You don’t have to be a seeded pro to participate in Austria’s organized tennis tournaments.
There are plenty of things I should be worrying about. There are the presidential elections here and in the U. S. for starters. But if I’m being truly honest, the niggling concern I can’t get out of my head right now is a problem with my backhand top-spin. The season is nearing its climax, and as I prepare for the weekend’s tournament, I know it’s one of my final chances to snatch a treasured spot in the finals of the Hobby Tennis Tour (HTT) this November at the tennis club UTC La Ville in the 23rd district.
After a bitter loss in a hard-contested semi-final match in Donaufeld in the 22nd district, I’ve been back at my home club in the 13th, training all week, pounding the red clay in the fading light of the autumn evenings, trying to iron out my technique. The tournament on Friday is on my mind: The day when tennis gets serious for hundreds of amateur players in Austria like me.
The sincerest form of flattery
The HTT is a sort of replica of the world tour organized by the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals), the governing body of tennis. Like its professional cousin, The HTT offers regular competitive tennis from January to November, with over 100 tournaments held in a variety of venues, from its Vienna heartlands to participating host clubs in Lower Austria, Carinthia and Tyrol.
The tour was the brainchild of Claus Lippert, a man of seemingly limitless reserves of patience, energy and enthusiasm; he spends 80-100 hours a week organizing the tournaments. “The biggest challenge is finding a schedule in which everyone who wants to play can play,” says Lippert, who is never seen without his blue tennis cap. “People have jobs or go to university, they have families.”
We can play because we know that Claus Lippert will make sure the draw accommodates our Saturday lunch date with the mother-in-law, or that unmissable concert on Friday night. The tour now caters to a
roster of over 1 000 players, and such flexibility is key to its appeal, along with a tiered entry system – with less prestigious “Challenger” and “Future” tournaments giving less-experienced or technically able players a chance to fight for titles against others of a similar level.
To give amateur players a feeling that reflects the atmosphere of the pros, the host venues are growing year by year. There are four Grand Slams per season, played on four different surfaces. An indoor Grand Slam held during the Australian Open is an early highlight, the French Open equivalent on clay takes place in the early summer, followed by a “Wimbledon” tournament on lightning-quick artificial turf. During September’s U. S. Open, there’s an HTT tournament in Maria Enzersdorf. These fixtures, the toughest in the HTT, offer the most points in the official ranking system, which mirrors the real-life ATP seeds.
The thrill of competition
This year, Lippert organized his landmark 1000th HTT tournament, a full 25 years after the very first: “I used to play regularly with a group of 10 friends and one day, someone suggested it would be fun to organize a tournament. So I did. It all grew from there.” During the early years, the series was an insider’s tip, the stable of regular players growing via word of mouth and a monthly newsletter produced by Lippert. But since the dawn of the internet the popularity of the HTT has exploded.
Clearly, Lippert had tapped into an unsated appetite for competitive tennis that goes beyond the handful of matches that the ambitious can play for their club teams every year in the traditional league system that stretches over weekends in May and June.
“I started playing because I wanted more than five competitive matches every year,” says 20-year-old Marcus Schischlik as he prepares for a quarter-final tie during a tournament at the Terra Rossa club in Vienna’s 17th district. “In order to get better and develop as a player, you need many more games.” Marcus has played over 60 matches this year and won two tournaments, but others fit in just a handful of competitions over the years. “It’s a great way to make your tennis more performance-orientated,” says Markus Göbel, a 19-year-old big-hitter who has just finished his 12th match of the season, “and I like the atmosphere. It is competitive but not that serious.”
It’s taking part that counts
The host clubs are benefiting, too. Tennis underwent a boom during the dominance of Austria’s former World Number 1, Thomas Muster, but participation has dwindled since those glory days of the 1990s. Some clubs are even finding their courts empty during prime time. The arrival of 50 to 100 players for a tournament provides welcome revenue, particularly when the players quench their thirst in the club bar afterwards in triumph or commiseration. And the shared post-match beer with a rival-turned-newly-made-friend is, for many players, the key to the experience.
That said, you’ll see plenty of racquet throwing if you attend a match day at the HTT and you’ll hear cries of triumph and joy as the players are taken on the emotional roller-coaster ride of competitive tennis. You think you’re immune but you’re not. I’ve caught myself fist-pumping the air and, like my hero Andy Murray, screaming “Come on!” after a hard-fought rally in a tense third set – only to look across the net, see my opponent and feel a hint of shame. I’m not playing world number one Novak Djokovic but rather a teenage boy playing beautiful, elegant tennis and being out-muscled by an over-ambitious mid-30s journeyman who desperately wants his hands on a shiny trophy.
But the fantasy is also the joy: The dream of playing tennis like our heroes. Perhaps the young players on their newly founded junior tour will use the competitive experience and inspiration to go on to emulate Dominic Thiem and Muster as Austria’s future stars. For those of us who know our tennis dreams will always remain confined to our heads, we still have the joy of matching ourselves against each other, knowing that if we lose, we can go back to our clubs, practice hard and have our revenge next weekend or the weekend after. Or perhaps the weekend after that.
Hobby Tennis Tour
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