It was a cool 77 degrees this summer afternoon at the LA Tennis Center at UCLA campus on Thursday, July 29th with a slew of 2nd round matchups on the schedule promising some good fighting and formidable challenges for top seeds. I reached the Grandstand for the first singles match between Mr. Beautiful, Feliciano Lopez taking on the Israeli Dudi Sela. Sela contested the first set with vigor taking it to a tiebreak, succumbing to Lopez 6-7 amidst a rancorous contingent of Israeli supporters in the crowd. Lopez, with his Spanish swagger of someone who has just created the Earth, looked out at spectators with that look of you-should-feel-privileged-to-be-in-the-same-hemisphere-as-me, was unfazed by the loud chants of Sela supporters going on to take the match in straight sets.
The next match pitted Latvian train wreck Ernest Gulbis against up and comer, Mr. I almost beat Federer at Wimbledon 1st round: Alejandro Falla. Gulbis is as much as an enigma as anyone on tour. He has a boat load of talent, a ripping, aggressive game; one of the best first serve and forehand one two punches around, and the captain doing all the steering is running around deck stumbling drunk, making choices that would make a Tennis mom wince. I just don’t understand it. Gulbis wins the first set comfortably, having never had his serve broken, and the first point of the second set he misses a forehand into the net, and the “other” Gulbis arises, turmoil legible in his stride, head sunken low, and constant looks to his coach’s box of dismay and dejection. I was seated next to a Latvian girl who was cheering Gulbis on in his language I assumed, and I couldn’t resist asking her, after Gulbis threw his racquet, (3 times total in the match) why he was so mad? She sheepishly replied, in a strong accent, “We all have temper from that part of the world.” Well, that temper led to a downward spiral that allowed Falla to relax and go for his shots, resulting in a plethora of mismanaged drop shots by Ernest who eventually fell to Falla in three sets. In the press conference afterward Gulbis began to look more like a young Cassius Clay than a Latvian up and comer. He was still fuming from the loss obviously, and maybe that had a lot to do with it, but hold back he did not. Questions parroted at him about his decision making and he snorted back with gusto. “It was a not a good match. I played terrible. I was really tired. I haven’t played for two months so I was not ready to win. If you don’t fish for two months, you going to catch fish?” The crowd seemed to bother Gulbis, especially in the third set tiebreaker, and he was quick to comment on the effect. “It bothers me. I can hear everything. When they boo me for throwing my racquet it is ridiculous. I am a professional. This is my job. I don’t go to your job and scream at you do I?” A very telling comment resonated with my observation of Gulbis and my overall assessment of his attitude. I always thought to myself, “This guy just hates to be out there. He does not look like he enjoys any bit of it, even when he wins.” My thoughts were confirmed when a reporter asked him if he had been enjoying his stay in Los Angeles. “There is no fun in tournament time, “ Gulbis said. “You play, you practice, you go hotel, eat, and then sleep. That is it.” I almost wanted to ask him where the invisible gun was that was pointed at your head?
The next match scheduled was a semi-injured James Blake, who has made it to the finals here before, taking on the stoic German Benjamin Becker. Blake has been a ghost on tour the last couple of years, the age wear showing more and more, and since 2008 watched his ranking drop out of the top 100. He had more to prove here than anyone. I actually picked Becker to take it in straight sets, but Blake didn’t read the script. As a matter of fact he burned it and wrote a whole new movie. With Celtic Superstar Kevin
Garnett watching (a friend of Blake’s), ‘All or Nothing’ James exhibited the hustle and fight of old, willing himself to victory, hitting his marks and paving his way to the Quarters with a straight set victory: 7-5, 7-6. In the press conference afterwards James said he felt better than ever. All of us press media awaited his arrival (he was twenty minutes late), and in he walked with a large bag of ice taped to his right knee. The first question was how the knee felt? James smiled and said, “On a pain scale of 1-10, it’s a one. It’s feeling better and better.” We shall see how it feels tomorrow, when he faces a confident Lopez aiming to make his deepest run.
The night match starred number four in the world, British hopeful, Andy Murray taking on American Tim Smyczek. The first set looked automatic for Murray. He looked like a potential grand slam winner, gliding across the court with ease, making all the right decisions, outwitting Smyczek, rotating between power shots and finesse, letting the tricks out of the bag at the perfect moment. Murray took the first set 6-1, and the energy of the crowd hushed and lulled. You could almost feel people planning their morning, drifting off from center court, texting and blackberrying, ready for an early departure. But Smyczek had other plans. He wasn’t going quietly into the night. He didn’t read the script either, and with brilliant movement and shot making took the second set 6-4, and the Los Angeles night crowd forgot about tomorrow and drifted back to center court with eagerness. This was a match again. Andy had never played this tournament before and maybe playing an American on foreign territory was getting to the Brit. I don’t think so. Murray, in his usual fashion, bounced back, employing all the maneuvering that got him to two grand slam finals, and put all the eagerness to bed with a comfortable 6-2 third set win, sending him to the Los Angeles night with a quarterfinal birth, where he will face Alejandro Falla.