Ann Benson arrived at the Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex Wednesday morning with no entourage in tow, no friends to watch her, and no one to warm up with before her semifinal match against Shikha Uberoi, a former Top 125 player in the world. Benson arrived in plenty of time and solitarily planted herself on a back court to hit a bucket of balls and warm up with nary a soul in sight. While roping a few forehands and backhands and working herself into a nice sweat, her concentrated look was mixed with a perma-grin that somehow seemed to say, ‘Pinch me, I’m in the semifinals of the US Open National Playoff Southwest Section Qualifying Tournament’.
Miraculously, Benson, a 63-year-old Oro Valley, Ariz. native, had advanced to her semifinal spot through the good fortune of a bye in the first round and a walkover in the second against an ill opponent. She hadn’t even put her strings to a single ball, yet here she was a mere match away from being granted a very unique opportunity, to advance to a top-level national final with a potential shot at a trip to the US Open Qualifying on the line. So when the clock struck 7:55 and Uberoi was still nowhere to be found, one had to wonder if Benson’s streak of luck would actually reach the finals of the US Open National Playoff Southwest Section Qualifying Tournament without her so much as having to break a sweat.
It didn’t happen, Uberoi showed and she swiftly and mercifully handed Benson a 6-0, 6-0 loss, losing less than a handful of points along the way. Every ball Uberoi hit found a corner or a line. Every ball Benson hit or managed to hit back found the sweet spot of Uberoi’s strings. It was the exact result you’d expect between a 3.0 NTRP rated woman who took up the game just five years ago against a professional opponent nearly 35-years younger, considerably more experienced, and near her physical peak. Yet, in the end, and despite the lopsided score, it was Uberoi who was taught the tennis lesson.
“The way (Ann) competed and tried so hard out there this morning really put a new perspective on things for me,” said Uberoi. “You’d never have known the score by how hard she was trying or smiling. It really made me think about the way I want to compete all the time when I come to the court.”
In those few words, Uberoi crystallized the dream this US Open National Playoff tournament represents to many of the players – male and female - here in Surprise this week. While the odds may be long and many matchups on paper may appear to be utter and complete mismatches, the story of a match isn’t enitrely told until two people have shaken hands and stepped off the court. It is the spirit of the fight and the will to compete that matters so much more than the final scoreboard. Without that, it’s all just data to enter into TennisLink.
“I just had a blast these last two days,” said Benson, who definitely would win the Most Spirited Award if such an award existed at this event. She smiled throughout her two days, fraternized with players and tournament personnel, and even got some words of advice from Grand Slam winner and Surprise Tennis & Racquet Complex tennis director John Austin this morning prior to her match.
“I didn’t even really do much on the court, but I was here and a part of this (inaugural tournament) and that was the most special part of the event for me, just to compete,” said Benson. “I actually got to play a player who has played Venus Williams on court! How many people can say that?“