Shannon Russell reports:
One of Cincinnati’s own is coming home to play in the Western & Southern Open.
Nicole Gibbs wasn’t in the city long – her family moved to Cleveland when she was 3 and later relocated to California – but she was introduced to tennis here as a toddler. Her dad, Paul, often placed her playpen courtside while he hit balls with a partner.
Gibbs, 19, now returns as the reigning NCAA champion in singles and doubles and a soon-to-be Stanford junior.
“I’m so excited. I’ve wanted to play this event for years not only because it’s in my hometown and home state, but because it’s such an exceptional event,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs was awarded a qualifying wild card, meaning she’s among 48 women’s hopefuls competing for one of 12 spots in the WTA Premier 5 tournament’s main draw. She must win both of her weekend matches at the Lindner Family Tennis Center to advance.
W&S Open tournament director Vince Cicero said Gibbs’ ties to the area are a good subplot, but she was extended a wild card because of her achievements on the court.
“I think the NCAA champion is always someone we’re going to look at when our tournament rolls around,” Cicero said.
Gibbs battled 120-degree on-court temperatures while playing up to five sets daily in the NCAA championships in Athens, Ga. in May. After winning both singles and doubles championships she became only the third player in NCAA history to clinch both titles the same season.
Less than two months later she notched her first WTA win in the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford. Gibbs’ reward? A match against 14-time Grand Slam singles champ Serena Williams.
“That was incredible for me. She’s one of my heroes, always has been,” Gibbs said.
Paul Gibbs described it as a dream come true for his daughter, a one-time ball girl for Serena and her elder sister, Venus, in an exhibition tour that stopped in Cleveland.
Serena Williams dispatched Nicole Gibbs 6-2, 6-1 at Stanford and went on to repeat as champion. The experience was invaluable, Gibbs said, because of the confidence it gave her to compete at that level.
Gibbs enters the W&S Open ranked 309th. She plans to work on that ranking now and in the fall in hopes of putting herself in position for the Australian Open qualifiers.
“(The W&S) is going to be a very, very difficult and intense tournament. I’m trying to come in without too many expectations,” Gibbs said.
Paul Gibbs couldn’t be prouder. While his wife, Leslie, and other daughter, Shannon, will be rooting for Nicole from afar this week, he looks forward to seeing the next step in her tennis journey.
“I keep pinching myself,” Mr. Gibbs said of Nicole’s successes. “It doesn’t seem real because to me, she’s just my daughter … It’s been quite an amazing ride.”
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