The weather in San Jose may have been unusually cold and wet today – even for February, but that didn’t stop things from proceeding exactly as planned at the HP Pavilion, where the first day of the SAP Open finished up at ten minutes before midnight, when big-serving Kevin Anderson prevailed over Grigor Dimitrov in a third set tiebreak. Dimitrov had come out on fire, but once the tall South African found his serving rhythm in the second set, neither player could manage a break, and when it comes to tiebreaks, being able to rely on a booming serve like Anderson’s can make all the difference.
The highlight of the evening had been earlier, when the legendary John McEnroe took to the court, along with the talented and top-seeded Gael Monfils to play doubles, each paired with a young American. McEnroe partnered with Jack Sock, while Monfils played with NCAA champion Steve Johnson. The exhibition match had its roster changed around due to the withdrawals before the tournament, but neither the B-team players nor the weather outside could dampen the audience’s enjoyment of Johnny Mac displaying plenty of his signature magic at the net.
Monfils got up to plenty of showmanship as well, with his own brand of shots behind the back, between the legs, and hang time smashes, not to mention plenty of diving and sliding around the court, in his inimitable fashion. Sock and Johnson each acquitted themselves admirably, both serving and volleying with more precision that you might expect from a pair so inexperienced at tour level. Sock has perhaps a bit more firepower and a bit more flare than the USC Trojan, but everyone in attendance was left confident that both players ought to have long and successful pro careers ahead of them.
Of course, it was McEnroe who was the main draw of the evening, and he did not disappoint. He served exceptionally well, going so far as to thank the operator of the radar gun when one of his serves hit the 126 mph mark, which he claims to have been a first for him. McEnroe turns 53 on Thursday (the crowd regaled him with a rendition of “Happy Birthday”) but his ability to hit pinpoint volleys from seemingly impossible positions and to place them perfectly on the other side of the court remains unmatched in the modern game. The crowd also got the result they wanted from the match, with McEnroe and Sock prevailing in two tight sets, 6-4, 6-4. There were even some theatrics involving the line calls and the challenge system, but it all seemed to be in good fun.
After the match, McEnroe fielded questions about the state of the game today and the surprises of his post-playing tennis career. He explained how thankful he was to have come to enjoy these sorts of exhibitions as well as his time as a broadcaster, two things which he never thought he would have wanted to continue doing, while he was playing. He also discussed his movie and TV roles, and marveled at how many people recognize him from his appearances in Adam Sandler movies, without being aware that he was originally a tennis player.
When it came to his take on the modern tennis game, he once again touched on how spoiled the United States had been up until the current generation, and what needed to be done to get an American player vying for grand slam titles, again. McEnroe touted Sock as a future top ten player, but he had more to say about what he is currently trying to accomplish at his tennis academy in New York. It was his opinion that the current trend in junior development which forces young players to devote themselves almost exclusively to tennis inevitably leads to burnout. He believed that a more rounded development process would ultimately be more successful, but he recognizes he’s in the minority, even finding himself in disagreement with his own brother, who is the head of the USTA player development program.
I guess time will tell.
When it came to the other matches during the day session, it was not a great day to be a former junior world number one. Two of them were in action in the final round of qualifying, and neither managed to win a set. Ricardas Berankis, who reached the quarterfinals in this tournament last year but has been struggling with a leg injury, was forced to retire against Tim Smyczek. Yuki Bhambri, another great junior player who has been struggling to make the transition to the pro level, fell to collegiate tennis player Dennis Lajola, of the University of Hawaii. It marks the first time that Lajola has ever successfully qualified into the main draw of an ATP event, and he has a chance to go even further, since he meets another qualifier in the first round tomorrow.