Until this weekend, I’d only ever seen a 120-mile-per-hour tennis serve on television. On TV, you can easily track the ball, and there are radar guns that display the speed on monitors to tell you just how fast it went. But at the 2023 Elizabeth Moore Sarasota Open, which just finished its eight-day long tournament at the Payne Park Tennis Center on Sunday, I was so close to match that I could feel the air the ball displaced around it.

This year’s Sarasota Open was no small operation. There were ball boys and line judges and DJs and a platoon of volunteers scurrying about in the heat and rain. Courts 4, 5 and 6 were converted into a bleacher for general admission, while the center court was reserved for the action and a VIP lounge.

I was a guest of Elizabeth Moore, this year’s tournament title sponsor, so I got the VIP treatment. This meant access to a tent that had a $337,440 Bentley parked in the center and served caviar and cucumber sandwiches and the occasional glass of Champagne. 

Saturday began with the doubles final match. I’m sorry to all the pickleball lovers out there, but watching tennis will always be superior to the hot new sport sweeping the nation. Even doubles tennis, which isn’t known for its popularity, is light years more enjoyable. 

In the doubles final, English players Julien Cash and Henry Patten defeated their Argentine challengers, though all four were rewarded with trophies designed by local artist Jorge Blanco. You might recognize Blanco’s abstract, primary colored sculptures from our local roundabouts. His trophy design was a yellow figure with a half-moon face in full stretch with a tennis racquet in a hand. 

After the match, Moore took the court in the midday heat to give tribute to local tennis legend, Nick Bollettieri, who passed away in December. Bollettieri founded the Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy, which trained top tennis pros like Andre Agassi, Venus and Serena Williams and Monica Seles. That tennis academy became IMG Academy, one of the premier sports training facilities in the country. 

“Nick was one of my greatest heroes and friends,” Moore said to the silent crowd. “He was the reason I moved to Sarasota.” Moore’s children trained at Bollettieri’s tennis academy and she quickly developed a close relationship with the famed tennis coach, even after her kids stopped playing. Moore remembers Bollettieri for his unquenchable desire to be involved at every level, and recalled how even at last year’s tournament, at 91 years old, he was busy running around talking to everyone. “One of the last things Nick said to me was how he didn’t want to go because he was just going to miss everyone so much,” Moore said. 

On Sunday morning, the gates opened at 11 a.m. Sunday morning. The crowd was thicker for the day’s final matches, and it was hotter than the day before, but every once in a while you’d catch a nice breeze. I got to sit at an Ultra VIP Champagne table with Moore. We were right up against the side of the court. It was most certainly the best seat I will ever have at a sporting event in my life. 

The finals match was between last year's champion, Daniel Elahi Galan of Colombia, and his challenger, the German Daniel Altmaier. While not household names, they’ve each been as ranked as high as 67th and 53rd and in the world, respectively, and Galan famously ousted Stefanos Tsitsipas in last year’s U.S. Open.

Being ranked in the top 100 in the world is no small feat. I cannot emphasize how different players at this level are from mere mortals like the rest of us. They are aliens who move with graceful efficiency and have grotesquely large forearms from the millions of balls they have hit. And that day, they played in near-historic heat. It was 88 degrees with 58 percent humidity, and my phone said it felt like 93 degrees. There were no clouds in the sky. 

When the match began, I didn’t know who to root for. They were evenly matched players with slightly different styles. The 6’3 Galan was more of a classical serve and volley type, while Altmaier was a baseline returner.Between plays, Galan moved slowly and showed little emotion. Altmaier was all bounce and energy, and a little bit grumpier when things didn’t go his way. He would look over to the VIP section with faint scorn when it got a little too chatty. 

The first set was spectacular. There were a handful of rallies that went for 20 shots each. Galan seemed to be poised to win. It looked like his serve might be too big for Altmaier to handle. But Altmaier got his racquet on absolutely every ball. It’s really something else seeing this level of tennis so close. Clay from the Har-Tru courts kicked up, and each player returned balls that seemed impossible to me. I had remember to close my mouth, my jaw was dropped so low. In the end, Altmaier raised the Jorge Blanco finals trophy. 

After the match, I ran into Sarasota's former mayor, Hagen Brody. “Sarasota is a tennis town,” he told me. “It suits the nature of our community, so we should embrace it. We’re never going to have a pro football team.”

Elizabeth Moore, the City of Sarasota and many others are keeping Nick Bollettieri’s tennis legacy alive through the Sarasota Open. I expect the open to continue to grow. While we may not ever achieve the high status of a Wimbledon or a Monte Carlo, our tournament provides an intimate encounter with professional tennis that no other one offers. 

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