinsley Clay Court Classic. Today is forecast to be partly cloudy and 79 degrees.
—S. Fogleman (the S is for Soggy)