Tennis With a Twist

Around 11:30 PM at Madison Square Garden a tan Rory McIlroy, the newly crowned #1 golfer in the world, stood quietly and practically unnoticed in the back of a crowded press room.  All eyes were on his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, as she talked about dragging McIlroy onto the tennis court earlier that evening to play a point against Maria Sharapova. “He was not too pleased with me but at least he can say he played tennis at Madison Square Garden. Not a lot of people can say that.,” she laughed.  Later in the same press conference Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were asked what they thought of the breakout New York Knicks player Jeremy Lin.  Federer, who has been overseas the past month, was well aware of “Linsanity”, and said he hoped to watch (Lin) play at the Garden one day. Roddick had actually used Lin’s locker before the exhibition that night and said he might have to “send (Lin) a thank-you note” after his victory.

Tennis, meet pop culture. Pop culture, meet tennis.

Amidst all of the scheduling, length-of-season, and injury dramas in the WTA and ATP these days, exhibition matches are often frowned upon.  But last night’s 5th Annual BNP Paribas Showdown’s Tennis Night in America showed exactly why they’re an integral part of the game.  Andy Roddick put it best when he said, “I’m not sure how 18,000 (spectators) in the most famous venue in the world watching our sport can be a bad thing. I think it’s a great thing. There are a lot of people (in the media center) who don’t cover tennis on a regular basis and it will be out there tomorrow. I think it’s a huge positive for our sport.”

The evening started at 7:30 when world #2 Sharapova and world #4 Wozniacki stood (under spotlights) on opposing ends of the court on top of blue light-boxes as sparklers flew behind them and Katy Perry’s “Firework” blasted from the stadium speakers. This was not going to be your average night of tennis.  However, during the first set Wozniacki and Sharapova battled like the match was taking place a few miles east and a few months later at Flushing Meadows. They were laser-focused, engaging in sharp rallies, and playing very aggressive tennis (yes, even Wozniacki). There was barely even the hint of a smile.

Things changed in the second set. In the break between sets Sharapova, Wozniacki, and the chair umpire talked and giggled (yes, even Sharapova). Later, after the girls exchanged leads, Wozniacki decided to kick things up a notch.  During a changeover she took a young girl from the audience and began dancing with her. Never one to be outdone, Sharapova then took an older man from the audience and danced with him. When the music stopped and it was time for tennis again the boisterous New York crowd made it known they weren’t ready for the fun to stop. Wozniacki- an expert at milking a moment of fun-  knew exactly what to do. She went into the crowd and fetched McIlroy. At first it seemed like the couple were just going to dance, but then she put the tennis racket in his hand and created a blockbuster moment- he actually played a point against Maria Sharapova.

After losing the point to McIlroy (“He won more points (against me) than Caroline did!” Maria joked), Sharapova would go on to serve out the match and fairly easily defeat Wozniacki 6-3 6-4.

Then, around 9:00PM, it was time for the men (professional tennis players, not golfers) to take over. Andy Roddick and Roger Federer are clearly no strangers to each other, New York, or the big stage. The two have played twenty-three times- seven times in the semis or later of a Grand Slam-  with Federer holding the infamous 21-2 lead in their head-to-head.  But this time was different. It’s Roddick’s home country and Roddick was born to comically entertain a large crowd.  In the first set alone Roddick got Ben Stiller’s autograph, tossed a racket after a failed tweener, reacted mockingly to a foot-fault call from the crowd, and did a spot-on impersonation of Rafael Nadal.

Impersonations and jokes aside, Roddick played some crafty, powerful tennis, and most importantly looked healthier and moved better than he has in months.  Federer, fresh of a victory and a plane-ride from Dubai, also played some brilliant points but the American was just a tad looser and sharper than his adversary this night. With the near-capacity crowd hanging onto every point Roddick upset the Swiss Legend 7-5 7-6 (7).

After the match it was all jokes and respect between the two. Roddick quipped that he “must be in Federer’s head,” and said that the 16-time Grand Slam Champion “clearly isn’t very good under pressure”. Federer seemed pleased that Roddick is playing well again, saying “it is good to see (Roddick) play so well and hopefully he can make another run at the top-10.”

There’s no telling what the tour-level significance of these matches will be. Is Wozniacki going to actually employ the more aggressive techniques she displayed tonight at Indian Wells? Will Sharapova stay loose and serve-quip free from now on? Can Roddick build on this momentum and make another run at the Top 10? Will Federer ever survive the humiliation?  Only time will tell.  But last night 18,079 people in person and countless others on sketchy streams around the world got to say they saw Andy Roddick beat Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova laugh and dance, and the best golfer in the world play tennis.  Tennis has had many memorable Monday nights, but none quite like this one.