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Rafael Nadal breaks through as Andrea Petkovic gets hit by injury — The Friday Five

Andrea Petkovic rolls her right ankle in her match against Victoria Azarenka (Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images)

By Maud Watson

Breakthrough

Having already won the title seven consecutive times, an eighth Monte Carlo crown for Nadal would have seemed more of a given than a breakthrough. As he ended a seven-match skid against rival Djokovic, however, his victory took on added importance. Nadal played flawless tennis all week, served better than he has in recent memory, and perhaps best of all (and not surprisingly), we saw no evidence of knee problems during his play. Suffice it to say, Nadal is firing on all his legendary clay court cylinders, and it will take something special to derail him on the dirt. But the extent of his breakthrough against Djokovic is difficult to measure and dependent on a couple of factors. First and foremost is how much belief Nadal takes from the victory. He justifiably should be proud of last week’s performance, but he also knows his opponent was playing well below the level that had earned him seven straight victories over the Spaniard. The second factor is Djokovic himself. Djokovic was bleeding errors, and he was unable to apply any pressure on Nadal due to his inability to keep the match even remotely tight that day. Had Djokovic been closer to his own top level, it would have been interesting to see if Nadal’s aggressive tactics would have paid dividends so consistently, as well as if he would have stuck by them rather than reverting back to his comfort zone of merely grinding it out. Just as people tend to put an asterisk by Nadal’s 2009 Roland Garros loss, the same logic could easily apply to last weekend. In short, it was a phenomenal week and achievement by Nadal with his eight consecutive tournament titles at a top tier event – a feat unlikely to be matched in our lifetime or ever. But for my money, Nadal is going to have to clip Djokovic again – with the Serb playing at his own top level – to truly cement a breakthrough.

Valiant Effort

Presumably to honor his recently deceased hero and grandfather, Vladimir, who taught him to “always fight,” Djokovic opted to play out Monte Carlo rather than withdraw. Throughout the tournament, he produced subpar play that saw him squeak by Dolgopolov and narrowly escape Berdych in the semis. He wasn’t as fortunate against Nadal in the final, and that loss is a consequence he’ll have to live with based on his decision to continue playing the event. But how bad is that consequence really? If anything, it may prove a positive in the long run. His final press conference reminded me much of Federer’s frankness when dissecting a match. He recognized his vanquisher’s superior play but also noted what anyone who watched the match already knew – his heart wasn’t in it, and his play suffered as a result. He knows he can easily mentally write this one off. And who knows? If the two meet again this clay court season, especially if they square off in the Roland Garros final, having his win streak snapped earlier may take some of the pressure off of the Serb’s shoulders.

Cruel Twist of Fate

It’s hard not to feel just a bit sorry for Andrea Petkovic. She had hoped to finally get her 2012 campaign off the ground in her German homeland, but fate was cruel. After a straight-set defeat of countrywoman Kristina Barrois, she had the unenviable task of facing No. 1 Victoria Azarenka. After losing the first set, she battled back in the second to level things at four-all in what was turning out to be a very entertaining contest. Unfortunately for Petko, who has had to overcome back and knee injuries this season, an upset was not in the cards. While dashing for a forehand, her right shoe stuck in the dirt, and she badly rolled her ankle. If anyone can overcome this added setback, it’s someone as positive as Petkovic. Hopefully she recovers quickly, as the WTA would greatly benefit from her return.

Change Comes to SW19

Wimbledon may be steeped in tradition, but it’s also clearly no stranger to modifications with some positive changes are on tap for 2012. A welcomed adjustment is not only the increase in prize money, but how that increase will be dispersed. This year’s qualifier and early round losers will be reaping a 13% increase in prize money, as officials have opted to skew a larger portion of the prize money increase their way (and props to the ATP’s “Big Four” for lobbying for this change). Another positive modification is the decision to bump the start time up by a half an hour on courts 2-19. With that unpredictable English weather, the earlier start time will hopefully curtail the number of matches that get pushed into a second day. And while it’s not set in stone, there are more than a few murmurs that a roof for Court 1 could come to fruition in the future. It’s probably safe to say that SW19 won’t be putting out fires the way officials in New York were last summer.

New Day, New Game

Known as the Legg Mason Tennis Classic since 1994, the hard court event in Washington D.C. will henceforth be known as the CitiOpen. But a new sponsor is only half the story. In keeping with the current trend, Washington D.C. will now be a dual event, simultaneously playing host to a lower-tier WTA tournament alongside the ATP 500 event. There’s more tennis to love, and perhaps with a little luck, the event will grow in stature similar to the way that the Cincy event blossomed into top-tier events for both tours. It’s apt to make the lead-up to the final major of the year more exciting.

New sponsor, facility upgrades for Legg Mason Tennis Classic

The facility upgrades for the Citi Open include a new 2,500 seat Grandstand and five new practice courts.

Change is coming to the nation’s capital and it might take tennis fans some time to adjust.

The Legg Mason Tennis Classic is now the Citi Open, after Legg Mason, the title sponsor of the ATP tournament in Washington, D.C. for the past 18 years, has decided not to renew its contract.

No reason was given for the why the Baltimore-based Legg Mason will no longer be the title sponsor, but Donald Dell, the chairman and co-founder of the tournament, emphasized that both sides parted on good terms.

“I want to thank Legg Mason for their tremendous sponsorship,” he said. “They have been with us 18 years – they were the longest running title sponsor in tennis in North America. We owe the Legg Mason a great bit. They decided not to come back – their contract expired in November. It was a very amicable transition.”

Stepping in to replace Legg Mason is Citigroup Inc., the sponsor of the inaugural professional women’s tournament in College Park, MD last summer, for a five-year deal. The Citi Open will combine the ATP tournament with the women’s event in efforts to attract an even more diverse fan base.

“We are very excited about [having a joint tournament], because over the years we’ve had lots of requests and lots of pressure to have both events – men and women – and the demographics of tennis is 52 percent men and 48 percent women,” said Dell.

The men’s tournament will remain an ATP 500 event, one of only two in the United States (the other is in Memphis), and the women’s will be a $250,000 International Level tournament. Last year’s winner on the men’s side was Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic, while Russia’s Nadia Petrova claimed the women’s trophy.

Along with the name change and the inclusion of the women’s tournament will be stadium upgrades to accommodate the increase of players. The renovations, which will begin in May and finish before the start of the summer tournament, will include a new show court that seats 2,500 people and five new practice courts. The Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF), a charitable foundation that provides tennis instruction and education to DC-area youth, privately funded the expansion. The tournament is owned by the organization.

“We built [the stadium] with [WTEF] in 1989, and we just think it’s time to upgrade in a lot of different ways,” said Dell. “We are competing on the world tour. It is very competitive that we have a facility and proper usage of the court site for the players.”

The Citi Open will continue to be held at the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park and will run from July 28 to Aug. 5.

Because the tournament coincides with the London Olympics, the draw size will decrease from the usual 48 players to 32. While several marquee players will be competing for Olympic medals, current world No. 9 Mardy Fish has already confirmed to play at the Citi Open in preparations for the U.S. Open. Also expected is former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt.

Despite the tournament expansion, Dell said that there are no plans on increasing parking, but that General Admission ticket prices will most likely not rise.

The name may take some getting used to, but the changes should give tennis fans in the metropolitan area much to be excited about.

John Isner: The Emergence of a True Contender

John Isner waves to the crowd at the 2011 Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. He was the recepient of the tournament's sportsmanship award.

Most people know his story by now.

He attended the University of Georgia, where he led the Bulldogs to a national championship in 2007. He won the longest match in the history of professional tennis at the 2010 Wimbledon. And he owns one of the most vicious serves on the ATP Tour, a weapon that can be credited to his 6’9’’ stature.

And now the 26-year-old John Isner is poised to crack the top 10 in the world.

Isner turned pro in 2007 and left school as a four-time All-American honoree, finishing his career as the program’s leader in singles and doubles victories. He was 12 credits shy of earning his degree in speech communications, but quickly made an impact on the pro tour, advancing to the final in just his second ATP event, the 2007 Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. Isner lost to then top-ranked American Andy Roddick in the championship, but earned victories over former top-five players Tim Henman and Tommy Haas.

And just a few months removed from celebrating winning the NCAAs with his Georgia teammates, Isner was on Arthur Ashe Stadium playing against eventual champion Roger Federer in the third round of the U.S. Open. Isner delighted the American crowd by taking the first set off Federer before falling in four sets.

It became clear those wins in Washington were no fluke.

Since then, the soft-spoken Isner has won fans over with his powerful game and friendly demeanor. He picked up the 2009 ATP Most Improved Player award and has earned several sportsmanship awards along the way.

When Isner reached the quarterfinals at the 2011 U.S Open, fellow American Mardy Fish made a bold declaration. “I think he can win the tournament,” he said. Isner didn’t win, but he showed that the best was yet to come.

Although not young in tennis terms, Isner, currently ranked a career-high No. 13 in the world, has the most upside among the top ranking Americans. Roddick’s career faces a downward trajectory and the 30-year-old Fish has struggled on the Grand Slam stage. Isner’s recent four-set victory over Federer at the 2012 Davis Cup rubber between the United States and Switzerland was further proof of his emergence as a contender for tennis’ big prizes – the Grand Slams.

As young Americans continue to turn pro at a young age, (19-year-old Ryan Harrison, the latest promising U.S. prospect, went pro when he was 15), Isner remains a rare breed. His modest junior career coupled with four years of collegiate tennis experience would make him an unlikely Grand Slam champion. But if his improvements in the past few years are any indication, Isner is perhaps America’s best hope to win a major championship in the near future.

He is currently the top seed at the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis, TN and will play compatriot Donald Young in the second round.

Immediately after beating Nicolas Mahut in the record-shattering 11 hour, five minute marathon match, Isner embraced the attention but emphasized that he wanted to be remembered for more than just a Guinness World Record.

That may or may not end up being the case, but in a career that has already been full of expectation-exceeding surprises, Isner does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Correction: The original article stated that Isner graduated from the University of Georgia. He turned pro with 12 credits left to complete in his Speech Communications degree.

Denis Kudla’s Steady Rise

Denis Kudla Serve

Slow and steady wins the race.

Shortly after winning the prestigious junior Boys 16’s Orange Bowl title in 2009, 16-year-old Denis Kudla decided he was ready for the pro game. In the three years that followed, Kudla, who is currently at a career high world No. 203, has slowly but steadily risen in the rankings. The now 19-year-old has struggled to make an impact on the ATP Tour but is improving with each year and appears ready for a breakout season.

My introduction to Kudla was at the 2009 Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. The then 17-year-old Kudla had just taken a set off French journeyman Sebastien De Chaunac in the first round of qualifiers on center court and fans began to gather to observe this latest American hopeful.

As the much older and more experienced De Chaunac argued after close calls and expressed frustration throughout the match, Kudla remained poised and displayed maturity beyond what his age, Lleyton Hewitt style backwards-hat and long hair image would signify. Despite eventually losing 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, the crowd left with a sense that the future was bright for the kid.

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Kudla moved to Virginia with his family at a young age and began playing tennis at seven-years-old. He would become a member of the renowned Junior Tennis Champions Center located at the USTA Regional certified training facility at College Park, MD. Kudla led a contingent of highly talented young players there and experienced a stellar junior career that culiminated in a 2010 U.S. Open Boys runner-up trophy, losing to fellow American up-and-comer Jack Sock – the first all-American boys’ final at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick defeated Robby Ginepri in 2000.

While young American players such as 19-year-olds Ryan Harrison and Sock grab headlines and are touted as the nation’s future, Kudla has quietly amassed a respectable resume, with consecutive wins over hard-serving Ivo Karlovic and the precocious Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov at the 2011 Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships. Kudla mainly plays on the Challenger Tour, fighting for those precious ATP points, and has only played in one Grand Slam main draw match – losing to veteran Tommy Haas in the first round of this year’s Australian Open, but if the early months of 2012 are any indication, this can be his year in the spotlight.

This week Kudla qualified for the SAP Open in San Jose, CA and defeated Sock to set up a second round marquee matchup against Andy Roddick on Wednesday night.

“I learned that I can do anything if I believe, and if I put my mind to it a lot can be done with hard work and strong mentality towards a goal,” Kudla told Tennis Grandstand. “This is where I thought I would be [in my career] and my goals are to break top 100 and hopefully top 50.”

The reserved, yet highly driven Kudla is out to make a name for himself and has a chance to make it happen against the 17th-ranked Roddick. As Kudla’s confidence continues to rise, so will his rankings, just as it has ever since he turned pro.

This race is just getting started.

Gael Monfils: The Entertainer

Gael Monfils hits a forehand during practice at the 2011 Legg Mason Tennis Classic

Gael Monfils elicits mixed emotions from tennis fans.

Some find his flair and flashy play exciting. Others find it grating and unnecessary. And there are many who worry that his acrobatic style of play will result in serious injuries.

But regardless of what pundits and fans think of him, Monfils continues to do what he does best: to entertain.

Gael Monfils hits a forehand during practice at the 2011 Legg Mason Tennis Classic

In August, the Frenchman brought his high-flying act to the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C., and he did not disappoint. With overhead smashes that would make Pete Sampras proud and diving shots few on the ATP Tour would dare attempt, Monfils rolled to the finals where he was stopped by tour veteran Radek Stepanek.

In the semifinals against John Isner, Monfils held a match point that was followed by an Isner service ace. Unsure of the call, Monfils challenged but the review system malfunctioned and the call stood. Monfils shrugged it off and the two exchanged a fist bump during the following changeover.

After losing his doubles match at the U.S. Open to end his Grand Slam season, Monfils did not respond by hanging his head and walking off the court, but by throwing anything he could find to the crowd, including his shirt, a box of tissues and an umbrella.

Also known for his dancing abilities, the 6’4’’ Monfils showed off some of his moves during offseason exhibitions, including shuffling to “Party Rock” in Argentina this past weekend.

The entertainer understands that in addition to winning matches, giving fans a good show is an essential part of the job.

While the 2011 season marked a career high ranking for Monfils – he reached world No. 7 in July – his Grand Slam struggles continued. He lost in the third round or earlier in all the majors except for the French Open, where he reached the quarterfinals.

Currently sitting at world No. 16, Monfils has some work ahead in 2012 to climb back into the top 10 and potentially further. But regardless of what lies ahead for Monfils, one can be sure that he will continue to entertain.

And in the chance Monfils wins at a Grand Slam, the court may turn into his own dance floor.

Legg Mason Tennis Classic: Haas tweaks hip, UVA takeover, Odesnik keeps his cool, and player practices

Berankis-a

It’s a bright and beautiful day at the first day of qualifying at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic held in Washington, DC. While the main draw begins Sunday evening and will feature top players such as world #7 Gael Monfils and #9 Mardy Fish, it was the four UVA players that brought the crowd support to the courts today.

While valiantly fighting back in the second set, incoming UVA freshman Mitchell Frank went down 6-3 in the third to 23-year-old Australian Matthew Ebden. Even in the loss, Frank’s cheering section was loud and encouraging, making the stands appear more like a mid-week capacity crowd than early qualifying rounds.

In other action, Amer Delic went through in easy straight sets beating Henry Steer 6-1, 6-1, and came back out in the afternoon to practice. Delic was the only player of the day to actually pick up after himself instead of leaving behind water bottles and tennis cartons everywhere on court. Props for good manners, Amer. On his way off court, our fellow colleague Rachel from OnTheGoTennis joked about nearly sideswiping him with her camera lens. But Delic took it in stride and even tweeted this below:

Indeed, he does have a good smiling mug-shot – and a good sense of humor.

Even in the 90+ degree humidity and heat, other notable players took to the practice courts. Tommy Haas was practicing earlier in the day shirtless and looking fitter than ever. The former world #2 underwent right hip surgery in March of 2010, and his climb back up the rankings has been anything but steady. In four of the five events he has played since May of this year, he’s gotten past the first round only once. And the video below may give you insight as to why. While practicing with Radek Stepanek, Haas had to stop play mid-point because he tweaked his right hip and needed to stretch it out. He grimaced through the next ten minutes of rallies, but had to eventually stop practice due to pain.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyrLcQfNYrc&w=550&h=343&rel=0]

Serbians Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki battled on the practice courts for two hours, one sans shirt. Based on the photo below, Tipsarevic is primed to be the new “Hulk” – just check out those muscles!

Croat Ivo Karlovic also practiced with his coach in the afternoon, and brought a new accessory with him: a white, sunscreen-covered face. He looks a bit like “Ghost-Face Killah,” ready to battle. His coach, Mirko Pehar (1.5 years his junior), had him working on serving and volleying – a lot! He’ll take on American Michael Russell either Monday or Tuesday evening in the first round.

As I had interest to interview Wayne Odesnik to see how he has been handling the pressure of coming back on tour after an unfortunate incident last year, I watched him take on Canadian-born American Jesse Levine. He dismantled the 5’9’’ Levine in straight sets, but not without drama, of course. At 5-4 in the second set with Odesnik approaching the baseline to serve, a crowd of youngsters chanted “Who’s world? Wayne’s World!” Afterwhich, a noticeably older gentleman seated directly behind Odesnik inappropriately yelled out “HGH!” Without words or glances to the man in the stands, Odesnik stepped back from the baseline, and waited a few seconds while starring at the ground. He stepped back up to the line and served four straight service winners, winning the match in fashion. Even with all the scandal surrounded this young American, you have to commend him for keeping his cool in a pressure situation. Other players in his position may have responded back in disgust, but either way, I’m sure it can’t be easy to be in his position.

Other players on court included:

Fernando Gonzalez, who just celebrated his 31st birthday and was a 2003 Legg Mason Tennis Classic finalist

James Blake (with brother Thomas), who was visibly frustrated with himself as he practiced with Nikolay Davydenko

and Lithuanian newcomer Richard Berankis, who is currently ranked #118 in the world.

Catch me all week as I cover the Legg Mason Tennis Classic on twitter at @TennisRomi!

All photos credited to the author.

Legg Mason Finals: Practice Session Fun; Press Conferences & Analysis of Nalbandian, Baghdatis

It was a gorgeous sunny day here in Washington, DC as I stepped onto the grounds of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic to witness history being made in both the doubles and singles finals.

I arrived before the crowds were allowed in so I got a sneak at a practice session between doubles partners Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek on stadium court before their 12:30pm match. They were focused yet jovial, practicing forehands and backhands before working on their serves and returns. Even though this was their first finals together as a pair in a tournament, they were enjoying the heat and joking with each other. With about 10 minutes to go in their session, Mark Knowles, half of the doubles team they would face shortly in the final, came out. He warmed up by jogging around the court and even remarked to a winner Stepanek sent down the line: “Save that for next week, partner!” I quickly searched my memory and remembered seeing that they were teaming up in this week’s Rogers Cup because his usual partner, Mardy Fish, decided to take a week away from doubles.

Five minutes later, Mardy Fish himself came out, cheerful and talkative. He jogged over to Stepanek’s extra racquet asked to see it and jumped in as a doubles partner to Berdych who was serving. It was 2-on-1 vs. Stepanek. They played a couple intense points while Fish checked out Stepanek’s racquet. It was an enjoyable few minutes as I found myself wishing I had brought my camera from the media tent to tape it. I wasn’t expecting any kind of camaraderie between guys who were about to play each other in an hour! Three of the four players in today’s doubles are singles players and the lone doubles specialist has already reached over 700 career wins. Clearly, these guys know each other well and enjoy the company. It’s always pleasant to see light moments like this as a fan. The doubles fun ended when Stepanek and Berdych played their last volleys. The final shot found Berdych tumble to the ground on his back in fear of Stepanek’s racquet smacking a ball that was only two feet away. He came up laughing. I made the conclusion that as non-expressive as these guys sometime seem on-court, they know how to have fun and enjoy tennis.

The fun was over and it was time for the matches, or was it? I happened to run into a familiar face in the ladies’ restroom about 20 minutes later. In the split-second I had to contemplate whether I would say anything, my mouth worked quicker than my mind and I found myself asking: “Are you Stacey? Mardy’s wife?” She pleasantly responded “Yes” while looking up. I had a quick chat with her and wished her husband good luck in the match. She mentioned that it was very hot in Atlanta two weeks ago when Fish won the singles title. It was her first time there and she wasn’t expecting the humidity. But, as a loving wife, she said “Mardy made it worthwhile.” This brought a tender moment as I once again realized what a great support system means to a player on and off the court.

As I made my way over to the stadium and sat down, I spotted another familiar face in a red official’s t-shirt, the infamous line judge Serena Williams cursed out at last year’s US Open. She was measuring the net and adjusting the height, slumped over it, barely reaching the tape. It struck me that she was quite petite and I was even more surprised then at how well she handled the situation last year. Williams is an intimidating character, especially in the heat of a match, but this line judge held her own.

The doubles teams of Berdych/Stepanek and Fish/Knowles made their way onto the court and the atmosphere became more spirited. Berdych, Stepanek and Fish are normally singles players, but a couple of years ago the ATP changed the formatting of the doubles game. They shortened it with no-ad scoring sets where players could use their singles rank to enter the doubles. This promoted top singles players to showcase their talents in the doubles field encouraging more fan support.

The match got underway and each player’s talents and weaknesses were quickly exposed. While Fish excelled in his backhand return game, Knowles struggled a bit to get into the rhythm. And although Berdych’s net play has improved by playing more doubles, he was still the weaker of the two at the net; Stepanek’s variety and quickness to read the ball well gave them the early break. Fish/Knowles weren’t able to bounce back from this and Berdych/Stepanek took the first set 6-4.

The second set, however, was more hotly contested. At 4-3, deuce, Berdych double-faulted and this inevitably changed the rhythm for the rest of the match. Fish/Knowles held their serve, Berdych became more loose at the net not anticipating balls well and we found ourselves in a second set tiebreaker. Fish then double-faulted on his fourth set point saying to his partner that the sun was “right in my toss” bringing the score to 6-6. Two mistakes by Berdych gave Fish/Knowles the second set, and the match was decided by a 10-point super tiebreaker. Fish/Knowles got off to a quick start and never looked back. They took the match 4-6, 7-6(7), 10-7. This was their second title as a doubles team, Fish’s eighth doubles title and Knowles’ 53rd. All-in-all, it was an excellent doubles match for the championship.

The singles match quickly got underway and featured wildcard David Nalbandian and the #8 seed Marcos Baghdatis. The two players have very similar games: both are baseliners, pressure their opponent’s second serve by standing well inside the baseline and their most accurate shot is their backhand. Nalbandian is known for his great return percentage and Baghdatis for being able to quickly go from a defensive to an offensive position.

From the first couple games, I was getting the sense that Baghdatis was moving gingerly on his left ankle that he tweaked yesterday. He made several errors in the first game dropping his serve, while Nalbandian further responded by blasting winners past Baghdatis to go up 2-0. I recoiled thinking this was quickly going to turn into a beating and I simply hoped that Baghdatis’ ankle would hold out.

As luck would have it, Baghdatis became a little more comfortable with his backcourt lateral movement and began holding his serve. Even though Nalbandian was still more aggressive in his shots, Baghdatis began mixing up the pace making it harder for Nalbandian to keep his rhythm. What made it easier for Nalbandian to beat Cilic the other night was that Cilic hits hard and flat, and Nalbandian easily responds to that. Baghdatis, on the other hand, uses more topspin and changes it up with harder balls and comes into the net more, giving Nalbandian trouble with the pace. Even with this, Nalbandian’s forehand was brutally ‘on’ hitting winners, while Baghdatis was still searching for his game. A few times though, the audience got a spark of Baghdatis’ great talent as he took Nalbandian’s second serve so early, absorbing the pace and placing it deep in the middle catching Nalbandian on his back foot and off-balance. Not to be outdone, Nalbandian at one point stopped a rally midway and challenged a baseline non-call. He was right, the point was his and he gained even more confidence. What’s surprising is Nalbandian’s ability to hit on the run. At 3-2, Nalbandian hit a backhand on the run, followed by a perfectly placed running overhead lob that just nicked the line behind Baghdatis. Even though Nalbandian also has a few extra pounds like Baghdatis, he was moving with relative ease making contact with nearly every ball and demonstrating his physique.

At 4-2, Nalbandian was clearly dictating points, hugging the baseline and forcing Baghdatis further back, making him more defensive and not able to do as much with his shot. At deuce, a backhand error by Baghdatis gave Nalbandian another break opportunity. On the next point, Baghdatis tried to pull Nalbandian wide on both wings, followed a deep down-the-line forehand to the net, and Nalbandian excellently executed a crosscourt backhand passing shot that Baghdatis simply stared at as it went by. Nalbandian had once again broken and served for the set. Two back-to-back backhand returns into the net by Baghdatis gave Nalbandian the set, 6-2.

The second set saw some of the most brilliant tennis all week as both players refueled and showed us their best A-game. The first six games saw four breaks of serve. And yes, there were a few choice double-faults, especially on Nalbandian’s first service game to give Baghdatis a 2-0 advantage, but mostly, it was the pressure each was giving his opponent that made the difference. The shot-making, placement of the ball and strategy from both players was impeccable. In the third game, Baghdatis began not defending as well and in the fourth, Nalbandian seemed to be running out of steam, giving Baghdatis five break opportunities.

If ever there was a point in the match that was the defining moment, it was game four of the second set. Nalbandian double-faulted to give Baghdatis his first break point. A couple of bad errors from Baghdatis took it to deuce as he couldn’t control Nalbandian’s surprisingly heavy second kick serve. At the same time, Nalbandian double-faulted four times in the second set so far and I wondered if he was finally feeling Baghdatis’ pressure or if it was because he hadn’t played in the day yet and the sun was only getting stronger. Nalbandian kept spewing errors giving Baghdatis the opportunity to break, but he could never convert. Both tried problem-solving and finally Nalbandian came out the winner holding his serve. We will never know what could have happened had Baghdatis been able to break and go up 3-1 — it may have been a completely different match. I began to wonder if Baghdatis would be able to hold his serve after such a letdown.

At 2-2 as expected, Baghdatis’ serve goes to deuce. At ad-out, Baghdatis sent a winner down-the-line. Or was it? Nalbandian challenged again, the ball was clearly out, and Nalbandian went up 3-2. In the next game, Baghdatis wins a Hawkeye challenge of his own and breaks Nalbandian on a perfectly placed overhead. Three bad second serve returns by Nalbandian int eh seventh game allows Baghdatis to hold and go up 4-3. At this point, Nalbandian starts asking his camp what to do? He’s known for his aggressive second serve returns, but he couldn’t handle the depth and kick of Baghdatis’ for three in a row. He was stunned and it would be interesting to see how he would respond in his own service game. Nalbandian’s errors begin to pile up before he save two break points and ties the score at 4 a piece.

For the next three games, each player holds their serve at love. But again, not without some Hawkeye challenge drama. Nalbandian fires what seems to be an ace. Baghdatis challenges, but when he walks over to the mark, he nods his head and audibly says “It was good, it was good” before walking over to the ad-court. Surprisingly, the mark was out! Baghdatis, of course, got happy, sprinted back to the deuce side. A beautiful return to Nalbandian’s backhand that was just out of reach, gave Baghdatis a set point. Nalbandian saved it by forcing a wide forehand error from Baghdatis. A few more similar exchanges like this before Baghdatis once again challenged a baseline non-call. As we waited for the replay, Baghdatis stood on top of the line, smiling, staring at it, looking up into the crowd asking if it was in or out, crouching around it and just joking at the matter. It was a very clean shot just inside the baseline, but by this time the line judges were not dependable anymore. Two points later, on a supposed ‘ace’ of Nalbandian’s, Baghdatis challenges again and gets it right! By this time, the chair umpire was furious at the line judges and at Hawkeye. We could hear him softly yelling that he was very unhappy to the chair supervisor on the radio. Eventually, a backhand return by Baghdatis into the net gives Nalbandian the game, and forces a tiebreaker.

At the start of the tiebreaker, I could really hear the Argentine support from the crowd: “Ole, ole, ole, ole, Daveeeeed, Daveeeeed!” He quickly went up 5-1, then held three championship points, before double-faulting. He won on his fourth attempt and was fired up!

As Nalbandian shakes hands with Baghdatis, puts his racquet down and runs over to his team in the corner to congratulate as well, I could once again hear the deafening Ole!’s. By the time Nalbandian got back to his chair, his name was already being added to the banner of past champions. As Juan Martin del Potro won the last two years, Nalbandian kept the Argentine streak to three years in a row in DC.

A few moments later, the trophy ceremony began with Baghdatis first accepting his runner-up glass trophy and check. In his on-court speech, he was gracious, smiling like he had won, and congratulated Nalbandian on a great win: “[David’s] a pain in the ass when he plays good!” The crowd erupted in laughter and cheers for a great competitor.

Nalbandian then took the court, with more singing and was beyond ecstatic with his win. He also thanked the sponsors, volunteers, and fans before giving us this little gem. He pointed up into a particularly rowdy Argentine crowd and said: “Somebody up there said they’ll buy me a drink if I win!” He said that it “looks like I’m in Argentina!” He loves the fan support and making a few extra friends in the process. He also stated that he “enjoys this moment because it’s tough to come back and do this” after all the injuries he’s had and not playing since April. He is $262,000 richer and is tied for first place in the Olympus US Open Series. He is also the first wildcard to win here at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.

After both players made their commitments to all the tv crews and commentators, they each made their way to the media for their press conferences. It was once again my chance to hear a player’s perspective on the day’s happenings.

As Baghdatis came in, you would have thought he had won the tournament with his big smile and light demeanor. He said that he couldn’t have been happier with his play in the second set minus not being able to convert in the fourth game. He also knew Nalbandian was “returning good” so a lot rested on his own serve and he felt that he “served really bad” in the first set. He mentioned that he did have “a bit of pain in my leg” and it took some time to get better, but that Nalbandian was the better player today. “If I was serving better, I could win today but I didn’t have that.” When asked if Nalbandian is playing like a guy outside the top 100, Baghdatis quickly said “No, he can beat top 10 [players].” I asked a question about all those Hawkeye challenges that players were getting right. He responded with a smile and said that they both started challenging “even if you saw it out because there was no confidence in the line judges.” Baghdatis then addressed his performance this year versus last: “I will never forget where I came from. I was ranked 150 last year and now I maybe touched top 20 this year. I am looking forward to the future and playing better.”

Nalbandian came in a few minutes later, happy, confident and on top of the world. He again stated that he “played good all week” minus a few select games and that he was very happy with his performance today as well. He felt that he didn’t return well on Baghdatis’ second serve in the second set, but that it was more his ability that let him down than Baghdatis’ placement. “I have to believe in my shots and my game.” When asked whether he was surprised to come back after time off and win his first tournament back he responded: “For sure I didn’t expect to win the first tournament when I came. If I continue to play this good, I’m going to go far for sure.”

Nalbandian’s ranking will jump from #117 in the world to #45, while Baghdatis will climb from #25 to #20. I know that I am looking forward to seeing where Nalbandian falls into the draw at the US Open. He will be a threatening headache for any player if his body holds up.

Legg Mason SFs: Exclusive Berdych Update; Press Conferences & Analysis on Cilic, Baghdatis

It’s the final Saturday of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and that means only one thing: a showcasing of elite tennis as the final four men were in action for a spot in tomorrow’s finals. Surprise semifinalists Xavier Malisse and Marcos Baghdatis played each other in the day session as veteran David Nalbandian took on the last seeded player left in the draw, Marin Cilic. I also had a chance to catch up with Tomas Berdych and ask a few questions about his presser the other evening when he mentioned being frustrated with the tournament schedule and possibly not coming back next year. Let’s get into that and then the matches!

After Tomas Berdych’s doubles win today to go into the finals with partner Radek Stepanek, a few reporters were able to interview him in the players’ dining room before he left the site. The main topic at hand was whether any new developments occurred after his honest presser yesterday saying he may not come back to D.C. next year since he felt that he wasn’t treated well as a #1 seed. He responded that it was “just the next day” and nothing would really change, “there is still the year to go.” He seemed annoyed to address the topic as it still affected him. I asked if any tournament officials had contacted him to address his issue and he seemed to hesitate for a second. It could be a telling hesitation or a language barrier, but he simply said “No, nobody.” This was an interesting response because a reliable source had told me that the tournament director had spoken to him about it and essentially told him that it was unfortunate, but that all players had the same scheduling problems. I’m not sure if he chose to not reveal this in fear of further questioning or if it simply was not a big deal to him. Only time will tell, but I sincerely hope he comes back. He’s a powerful player to watch live.

But now, on to the tennis matches of the day!

The first matchup on stadium court was between two newly resurgent players on the ATP tour, Xavier Malisse and Marcos Baghdatis.

They had faced each other twice last year, both times on the Challenger-level and both times Baghdatis had prevailed in straight sets. While each executes well from behind the baseline, Malisse has a tendency to venture too far back into the court and Baghdatis tends to stay near the baseline. Baghdatis plays smart tennis and knows how to play the important points well. He has a compact backhand and changes the movement of the ball well, easily going from defensive to offensive, throwing his opponent off. His forehand is quite stiff and he doesn’t accelerate the ball well, but he has a little more variety in his shots than Malisse. Malisse’s strong point is his topspin forehand and a flick of his wrist speeds the ball up even more. He plays a very high-risk game going for winners and uses his backhand more to setup his forehand than as a weapon itself. The match depended mostly on service points won and who could dictate play more.

In the first set, Malisse held his serve in the first game but then lost the next two, finding himself down 1-5. There were glimmers of great tennis from Malisse as he fired forehands past a scrambling Baghdatis, but his winners to unforced errors were 15 to 27. He was sending balls well beyond the baseline or throwing them straight into the net. Malisse’s composure only slightly changed when he was broken to go down 1-4 and you could sense his helplessness. He, however, rebounded in his next service game to bring it to 2-5. There were several netcord encounters that saw the ball flicking off of the net and bouncing high into the intended court. During one of these points, Baghdatis was on the receiving end shuffling for the short ball. He followed through, and with exceptional body control put away a winner crosscourt. Although Baghdatis may carry around a few extra pounds not being as lean as other top pros, he nevertheless is quick on his feet and reads the ball well. It was clear that he was also staying right on top of the baseline for most points dictating play and thus pulling Malisse farther and farther back making him play defensively. In the final game of the set, Baghdatis hit an ace and followed it up with three more easy points to seal it 6-2.

The second set lasted twice as long with neither player being able to break the other’s serve until the 11th game of the set. Malisse continued playing the same tennis: taking the ball late, keeping well behind the baseline and not approaching the net and changing it up. Baghdatis was attacking the ball and smashing winners away with his backhand, which was really working today. At 2-all, Malisse finally followed his shot to the net for two points in a row and won both times, to go up 3-2. He, however, stopped approaching the net after those points! Malisse instead kept probing Baghdatis’ forehand but to no avail. At 4-2 for Baghdatis, Malisse sent a shot behind Baghdatis to his forehand side and Baghdatis changed his footing too quickly. He tweaked his left ankle and fell to the ground grabbing it. Almost nobody moved except Malisse. He right away yelled across the net: “Ice? Do you need ice?” He hurried over to the ice bin behind his seat and pulled out a bag and ran it over to Baghdatis who took it willingly (see photo).

Words were quickly exchanged between the two before the trainer appeared on court. In the midst of his injury, Baghdatis’ ‘foe’ was the first to respond. Luckily, Baghdatis got his ankle taped up and continued play. His ankle was tested on the very next point. It was a long rally but he won it with no sign of discomfort or limitation in movement. He went on to fire two aces in the tiebreaker and take the second set 7-6(4). Even though Baghdatis’ first serve percentage was lower than Malisse’s, he was winning 87% of the points. His return game was also more effective, pressuring Malisse until the last point. Baghdatis fell on his back in joy and as is his custom, kissed the court.

As I had gotten accustomed to players bailing on the press conference after a loss, I was surprised to see Malisse willing to and with a smile. It might seem strange to be optimistic about a loss, but then again, it was a loss in the semifinals of a 500-level tournament. He spoke that Baghdatis “served better, especially on the important points.” He remarked that he felt like he played really well all week so he can’t complain. He’s also happy because his ranking takes him to #50 in the world come Monday morning. He also learned earlier today that he was given a ‘special exemption’ into the Rogers Cup held next week in Toronto, Canada. The ATP rule allows any player who plays a semifinal or higher in the weekend prior to a qualifier event he is entered it, to be granted a special exemption into the draw because they can’t be present to play the qualifier. He was also asked about Baghdatis’ injury in the second set. He said that he was aware that Baghdatis has been injured before and didn’t want it to get more inflamed, so his natural reaction was to help him. “When I gave him the ice he said he will probably be OK.” He said it was helpful knowing this because mentally you begin wondering if he’s going to be OK, or stop play: “It put my mind at ease.”

Baghdatis came into the interview room casually, wearing his ‘Love Cyprus’ kit and old Adidas shoes. He felt that he had played really smart and he was “proud of that.” He mentioned twice that he was “fitter than Malisse” and was able to “play the right shot at the right time,” taking Malisse’s angles away from the forehand. He also commented on the ankle saying he would rather have been cautious than gotten up and played right away. It was uncomfortable for a bit, but he feels good currently and hopes the same for tomorrow. He said that he knows Malisse very well from the tour and that it was typical sportsmanship from him. He’s done it before but some guys wouldn’t. “It doesn’t happen every day” for players to reach out like that. He feels there are “no limits” to how much he or any other player can improve and that he tries to “fight for every match.”

The second semifinal featured David Nalbandian and Marin Cilic.

The key for Cilic was holding his serve, moving well and attacking the ball. Even with his 6’6” stature, he plays a baseline game but is very flexible and can get low on his backhand side. Nalbandian, on the other hand, needed to keep his return game high, attack more cleanly with his forehand and not get fatigued.

In the first set, it took Nalbandian just one game to warmup and find his rhythm, unlike last night where it took him the entire first set. Nalbandian was putting balls away from both wings exceptionally well and his return game stayed in the upper 60s. Nalbandian moved Cilic well laterally, causing him to hit most balls off-balance and gave Cilic only two winners against seventeen unforced errors. Truly, most of those unforced errors were a results of Nalbandian’s impeccable placement and angle on the ball, pressuring Cilic. Cilic could do nothing to keep the points short and prevail as Nalbandian was winning all rallies longer than four shots. Nalbandian sent a crosscourt forehand winner that clocked in at 98 MPH and then went on to break Cilic’s serve and take the first set 6-2 in just 36 minutes.

The second set took a similar tone. Cilic didn’t change his strategy and barely came up to the net. Nalbandian took advantage of his opponent, gained even more confidence and his forehand became lethal. The match came to a close as Cilic sent a backhand sailing into the net to give Nalbandian the win, 6-2 in the second. The statistics are even more staggering in the winners to unforced errors ratio. Cilic had only six winners to 27 unforced errors, while Nalbandian had fourteen winners to twelve unforced errors. David Nalbandian is quickly proving to be a nightmare for players and it will be interesting to see where he falls in the draw at the US Open once again.

Cilic made his way into the press conference subdued and quiet. This tends to be his personality typically, win or lose. He was quick to admit that his serve was “not good” and that he wasn’t aiming well. He felt that Nalbandian took away his setup time for shots since he takes the ball so early. When asked about how well Nalbandian was returning, Cilic joked that he “can’t count on my hand how many returns he missed.” He feels that Nalbandian anticipates the ball well and spatially recognizes where it will go. He was happy though, to improve on his showing here from last year, losing in the first round, especially since he hadn’t played a tournament in the last 3-4 weeks. He felt that it was a good gauge of where he stands and what he can improve on. When asked about not traveling with his coach, but only his oldest brother, he replied that he doesn’t always want “someone telling me what to do.” Sometimes he wants to figure it out for himself. He did say he will reunite with coach Bob Brett for the next three tournaments in Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open.

Nalbandian came in smiling, clearly on cloud nine. After the first question was asked, he answered: “I’m playing good all week. … When I’m playing this good, it’s tough for anybody [to beat me].” He said the main difference from last night’s slow start to today’s rapid start was that he mentally got himself to “push harder from the beginning.” He was very confident in his match tonight and again mentioned that when he serves well, returns well, hits off both sides well and finds the tricky angles, it’s hard to be his opponent and come out victorious. When asked about Baghdatis, whom he plays tomorrow in the finals, he replied that “we know each other” and we have “similar styles of play. … I must keep pushing and playing well.”

Legg Mason QFs: Press Conferences & Analysis of Berdych, Verdasco, Baghdatis, Nalbandian

It’s quarterfinals Friday here at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, DC and the last eight singles players were all in action today vying for a spot in the semifinals. Two upsets were in full-effect as we saw the #1 seed Tomas Berdych go down as well as #3 seed Fernando Verdasco.

The first match of the day was between top seed Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and Belgian Xavier Malisse.

The match saw a surprise winner in Malisse, ranked #62 in the world, topping Berdych in three sets, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. The wind seemed to be the biggest factor in the first set for Berdych as he couldn’t rely on his serve, getting broken twice before going down 1-5. Malisse also outplayed Berdych hitting more winners off both sides. The second set was much closer statistically before Malisse double-faulted allowing Berdych to serve the set out, which he did, fist-pump jumping in the air.

The third set saw two breaks of serve and a bit of drama in the second game. Malisse hit a cross-court forehand that just clipped the line. Expecting it to be a bad call, Berdych challenged. Hawkeye review showed it ‘out’ by less than 1 millimeter, but recall that Hawkeye is only accurate within 3 millimeters. Berdych was, of course, surprised and started walking up to the umpire exclaiming: “That is not accurate! It’s not in and you know it!” Played continued but Berdych was visibly frustrated even into the following point when he pointed again to the mark with his racquet and shook his head. However, Berdych stayed collected enough to win the game. Berdych lost his next service game, followed by three backhand down the line misses bringing the score to 4-1 for Malisse. Berdych has a strong backhand and it seemed to be working for him more than his forehand during the match. But he continually would run around his backhand to hit a forehand and then send it straight into the net because of insufficient backswing. An easy forehand volley into the net by Berdych gave Malisse match point and that it all he needed to break Berdych again and win the match.

Malisse’s press conference was light and quick. He is quickly becoming a favorite presser of mine because of his unexpected easy-going personality. During the first set and some of the second, he was intentionally twisting his right leg and foot as if something was bothering him. I asked him about it and he replied that it was just a small bone under his big toe that flares up from “time to time” but that it wasn’t anything to worry about. It’s more of an “annoyance” than any real injury. He also reflected that he was “returning well” in the first set and that the “third set was one of the best sets I’ve played.” He responded to a question asking about the quick time turnaround from yesterday’s matches lasting until the early morning hours and starting today already at noon. He replied that he much more preferred to play at noon than at 3 P.M. when the heat was stronger.

Berdych was up next and his interview was much more telling of his condition. He came in sulking and looked disappointed. I thought it was because of his performance today. It was, but there was more to the story. He said that he felt “sleepy” in the entire first set and that’s why his serve was broken twice. Mind you, his match yesterday finished around the same time as Malisse’s but he did say he finally got to bed at 2 A.M. His next comment then stopped me in my tracks because of it’s honesty. He was hoping that being the #1 at a tournament you would have a better schedule than this. Being up first today after playing so late into the night yesterday frustrated him and he expressed his disappointment in the tournament. He was then questioned if he had taken this issue up with the staff and he simply said: “No. But maybe I’m not going to come next year. If you like the tournament, if you like the place, then you always want to come back. But if you get an experience like that, we will see.” I have to agree with him here. He was the #1 seed and he wasn’t even scheduled on stadium court or grandstand because other Americans were still in the draw. He was on an outside court and the atmosphere is very different there, more intimate but trickier with the noise. Recall that yesterday he stated he doesn’t enjoy night matches because of the lights. But he didn’t like being up first either. The best solution would probably have been to put him up first for the night session instead.

The second matchup of the day featured #3 seed Fernando Verdasco and #8 seed Marcos Baghdatis, who dueled it out in a tight two sets before Baghdatis come out on top, 7-6(3), 6-4.

The match lasted just 1 hour and 42 minutes, but it felt much longer with the heat and inconsistent play from both players. Considering how long these two players have been on tour, it was surprising that this was their first meeting. Neither player went on any real ‘run’, neither served well and the changing wind didn’t help either. The first set tiebreak alone saw several double faults from both players. In the second set, Verdasco seemed frustrated as he sent ball after ball either straight into the net or flying past the baseline.He couldn’t quite find his rhytmn in his return game either, especially on the backhand side. Play was inconsistent and it was very tough to read tactics. The turnaround point came when Verdasaco sent a deep forehand down the line to pull Baghdatis back — almost to the stadium banners — which Baghdatis retrieved and sent across the net. Verdasco then moved in on the ball to send flying, but at the last minute changed his grip and tipped a drop shot across. Baghdatis, however, read the shot (almost before Verdasco had made up his mind), and began running for the net. He guessed correctly, made contact with the ball and put away the crosscourt winner. Baghdatis then broke Verdasco to go up 5-4 and serve out the match, which he did successfully. The best part of the match was something that came right after the last point was won. Baghdatis walked over to the other side of the net, got down on his hands and knees near the service line and kissed the court. He truly loves this game and there is no denying it.

In Verdasco’s press conference, there were a few things of note. He felt that he “didn’t play well” and that it was “tough to play” because the “wind was changing” and the “bounce of the court was irregular.” All in all, he was “not feeling the ball good.” He was asked how last night’s late end affected him today and if he felt tired. He responded that it was indeed a factor with not enough rest. He went further on and said that all week the earliest match starts at 4 P.M. so you wake up, eat, and get to bed much later. Then today, the time was pushed up to the early afternoon and he needed to change when he got up and ate. That change is never easy when your body gets into a rhythm. He also talked about how much he enjoyed the D.C. crowd and that he felt the support right away. He said there are a lot of Spanish-speaking people in this area and it felt great to hear them cheer for him. The last thing he talked about was his upcoming schedule and his plans post-US Open. He talked about wanting to do well in Toronto next week and improving on his first round loss in Cincinnati last year. He also wants to make a better appearance at the US Open by going beyond his quarterfinal appearance last year. “I push myself to be in [the] best shape.” He then went on to say that he will take some time off after Flushing Meadows to workout. And hopefully take a well-deserved vacation, but he didn’t say.

Baghdatis’ press conference came after his doubles’ loss with partner Stanislas Wawrinka, but he was still in a happy mood. Even in the doubles match, he was enjoying the absolutely packed stands on Grandstand court and he flourished with the cheers from the crowd. In the interview room, he was candid and smiling, making eye-contact with each questioner. He was first asked about what was tough about the match. He responded: “Everything.” He said that playing at night was not the same as the day because the humidity changed in D.C. He also said it different playing on Stadium versus an outside court and that “today I felt like the balls were flying a bit so I couldn’t control them very well.” He also recently changed coaches and has been in the ‘new’ partnership for only two weeks now. I put ‘new’ in quotes because it is the same coach he had when he was 17-20s years old, “so it’s not a big change for me.” In fact, he said, it’s “perfect.” Something that players have been getting asked since Andy Roddick crashed out last night was their thoughts on the American men falling out of the top 10 for the first time since 1973. He gave a heartfelt answer saying that playing this high caliber tennis is very tough and takes a lot of energy. But this was golden: “I didn’t know it was th first time since 1973 … That’s a long time!” He feels fit and healthy and ready to move on to the next challenge.

The third singles match of the day was between Roddick-killer Gilles Simon and wildcard David Nalbandian, who was playing in his first tournament since April due to an injury.

Nalbandian came out on top with a score of 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 but not without plenty of drama and superb shot-making. Simon came out swinging and took a commanding lead to go up 3-0, breaking Nalbandian’s service game easily. Nalbandian was only able to win one point on Simon’s serve. It seemed that this match would be over quickly. However, Nalbandian pushed it up a gear and won the next three games. Things were starting to heat up, but Simon was still playing more solidly and moving better than Nalbandian. Nalbandian had only lost 9 games in the entire tournament going into today’s match, so the scoreline was staggering when Simon took the first set 6-3 in just 33 minutes. But, just as quickly as Simon had won the first set, he lost the second. There were four breaks of serve before Nalbandian went up 4-1. He was starting to look like the strong precise hitter we know, and the points won on his first serve nearly doubled in the second set. He began to play more freely and was very solid at the net. Nalbandian understood the pressure he put on his opponent and knew when to execute approach and drop shots. He also found the angles exceptionally well flustering his opponent to start yelling in French into the sky. In fact, both players were yelling and cheering themselves on, bringing more inspiring play onto the court, and getting the crowd even more involved.

The beginning of the third set saw the best tennis of the day so far. As quick and adept as Simon is, it was surprising that Nalbandian came out the winner on the night’s longest rally. Both continued hitting the ball incredibly low and quick, Nalbandian penetrating the back corners with precision each rally. On one rally Simon sent a deep shot that would normally be a winner and followed it up to the net. Nalbandian read his movement and sent a beautiful overhead lob past Simon that hit the baseline. Simon scrambled to get back but the ball bounced out of his reach. Nalbandian was on fire, taking a 2-0 lead, and couldn’t miss. But then, he did.Simon put away a tricky forehand volley and Nalbandian seemed to be running out of steam. The score evened at 2-all. Then, all momentum was lost seeing each player dominate for a few points before being easily defeated the next, and on each other’s serves. In the ninth game, Nalbandian was serving for the match and he started hitting forehand bombs and took a chance on every shot. He closed the match with two aces. This is Nalbandian’s first time in a semifinal this year and it was well-deserved.

Gilles Simon unfortunately never made it to do the press conference, but it came as no surprise. He was fiery and irritated with himself in the second and third sets and clearly his head was not in the right place at the end of the match. He has great shot-making abilities from the baseline and his backhand finds angles on the court to stress his opponents. His serve was inconsistent and probably proved to be his downfall as he became more agitated with himself.

Nalbandian was caught up with the television crews, but eventually made it over for an interview with the media. He was easy-going even playing with his phone when he first came in. He joked about having to actually HOLD the microphone as he spoke. It was entertaining. He then got down to answering questions. He spoke about picking his game up in the second set and serving better: “When you’re serving good it is much easier to play more offensive.” He also mentioned that although he is not 100% healthy, he is “feeling good enough” and takes it as a positive. “I try to win every match I play.” It was also his first time in D.C. and he was asked why he decided to come back here: “I wasn’t playing enough tournaments and I needed to play matches to be prepared for Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open. I just enjoy every time I play.”

The last match of the day was between Serb Janko Tipsarevic and Croat Marin Cilic.

Cilic held the 4-0 head-to-head prior to coming into the match and he followed it up with a 7-6(4), 6-4 win tonight. Both players held their serve in the first set and were pretty even. For a guy that measures in at just 5’11’’, it was surprising to find Tipsarevic still getting even lower on his backhand side. Tipsarevic let the tiebreaker slip away from him when he loss a crucial point at 3-all that ran both players into all corners of the court for the most exciting rally of the day. In the second set, Tipsarevic continued playing more defensively but putting an insane amount of topspin on his forehand. But it was to no avail as he seemed to be just trying to keep up with Cilic’s movement and coverage. At 3-4 ad-out, Tipsarevic challenged a ball still in play that he thought was long, but he was wrong and lost his service game. Both players then held serve before Cilic held three match points before he finally converted on the fourth attempt. Since the match finished late and because of the tough scheduling from yesterday, neither player came for media interviews. Both players put in a valiant effort that saw Cilic come out the victor.

The day was full of suspenseful matches that saw the top two seeds go down in surprising fashion. The top seed left in the tournament is Marin Cilic who will face David Nalbandian Saturday evening at 7 P.M., while Xavier Malisse will face Marcos Baghdatis at 1 P.M. for a spot in the finals.

Day 4 of Legg Mason – Fish, Verdasco & Malisse Press Conferences, Tipsarevic’s DNA, Friendships on Tour

Another day has set on the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and with it we find a quickly diminishing field as only the best players move through. Two seeded Frenchman, Michael Llodra and Julien Benneteau, crashed out but the rest of the seeds prevailed. Let’s catch up on the day’s happenings around the grounds and on the practice courts.

  1. First up, I stumbled upon the end of Stan Wawrinka’s practice with Andrey Golubev. What caught my eye more was that Richard Gasquet was sitting in the stands, watching and waiting to take the court next. As soon as Wawrinka sat down, Gasquet strolled over to him and the two started chatting. Gasquet then picked up a racquet of Wawrinka’s and started feeling it out. Both players use a Head racquet, so I started wondering if Gasquet was looking to switch models. Will be interesting to see.

  1. When Gasquet finally took the court, I could tell right away he was not feeling the ball well. He had just played a final in the cold of Gstaad, Switzerland on Sunday and was already slated to play a match in the 90-degree humidity of Washington, DC two days later. Suffice it to say that his hitting hand was even cramping mid-hit. One thing struck me in particular. As fluid as his backhand looked, his forehand seemed off-balance and forced. The placement of his left hand is even more awkward up-close and actually takes away from his power. Not sure if it was just the day and conditions, but he’s looked better. Sadly, he had to retire from his match later in the day after losing the first set 6-3 to Kristof Vliegen.

  1. Lo, and behold, who do I find now watching Gasquet practice? None other than newly-minted tweeter Janko Tipsarevic, eating a banana.

A girl sitting close to me taping Gasquet’s practice, started getting really fidgety when she saw Tipsarevic. I couldn’t tell it she was being bitten by bugs or suddenly realized she had lost her passport. Thankfully, she figured out there were people around her and she quickly asked me “Can I borrow your pen?!” I said “Sure” knowing full well it would become her souvenir if Tipsarevic were to sign an autograph with it. I watched as she ran over to him, got his signature with my pen and took a photo. She then proceeded to walk back towards me and extended her hand holding my blue pen. “Thank you so much!” she exclaimed. I was stunned. I actually got my pen back. Not only that, but with Tipsarevic’s DNA on it. I wonder if I could clone him …

Shortly, Tipsarevic took the court and practiced with another player. He mostly did serves and wanted to work on his returns, but was frustrated when his practice partner was struggling getting serves in. Luckily, Tipsarevic went on to win his match against Arnaud Clement in fairly easy fashion a few hours later. What was most entertaining was that he looked like Darth Vader from Star Wars in his all-black Fila kit and Oakley sunglasses. Pretty intimidating if you ask me!

  1. First match of the day that I watched was between Marco Chiudinelli and Brian Dabul. Although Chiudinelli struggled in his match and his left knee was still tightly wrapped up, his coach was cheering him on in crucial moments and he seemed to be happy to get through. He seemed limited in his lateral movement in the back court, so he tried approaching the net more frequently. However, his opponent was quick and could retrieve most balls. It took some adjusting but Chiudinelli came out victorious with a score of 7-6(3), 6-2.

And look who I find on my way out of the match: compatriot Stan Wawrinka and his coach, Peter Lundgren watching Chiudinelli.

  1. I next made my way over to a hotly-anticipated doubles match, played on Grandstand instead of Stadium Court. It was the match-up between doubles world #1 Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic vs. Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek. The stands were packed and the tennis was top-notch. I didn’t feel bad missing the Fish/Troicki blow-out on stadium court when this doubles match had everything a tennis fan wanted: amazing rallies, bad calls, umpire disputes, ‘Ajde’-ing and on-court laughter and embarrassment when a shot was miserably calculated. The pairing of Berdych/Stepanek was like peanut butter and jelly: Berdych is smooth, fluid and strong, while Stepanek has shot variety and nutty surprises at the net. Even though Berdych/Stepanek won 6-4, 4-6, 10-8, it says a lot about the doubles game and how they can compete with top singles players and only narrowly lose in a matchup.

  1. My next two stops were the press conferences of Xavier Malisse and Mardy Fish, who knocked out Julien Benneteau and Viktor Troicki, respectively.

Malisse was very personable and engaging, detailing how his past injuries kept him away from top form. I don’t think I realized how many injuries he has had in the last 3 years: left wrist, then right wrist, then twisted right knee, then left wrist again. But today he said he is “playing well and feeling healthy.” This looked to be the case when I peaked in on his match against Benneteau. He was running him all over the court! Hopefully, this will continue and we’ll see him once again climb in the ranks.

Mardy Fish was next and he was light-spirited and pleasant as well. He talked about how quickly he lost weight, going from 203 lbs. to about 170-3 lbs. currently. He thankfully feels that he hasn’t lost any energy or precision in his shots or serve, but hopes to gain some muscle in the off-season and not lose any more weight. Since he didn’t have any points to defend, he wanted to stack his summer up with tournaments and see how he fared.

Fish was asked about the other Americans in tennis and how it feels to play a friend in a match, like Andy Roddick 2 weeks ago. He stated that you pretty much have to put the friendship aside, “just play the match, and you’ll be friends after the match.” He also paid compliments to John Isner saying that his serve is “probably one of the best in the world.” Fish’s current coach, David Nainkin, is also the long-time coach of Sam Querrey. Fish had praise for Querrey’s character as well: “I’m lucky Sam is who he is to let me share [Nainkin].” Quite a humble guy, and not taking his new-found game for granted. He’s worked hard to get in the best shape of his life and I hope he continues strong.

  1. The last match I watched was between Fernando Verdasco and Michael Berrer. I have a separate post on Verdasco and his press conference (http://www.tennisgrandstand.com/archives/6953), but I’ll sum up a little here, including the tiebreaker point-by-point.

Verdasco struggled in the first set and even faced two match points down 5-2 in the second set. He finally found his rhythm and won the next five games. All he had to do was wear Berrer out and he couldn’t do it. It seemed that from the first ball, Berrer was wearing HIM out. Verdasco seemed drained and tired on the court and his footwork was lacking. He was miscalculating shots and overhitting them and couldn’t seem to return most of Berrer’s first serves. The most alarming aspect of his game during the match was his erratic toss. He would throw it too far behind him, let it drop, and then try again. He blamed it on the wind and the crowd, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it was a deeper problem.

The third set reached a tiebreak. It was high energy, exhilarating, with lots of crowd cheering and clapping. Two unfortunate shots that clipped the net and went out, brought the score to 4-3 for Verdasco. Another backhand mishit from Verdasco, brought it to 4-4. An ace from Berrer make it 4-5 for Berrer. A fearless backhand approach winner from Verdasco evened the score again. Verdasco then fired a service winner that Berrer was not able to place, making the score 6-5 for Verdasco. The next rally brought fear and doubt to the crowd as they watched Verdasco approach the net for a volley and fall to the ground, grabbing his left foot. He took his shoe off, shunned ice away, and got the trainer. A few moments passed. To the applause of the crowd, he eventually got up and jogged to the other side for the changeover. (He later stated it was just the plastic in his shoe that hurt his big toe with a great deal of pain, but that it was nothing to worry about.) The score was now 6-6. As the crowd, we still didn’t know what exactly happened to cause the fall and if he would be able to close this out. However, Berrer never scored another point and Verdasco went up 7-6 with a big “VAMOS!”, and then finished it off at 8-6 to the cheers of the crowd.

Check out the video below and find more of my videos here: http://www.youtube.com/user/kiki52484#g/u

It was a great day showcasing all the top seeds in either singles or doubles and the tournament has indeed started well on its way. I’ll be back for more later this week!

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