Tennis players are used to hopping among some of the world’s most exciting cities, but during the Western & Southern Open, they find a different sort of sizzle.
The tournament, also known as the Cincinnati Masters, is 23 miles northeast of downtown Cincinnati and is the lone suburban stop for most of the world’s best players, forcing them to adapt to staples of American life. Among those staples is a restaurant that has served as an anchor of player life since it opened in 1997: Applebee’s.
Tucked next to a Marriott that serves as an official hotel of the tournament, Applebee’s has been packed by players for years, not only for its reliable food, but also for its convenience and long hours. The restaurant is open until 1 a.m., making it the lone option for those playing long matches during night sessions.
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After winning a late-night semifinal in 2011, Jelena Jankovic found herself at Applebee’s, and she was followed moments later by Andrea Petkovic, her her opponent. “Starving, there’s no food, then me and my opponent, we were in Applebee’s, half asleep,” she said, closing her eyes and miming shoving food into her mouth.
Applebee’s often becomes an intersection for those who have played, are soon to play or are related to those about to play.
After winning a doubles match Tuesday, Robert Lindstedt waited at the bar for a carryout order. Jamie Murray, part of the team Lindstedt and his partner had beaten that day, ate at a table near the door, his eyes locked on a screen showing a women’s match that was rounding out the day’s play. In a nearby booth, João Sousa ate with two friends. His next opponent was Murray’s brother, Andy.
No tables available
Eugenie Bouchard, 20, who reached the Wimbledon final in July, dragged her coach, Nick Saviano, from their hotel to the restaurant on the eve of the tournament. “I wanted to go there; I’m the one who pushed him,” she said. “He thinks he’s maybe too classy for that, but I was like, ‘Applebee’s is great, you know?’ ”
When they arrived at 7:45 on Sunday evening, there were no tables available, so they ate at the bar. “He wasn’t a fan that we sat at the bar, but I thought that was cool, too,” Bouchard said. “We didn’t have to talk. Let’s just watch TV and eat.”
During the tournament, a majority of the seven televisions that encircle the bar at the center of the restaurant are tuned to tennis, though Cincinnati Reds baseball games and preseason football are also regularly on.
John Isner, the highest-ranked American man, defends American culture to European players when the tour rolls through Mason – the tournament’s home for the last 35 years – assuring them that baseball is interesting and that the food is delicious.
“I always say Carrabba’s has great Italian food to a couple of the Italians, and they look at me and laugh,” he said of another restaurant in Mason. “I still stand by that. I don’t know, I think it’s easy. Everybody has their own car, it’s easy to drive here. You’re not fighting awful traffic and mopeds and all sorts of the stuff in Rome.”
Isner wins a much higher percentage of his matches in the United States than in tournaments abroad. He said that his ease with the surroundings of places like Mason translated to on-court success.
“I’m super comfortable; I think most Americans are,” he said of staying in Mason. “I prefer Cincinnati, personally, over a tournament like Madrid or something. For me, it’s better. There’s a lot to do here, in my opinion.”
Ivan Ljubicic, a retired Croatian player who played in Mason 10 times, now travels the tour as Milos Raonic’s coach.
That week of the year
“Especially coming from Europe, when I eat my first meal at Applebee’s, I feel. …,” Ljubicic said, puffing out his cheeks and holding his arms out to indicate the width of a sumo wrestler. Then he added, “But the desserts are fantastic, it has to be said.”
Just as players adapt to Applebee’s, Applebee’s must adapt to players. Before the tournament began, the restaurant’s manager made a special trip to buy a case of Perrier, which he said customers order only during this week of the year.
Among those asking for Perrier was Karin Knapp, an Italian who superstitiously went to Applebee’s for three straight nights as she kept winning, refueling with steak and chicken dishes while relaxing in an environment she found foreign but enjoyable.
“In Italy, you don’t have so many televisions around,” she said. “We enjoy it.”
Not everyone is satisfied with Mason’s offerings. Maria Sharapova rented a house during the tournament and has been cooking much of her food there.
“It’s really slim pickings here, in terms of the healthy options,” she said.