Another Typical Day Watching San Jose

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The ATP 250 tournament currently called the SAP Open, and currently hosted in San Jose, California, has been continuously operating in some form since 1889, making it the second oldest tennis tournament in the United States. The current edition will be its last. Next year the tournament relocates to Memphis.

One would hope that in its final year the SAP Open would make a strenuous effort to honor its golden past. If today was anything to go by, the tournament instead appears content merely to showcase its dreary present, and to illustrate just why it had to go.

Last Saturday night an attendee at the San Jose Sharks ice-hockey game tweeted their disbelief that within twenty-four hours the playing surface would be replaced by a tennis court. Attached pictures attested that the floor of the HP Pavilion was indeed composed of ice, and that the stands were packed with people. Really, one must have greater faith in modern technology. Stage-managing the set switch from a hockey rink to a tennis court is relatively easy to accomplish. Convincing the people to hang around, on the other hand, is apparently an insurmountable problem. As ever during the SAP Open, the stadium today looked like it had been converted into a storage facility for unused bleachers.

It is debatable whether the prevailing vibe is more depressed in San Jose than it was in Montpellier last week, which attained transcendent new levels of banality in striving to entertain its few attendees. (The best moment – if ‘best’ is the word – came when the court was invaded by a dance troupe pretending to be synchronized swimmers. Unfortunately for those of us watching, the impression was uncanny, achieving a manic exuberance unmatched anywhere outside of a North Korean military parade.) The SAP Open boasts nothing as overtly weird, although ones awareness that this is its last edition certainly helps to deflate proceedings. It didn’t have to, though: you’d hope the imminence of its loss would lend proceedings a bittersweet piquancy. But the organisers seem determined that blandness will prevail, at least until the weekend.

It shares every other current event’s penchant for incongruous and blaring music at the changeovers. This is staple fare during the slow month of February, and each region has its own preferred playlist, although the selection never seems quite to align with local tastes. Montpellier had a great time with ‘Part Time Lover’. San Jose differs in that fans may make requests of the DJ via Twitter. So far today I’ve heard Bon Jovi, Nickelback, Bruno Mars and Chumbawamba, among others. It is therefore theoretically possible to track down those responsible.

In the spirit of commercialism, the SAP Open periodically alleviates these pop-medleys by advertising local businesses. I now know that Blue Mango was recently voted best Thai restaurant in Silicon Valley, which will come in handy the next time I want to travel 8,000 miles for dinner. Admittedly the ads are intended for those in the stadium itself, but given that there were only about twelve people there today, I’m not convinced Blue Mango is seeing a decent return for its advertising dollar. Along with sparse attendance, the tournament has struggled with sponsorship for years. The impression, across the board, is that the event has been left to drift aimlessly for a good decade, a far cry from the days when Barry MacKay toiled tirelessly in its promotion. As ever, the whole thing feels provincial, and, despite its cavernous venue, cramped.

For those fans who unfortunately cannot attend in person – apparently nearly all of them – the television coverage hardly encourages them to tune in. It is seemingly directed by Terry Gilliam in full Twelve Monkeys mode, and assembled from whatever security footage he has at hand. The default camera is positioned along the doubles sideline on the umpire’s side of the court, on a shallow angle. This is periodically switched out for a useful low-angle behind the opposite baseline, or to another less-useful camera suspended from the ceiling. The perspective and the ends switch about restlessly, thereby making it easier to lose track of which player is which. I know this is the tournament’s last year, but could they not have positioned a camera in the conventional spot?

Ryan Harrison today was the tiny but vociferous figure who wasn’t wearing a hat, while Benjamin Becker was the one in white, with his hat turned backwards. Harrison was by all accounts unwell, although as far as I could make out from the bird’s nest vantage he was competing with undiminished gusto, especially when he fought to break back in the final set. The crowd went wild, although their meagre cheers were immediately drowned out by the sound system’s efforts to entertain them. Alas, Harrison was broken again immediately, and Becker eventually served out the match. The best points came at the end, as Harrison saved a couple of match points.

Jack Sock was clad in yellow, and like Becker wore a hat, which counts as a highlight. Marinko Matosevic was hatless, in white. Sock led by a break throughout much of the first set, lost it, then lost the set in a tiebreaker. Thereafter he lost interest, and soon afterwards, the match. The hatless Ryan Sweeting fared no better against the presumably be-goggled Denis Istomin (the security footage made it hard to be sure), losing in straight sets. Later on Tim Smyczek upset Fernando Verdasco, thus saving Milos Raonic the trouble.

It was thus a mixed day for the young American men, but a bad day for an old American tournament. At least for the former there is some hope that better days will come. For the San Jose tournament the best days, in which the world’s top players would do vigorous battle for a coveted title, are only fading memories. The ATP website put up a nice video to commemorate the passing, appropriately valedictory in tone, rich with recollection, and entirely contrasting with the limping haggardness of the event so far. Thankfully, they’ve planned something special for the weekend. I hope it’s an appropriate send-off.

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