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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.