Slant Pattern at the Irving Tennis Classic

If you've been reading the Slant Pattern over the years, you may have noticed that I've written more and more about tennis as more time has gone on. That's because I have started caring more and more about tennis as more time has gone on.

Still, I had never seen professional tennis in person. Every year, I'd see a couple of Challenger tournaments in my neck of the woods (one in Dallas in February, one in Irving, also in Dallas County, in March) on the schedule and intend to go, but never got around to it before now. When I sussed out that the Irving one was just a 15-minute walk from my girlfriend's apartment, I had no more excuses not to go.

If you have any interest in tennis and a Challenger tournament is being played near you, I can't recommend going highly enough. Why Challenger tournaments in particular? I'll explain, but first: what is a Challenger tournament?

The Challenger Tour is like the minor leagues of tennis, but more specifically, it's like the AAA level of minor leagues. All the participants are full-time pros, and most of them are ranked in the top 150 in the world. The top seed at the Irving tournament, Marcel Granollers, is ranked 41st in the world.

But because it's not the major leagues, you can sit very, very close to the action for very, very cheap. I watch enough Challenger events online to notice how many matches therein are played to empty stadia. That's a shame, but you can take advantage of the world's lack of interest. You can do the same for ATP World Tour events (i.e., the major leagues), but it will cost you and arm and a leg.

For the most part, I want to be sitting close to the action when I am at a sporting event. This matters less in hockey and baseball (it's fun even in the nosebleeds), and it's actually better to have nosebleed seats in football (you can't tell what's going on at field-level unless the play unfolds to your side), but in basketball and now tennis, I say it's imperative to be as up close as you can get.

Some first-timer observations:

* There was more of a din in the crowd than I expected. I don't have other tournaments to compare to, but I was expecting near silence. People talk throughout points, however. It was enough that at one point, semifinalist Dustin Brown (ranked 78th in the world) turned to some loud talkers near me and said, "Guys?" before he served. How often are you close enough to professional athletes that they can and do address you during play?

So yes, lots of talking, but the greater sin is getting up and moving around during play. Don't do that.

* I make it a tradition to get a hot dog at every sporting event that I attend that sells one. That tradition was broken because hot dogs were $10. I promise I'm not a miser, but that is truly ridiculous. It was just some dudes in a tent with a handwritten menu, too; nothing fancy. I saw others buy hot dogs and hamburgers (also $10) and there appeared to be nothing special about them. They were standard-sized, not foot-longs, and the burgers didn't even look good (burnt-looking, with a barely-starting-to-melt slice of American cheese limping over it). When I returned the following day, I was ready to give them my business since they were throwing in chips, cookies, and a drink for that price (still too high but no longer insane), but I couldn't: cash only. In 2017.

* I saw a tennis neckbeard. There can't be too many of those, I imagine. Like the more standard, for instance, anime neckbeard, this guy had unkempt facial hair, was pudgy, and was wearing a hoodie with an iron cross on the back. The cross had a calligraphic C in the middle of it, and underneath it read, "When all is said and done, only the bones will remain." I don't know either. What made him a tennis neckbeard (besides his presence at a tennis tournament) was his Wimbledon t-shirt and the fact that he had his racket, including the carrying case, with him. Perhaps he thought Dustin Brown would hit a few balls with him after his match.

* As far as the play went: guys who are willing to go to the net are a lot more fun to watch in person (just as so on TV) than pushers who stay behind the baseline and wait for their opponent to make a mistake. But pushing is a legitimate strategy, so I try not to be as hard on pushers as other portions of the tennis commentariat.

* A few years there was a player, Michael Russell, who while ranked about No. 150 had to play a last-minute replacement, a club pro, at a tournament qualifier. Russell won 6-0, 6-0. Even though his opponent did play and teach tennis for a living, he was absolutely no match for a touring professional. Every guy I saw this weekend was ranked higher than 150, but nothing they did, even their big serves, looked impossible or amazing, you know? It seemed like something even I could do. I know that's not true, mind you, I'm just telling you what it looked like.

I said that to my girlfriend, who cares not about sports at all but was cheerfully sporting enough to attend a match with me. She replied, "That's the thing about pros; they make it look easy."

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