Decades ago, in the fall, all of tennis focused on Southern California. The game’s great stars – Tilden, Budge, Kramer, Gonzales, Laver, Smith, Ashe –flocked to the Los Angeles Tennis Club for the Pacific Southwest Tournament. Times changed, but Southern California remained a tennis mecca. Tourneys flourished in LA, Carlsbad and Carson.
But, as Indian Wells soared, one by one the other tourneys vanished. Southern California tennis lovers quietly mourned and asked what happened.
Then came COVID, with its wacky, unintended consequences: well-insured Wimbledon was canceled, the French Open was played twice in 8 months and Indian Wells wasn’t played over a two and a half year period.
Then this fall, when tennis couldn’t be played in Asia, there was a rare opening that Southern California tennis officials jumped on. After only six weeks of preparation, the San Diego Open at the celebrated Barnes Center emerged. Though “just” an ATP 250 tournament, the pop-up happening drew a dazzling array of players hungry for work, points and matches just prior to Indian Wells.
The Open’s draw was packed. The qualifying tourney featured two-time Slam finalist Kevin Anderson. The lowest main draw seed was No. 23. Six of the world’s top 15 players were on hand. Perhaps no small ATP tournament has ever featured so many big names – including former No. 1 Andy Murray and US Open semi-finalist Felix Auger-Aliassime.
Locals, who continually packed the stands, were hoping that two of their home-grown favorites, the powerful young veteran Taylor Fritz and the smooth, rising Brandon Nakashima, would prevail on their home turf. But sadly, that’s not exactly a San Diego tradition. Maureen Connolly’s greatest moments came on distant courts, and former top 10 CoCo Vandeweghe has had her share of woes at local tourneys. Yes, Nakashima did down the stylish Fabio Fognini, but then he was schooled by the Open’s top seed, Russian Andrey Rublev 6-2. 6-1. Taylor Fritz, despite a substantial early lead, lost to Denis Shapovalov.
Another curious San Diego tradition is the town’s sports connection with Great Britain. Don Budge, whose parents were Scots, eventually taught tennis to the greatest athlete ever to emerge from San Diego, baseball’s Ted Williams. And in 2014, Great Britain’s Davis Cup team came out of left field to dominate the US in an impromptu outfield stadium at the Padres’ Petco Park.
Early on at the Open, there was much talk about the gutsy Murray, who is playing with a metal hip and recently reached the quarterfinals in Metz, France. Going into the final, the Open still had a certain British accent. Not only did Brits Joe Salisbury and Neal Skupski win the doubles championship, the tourney was in significant measure a Norrie story. The left-handed Brit Cameron Norrie, ranked No. 29, beat another Brit, Dan Evans, and came from behind to shock tournament favorite Rublev in a stunning semi, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Similarly, one of the hottest players of the summer, Casper Ruud from frigid Norway, survived an over three-hour marathon against Grigor Dimitrov.
Norrie’s life has been a long and winding road. The 26-year-old was born in South Africa and grew up in New Zealand. A fun-loving kid, he went to college in Texas at TCU and now lives in London.
Ruud was born and still lives in Norway. He was trained by a Christian, his dad Christian, who’s the second best tennis player in Norwegian history. Casper did go off to the Nadal Tennis Academy, and he admires Rafa’s modest ways. “I would be happy,” he says, “if people called me humble.”
But this summer it’s been a challenge to stay humble. His homeland may be a tennis underachiever, but of late, Casper has been overachieving.
This summer, after losing in the first round at Wimbledon, he won three clay court titles in a row, gave the World Team in the Laver Cup a rude awakening when, in the first match of the competition, he beat Reilly Opelka handily, and he broke into the top ten.
Still, there were whispers: “He’s just a clay court player.” But those won’t be heard any more after Sunday’s final. While the Open had been filled with tight, dramatic battles, today Ruud imposed his almost flawless game.
It’s said that, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” Today Ruud showed the world all his strengths – his relentless forehand, his nasty slice backhand, his easy movement and his perennial calm, as he put a kind of Norwegian freeze on his British foe. “I’d use the word suffocating,” said commentator Russ Thaler. “He’s squeezing the tennis life out of Cameron Norrie.” No kidding. In just 28 minutes Ruud raced to a lopsided 6-0 first-set victory. The Brit briefly rallied to win a couple of second-set games, a short-lived spurt that saved him significant humiliation. In the end, in just an hour, the No. 2 seed Ruud prevailed, 6-0, 6-2. In five finals this year he’s never lost, and he’s won more tourneys than anyone else on tour.
Just before Rod Laver presented Casper with his trophy, he told an official, “This kid is the real thing.” So is San Diego tennis. In just a flash, fast-moving officials arranged for a world-class tournament that drew bright stars and happy fans. “This is not going to be the last time these players will be here,” said tournament organizer Jack McGrory. “I think the ATP realizes that we in San Diego can deliver. We deserve to have world class tennis in our town.”
That’s for sure.