This piece was originally published by Smile Politely on May 23, 2022.
Fifteen dollars and two cents gets me a half tank of gas. I head to the Atkins Tennis Center in Urbana, Illinois, to watch the women from the top-seeded University of North Carolina take on the number four seed University of Texas at the semifinals of the 2022 NCAA Division I Tennis Championships.
Parking is free, but I soon find out there is a charge to watch the action. As I’m about to try out my Smile Politely credentials to get in, the lady at the front gate hands me a free, unused ticket, which someone gave to her earlier in the day. I check the cost of the ticket: $15. Love-love, I think, remembering the price of the gas. All tied up.
Google says it’s in the mid-60s, but that seems off. With the wind blowing at 11 to 12 miles per hour at different points, it’s chilly in a short-sleeved shirt. Rain has fallen most of the day, and things appear ominous this early evening. The surrounding clouds look low, fluffy, and full.
Given the weather, I expected the Saturday competition to be indoors. I’m pleasantly surprised, therefore, to see that everyone is outside. Balls are popping off racquets and the crowd is into the doubles play. The lighting around the courts offers a stark contrast to the enveloping gray clouds.
This isn’t like a football or basketball game, where you focus solely on one field or court. Six tennis courts line the south side, and three of them — courts one, three, and five — are in use. It doesn’t take long to notice the Texas fans and players are more vocal than the North Carolina ones. A retiree next to me named Greg, from Tucson, laughs when I tell him this. He relates to me that he’s in town for a “tennis reunion” with three other guys he used to work and play tennis with.
“It’s the first time I’ve been to a collegiate [tennis] event and it’s louder than I expected,” Greg said. “To me, the fans go crazy, but that’s cool. A lot of family members are here watching their kids’ dreams come true, so that’s fun. And it’s good tennis. Very good tennis.”
“A lot of family members are here watching their kids’ dreams come true, so that’s fun. And it’s good tennis.”
With round barns stationed in the distance, just off St. Mary’s Road, the women play hard and with intensity, at a championship level, as if also competing against the possible downpour that could happen any minute.
Soon I forget about the potential rain and observe the mesmerizing rallies across all courts. Serves and forehands get sliced. Some balls barely clear the net but somehow do make it over — that never ceases to transfix me. The players grunt after hits, just like on TV. Different parts of the crowd erupt in cheers for players on a court away from the one I’m watching. All action, all the time.
On the north courts, both the women and men from the visiting NCAA teams have been hitting balls in a low-key but semi-focused way. I sense it’s less a practice than a way to stay limber and dialed in between meaningful games. Or perhaps the athletes are just looking for something to do.
After about an hour, the play transitions to singles. Now all six courts are being used. A North Carolina player named Fiona Crawley yells out “Here we go, Heels!” after winning her first set 6-0 on court four. But things get tight in the second set, and I’m starting to think the match could reach three sets. That’s when the rain finally hits, breaking play. Under my umbrella, I watch as most of the crowd and the competing athletes head inside the facility, where the games will resume. Some move toward the parking lot, perhaps leaving.
Crawley ended up winning her match 6-0, 6-4 against Charlotte Chavatipon, and I later learned she has the most singles wins in Division I women’s tennis this season with 43. But as a team, North Carolina lost 4-2 to Texas.
Some locals may remember the University of Illinois hosting this same tournament at Atkins in 2013. Here’s hoping it happens again someday because, as Greg said, it really is outstanding tennis.
Photos by Sal Nudo.