Getting Real Close in New Haven

by Nicholas McCarvel

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Sara Errani plays a pretty mean game of tennis. Table tennis, that is.

Tuesday afternoon the tournament’s top seed was all smiles, thwacking balls on the ping pong table with New Haven Open at Yale fans. Tournament emcee Wayne Bryan booms over the mic as a crowd of onlookers closes in. Errani might not look like the most intimidating force on tour, but make no mistake: she doesn’t lose a “match” to any of the three civilian participants that take her on in a friendly battle of table tennis.

From the intimate outer courts to in-person autograph visits and getting courtside at Stadium Court, the biggest stars of the WTA are so close you can touch them – almost – throughout the week, giving Connecticut tennis fans a unique experience that is hard to find at bigger tournaments throughout the year.

As Errani signs a few more autographs – including one on the ping pong table itself – Sloane Stephens is a few hundred feet away, pummeling forehands on a practice court as a dozen fans line the fence, catching a glimpse at the American No. 2.

“She hits the ball so hard,” a woman in a sun hat whispers to her friend.

“Just like you,” the other says, winking with her words.

I have covered tennis on a regular basis over the last year, traveling to New York and Australia and Paris and London to write on some of the biggest stars. But seeing them up close, being courtside as they execute their craft, is still something that is a cause for pause for me.


Stephens, at just 20 years old and with a personality as bright as the fluorescent orange dress she’s wearing in New Haven this week, is a prime example. Her forehand, the stroke that helped her take down Serena Williams at the Australian Open earlier this year, is hit with thunderbolt force when she connects with it right, the ball cascading over the net and rocketing off the hard court. It’s this shot that could make her the next Grand Slam champion from the U.S., even if she might need a few years to win it. It’s this week that Stephens is aiming for her first-ever WTA title, now a lock inside the top 20.

That night Martina Hingis took to Stadium Court for her doubles match in New Haven, over a decade after her sole appearance here in singles in 2002, when she lost in the quarterfinals. Though Hingis lost her doubles, she stayed around for a long while following the conclusion of the match, answering calls of “Martina! Martina!” and “Sign this, please!” from kids and adults alike.

“You’re the best!” One little boy says, reaching out an oversized tennis ball towards the newly-minted Hall of Famer as she runs her Sharpie across it with big, loopy letters. At 32, Hingis has perhaps signed as many autographs as she has hit tennis balls in her career, which has now spanned nearly two decades.

As Hingis is wrapping up her match, Liezel Huber, the defending doubles winner and holder of 53 career doubles trophies (including seven majors), heads to the same ping pong table that Errani had been at earlier, high-fiving the surrounding fans as she arrives.

“How are you?” Wayne Bryan asks over the mic.

It’s then that Huber grabs the mic herself, ever the expressive one, and calls out, “Let’s do this!” to applause from those gathered. Smiles spread across the faces of the kids awaiting – autographs and table tennis-playing for all.

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