The Featured Match on the daily draw sheet handed to fans entering the racquet club was Kei Nishikori vs. Mikhail Kukushkin. Nishikori had won their previous four meetings, and would prevail in this one as well, hitting shots that had the Kazakhstani player standing with his hands on hips, shaking his head at the ball he hadn’t expected to come back over the net.
Kukushkin did get the better of Nishikori now and then, reeling him in for some errors at the net, and the crowd applauded his winners as well as Kei’s. Find more pictures here.
For over fifteen years, Japanese and Tennessean corporate, cultural, and political movers and shakers have discussed ways of bringing Japanese talent and tourists to the southeastern United States and vice versa, which has in turn contributed to current opportunities for expatriates, emigrants, and enthusiasts in the Volunteer State to partake of Japan-related events. Nashville has hosted a cherry blossom festival every April since 2009, with the goal of planting a thousand cherry trees in the city by 2019. Japanese firms have contributed over 13 billion dollars to economic development in Tennessee, resulting in more than 35,000 jobs (disclosure: I am related to longtime members of the Japan-America Society of Tennessee). There is a Japanese Language School in Memphis and a biannual Bon festival at the Botanic Garden.
And, Kei Nishikori keeps coming back to Memphis in February, and he keeps winning. This brings journalists from Japan…
scholars from Indiana University…
and families from near and far, with signs in English and Japanese:
The main court (aka Stadium) at the Racquet Club of Memphis can be simultaneously intimate yet spacious. Even the uppermost rows of the bleachers aren’t that far from the court — in fact, a couple of fans told me they didn’t get around to sitting in their assigned spots because they felt they could see more of the court from further up.
That said, during the marquee matches, fans were encouraged to compete for courtside seats by demonstrating how much noise they could make during the changeover between games three and four. The winners were then reseated in the Stash Home Furnishings box, which was right behind the player(s) seated to the chair umpire’s left, with leather armchairs, champagne, and snacks. This couple had previously been sitting high above the baseline to the right of the main entrance; they are now behind Mikhail Kukushkin’s chair.
This isn’t to say things don’t get crowded or congested — just ask folks trying to leave right after a match. But to date, the stands are rarely filled to capacity (there’s been only one match where I couldn’t find a seat, and that was Maria Sharapova vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands in 2010), and it’s usually OK to discreetly move down a few rows or find a more congenial spot if, for example, a nearby stranger literally cannot hold their liquor (an incident I heard about from an Arkansas fan — after the third spilled glass, she opted to move, stating that while she herself liked wine, she wasn’t interested in wearing it).
At any rate, no matter where you end up sitting in Stadium, you get to hear and see quite a bit. The crowds this year were supportive of both American and foreign players, applauding great points no matter who played them. While the majority of players aren’t household names, they are still among the best 200 in the world; while the disparity in skills and experience is often notable (2010 champion Sam Querrey is in a different league than qualifier Yoshihito Nishioka, Kei Nishikori likewise significantly better than Kukushkin, and Challenger circuit habitues Wesley Koolhof and Matwe Middelkoop no real threat to Querrey paired with Steve Johnson), the lower-ranked players are still capable of powerful rallies, astonishing volleys, and wicked serves that kick into the stands, which means that even the straightforward straight-set not-really-in-doubt matches can be fun to watch, rewarding spectators with fantastic points to ooh and aah over.
The Friday afternoon session started at 3:00 p.m. I was able to catch the final set of the Benjamin Becker vs. Taylor Fritz quarterfinal on Stadium. It was chaired by Australian silver badge umpire Simon Cannavan, who has a deep, resonant voice (shown here following a ball as it hit the ceiling):