Behind-the-scenes ‘rain delay’ fun of Monfils vs. Isner
What do you do in a rain delay at a tennis tournament? If you’re a player, you play scrabble, watch “Shark Week” or take a nap. If you’re a spectator, you get drenched unless you’re lucky enough to enjoy the downpour from your own private suite. If you’re media, you’re either productively working hard to get stories out … or you compete in the first ever Legg Mason Tennis Media Spelling Bee. There’s so much to do behind the scenes, you’re sure to enjoy passing the time somehow – even if the tennis has to wait.
Semifinal Saturday started out typically humid enough for Washington, D.C., but the grounds were abuzz as young American Donald Young was set for his first semifinal against the veteran Radek Stepanek. The match began at 3PM without a hiccup and ESPN2 was on hand to cover it. While showing signs of brilliance and creativity with his forehand, Young was just not experienced enough to close out big points and got broken three times on his serve. On his second match point, Stepanek hit a service winner to take the match, 6-3, 6-3.
The evening session was set to begin at 7PM and held the starpower of a final, with John Isner and Gaël Monfils as the marquee singles matchup. But the weather would not cooperate to allow a sensible start time. By the time the third game of the match was played at 10:30PM, the players had already warmed up three separate times – each time only getting a couple of points in before the heavens opened up again. Even at that hour, a great crowd was present. What was expected to be a pro-Isner crowd being on U.S. soil was surprisingly balanced, as people cheered for the acrobatics of Monfils nearly as much as for the aces of Isner.
Over the course of the evening, even though the rain hampered play it didn’t dwindle spirits. With the initial wave of torrential rain, the media tent (yes, a tent and not a concrete structure) began to flood with rain seeping in from the ground as well as dripping from the roof. Writers and photographers alike scrambled away from the edge of the tent to a more interior space trying to save their equipment and stay dry. I was ready to jump on a table and cover myself with an umbrella in case the whole tent decided to give way as had part of the corporate hospitality tent on the other side of the grounds.
Amidst the chaos, while Monfils mentioned that he and Isner watched “Shark Week” during the rain delay, Ben from the @DailyForehand planned an epic Legg Mason Media Tennis Spelling Bee. It was a single-elimination ATP name-spelling tournament featuring bloggers and reporters alike, including Lindsay (@linzsports), Jen (@RacquetRequired), Mariya (@MariyaKTennis), Kelyn (@KelynSoong), Nathalie from MiamiTennisNews, Jim from AFP Sports and myself (@TennisRomi). What started out innocently enough spelling Adrian Mannarino and Rui Machado, turned into an all-out battle between Mariya and me having to spell Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Diego Junqueira. I was down to Edouard Roger-Vasselin and I asked for a lifeline. But as there’s no on-court coaching in the ATP, I double-faulted misspelling his first name. Mariya outplayed me and won the coveted flower trophy. I got the cold Evian water as runner-up, but I didn’t mind; it was hot out.
As much fun as it was, the courts were dry and the players were back, warming up for the fourth time that evening. During the initial rain delay, Monfils seemed to take no notice of the rain as he jumped onto a wet outside court, hitting soaked balls with his coach in front of a small crowd. I’m not sure if that’ the smartest thing to do, but luckily he sprained no ankles and seemed to be in a good mood despite the situation.
But back on court, as both players got more comfortable and confident with their serves, the quality of play increased steadily. In the second game of the second set, the point of the tournament took place, seeing Isner repeatedly trying to put a ball away as Monfils did everything in his power to keep it in play: sliding, tumbling, sprinting and even switching to hit a left-handed forehand. The entertainer in him came out to play and he applauded “Johny” (as Monfils warmly referred to Isner in the press conference) for the point. Janko Tipsarevic was correct earlier in the week when he said that when you play Monfils “the point is never over until you see the ball bounce twice.” See the shot of the tournament below (at 1:44):
(YouTube video courtesy of ATPWorldTour)
In the fifth game of the second set, with Isner up 3-1, he sent a 107MPH serve down the middle, accidentally smacking a woman in the face who was sitting in the front row. As Isner grimaced upon contact, a gentleman sitting three chairs away from me shot up out of his seat as if he were Superman to the rescue and announced that he was an eye doctor, running clear across the stadium to help.
Isner later stated that he was told the woman was ok. Just prior the start of the next point, Monfils held his arms up and smiled at Isner as if to say “Please not me next!” During the changeover and on Isner’s next service game, Monfils turned to the crowd on the opposite end and warned them with a “Watch out.” As I was sitting on the baseline, I noticed the lady in front of me came prepared; she brought a 451-page book to use as a shield just in case. Not a bad idea at all for an Isner match.
As competitive as the points were, the players continued to be interactive with both each other and the crowd. While the crowd began to get drunk and feisty, the players had their own drama on court. On Monfils’ second match point, the most severe failure of Hawkeye line review technology in recent memory occurred. Monfils challenged an Isner ace thinking it was out. Unfortunately, the video could not be viewed and the original call stood. Monfils got slightly stirred up and throwing his racquet to the ground and planted his hands on his hips to contest. He began conversing with Mohamed Lahyani the chair umpire, as Mo called both players to cool off for a moment at their chairs mid-game. As Isner walked behind Monfils, Monfils turned around and gave “Johny” a big smile and fist-bumped him as if to say “It’s all good.” True sportsmanship from both men.
With a match that saw nearly every style of tennis on display, Monfils walked away the winner at 1:15AM on match point #3 in the third set tiebreak with a score of 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(6). Isner had this to say about Monfils’ ability to cover the court: “It’s a lot of pressure; he makes the court feel smaller. A lot of the time, he kind of forces you to go for the line, so you feel like that’s the only place you can get the ball past him.” The two had a personal moment at net as they embraced, smiling.
The match was reminiscent of their 2007 semifinal here in Washington, D.C. during Isner’s breakthrough summer, in which he called it as being one of his best and most memorable matches. There was only one key difference: Monfils walked away the winner this time.
Within fifteen minutes of the match being over, Monfils strolled through the media tent high-fiving a French cameraman and gave a thoughtful presser. What’s even more impressive is that Isner followed suit directly after. Not having won, he was down but not out, recalling that his confidence has multiplied in the past several weeks after having dismal results for much of the season.
And with the final ball played, the rain-filled Saturday was over at 2:00AM, and a new day would begin as Monfils was scheduled to take on Stepanek just 13 hours later for the championship match.
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