Last Sunday afternoon, Milos Raonic became the first man to win three consecutive titles at the SAP Open, at precisely the same moment he became the last man to win one at all. This edition of the San Jose was the last, bringing the rich history of professional tennis in northern California to a close. Raonic will therefore reign as defending champion approximately forever.
It can be a tricky matter to define precisely when a tournament actually expires, or even if it has. There are technical points to be made about licences and ownership, such that it is theoretically possible for an event to survive across endless variations of geography, surface and draw. Has Los Angeles really gone, or has it just moved to Bogota, simultaneously shifting continent and soaring into low orbit? What about the Memphis 500 event, which will relocate to Rio? What, if anything, about that tournament will truly endure?
Such discussions are apt to grow philosophical, as we’re compelled to wonder at the ineradicable essence of a tennis tournament, such that it can retain its identity when everything important about it has ostensibly changed. Apparently these things have ineffable souls, or at least durable traditions that might be strung out indefinitely.
On the other hand, aficionados of professional tennis in southern California are in no doubt that the LA tournament has ascended, not to Columbia, but to that great tennis boneyard in the sky. They might well be insulted if the next champion in Bogota was appended to the long and illustrious list of past LA champions, which includes Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. The fans often know when a tournament has really perished, just as they know when it is being artificially sustained on life support.
Indeed, reading down the past champion’s lists for many of these cancelled events is bittersweet, evoking sepia-tinted glories, now fading irrecoverably with the tournament’s passing. While some were new ventures that evidently didn’t pan out, many more were decades old, and the winner’s list tells a salutary tale of prestige giving way, gradually or suddenly, to irrelevance. You can understand what is lost, even as you can see why it had to go.
Sometimes what is lost is an invaluable start. It is fascinating to note that each of the Big Four won his first title at a tournament that has since been cancelled: Roger Federer (Milan 2001), Rafael Nadal (Sopot 2004), Novak Djokovic (Amersfoort 2006), and Andy Murray (San Jose 2006).*
In any case, today I’m going to look at those men currently active on the ATP tour who won the ultimate edition of a tournament, whose names will remain the last one on the trophy. I won’t pretend that great insight will be thereby gleaned – perhaps a pattern will emerge – but sometimes it is enough merely to catalogue such things as they pass. There is a sense in which such compilations are subjective; I think I could mount a good argument why the tournament in Sao Paulo is the basically same one that was in Costa do Sauipe, while disputing the idea that Brisbane is a continuation of Adelaide, but I understand that others may not feel the same way. (I do encourage anyone who spots glaring factual inaccuracies to let me know.)
Milos Raonic (San Jose 2013)
The Canadian is only man on this list who goes out as back-to-back-to-back champion. He has won three San Jose titles in a row without dropping a set, in the process breaking records and Fernando Verdasco’s mind. It’s interesting to think how different it might have been had Gael Monfils contested their semifinal in 2011. He didn’t, Raonic gained free passage to the final, and the rest is history, in every sense. It’s even more interesting to think what the tournament’s disappearance will mean for Raonic from here. San Jose accounts for 75% of his career titles.
Sam Querrey (Los Angeles 2012 and Las Vegas 2008)
Querrey is one of two men who merit inclusion on this list twice. He is the forever champion in Los Angeles, which he won a total of three times. Indeed, one report archly implied that his dominance was part of the reason the event was consigned to oblivion (or Columbia). He was also the last man to win the ill-fated Las Vegas event, which is where the Scottsdale tourney went to undergo palliative care.
Andreas Seppi (Belgrade 2012)
When the old Dutch Open was sold to the Djokovic family, they probably dreamed it would last longer in their home city than five years. Alas, the event more or less lived and died according to the presence of the family’s most famed member, which is a parlous situation for any tournament. Nonetheless, Seppi was a worthy final winner.
Kevin Anderson (Johannesburg 2011)
At the time, I joked that Joburg’s days were numbered when Feliciano Lopez was marketed as the star attraction in 2011. Initially things seemed okay, with players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer lured to South Africa, presumably with their consent. But geography and scheduling proved a fatal cocktail. Staged the week after the Australian Open, at the far end of the earth, it just couldn’t work. It was, nonetheless, Anderson’s first title. It also boasted a truly ludicrous trophy, as so many do.
Nikolay Davydenko (Pörtschach 2008 and Warsaw 2008)
Davydenko is the other twice-tainted forever man. He remains the eternal champion in both Pörtschach and in Warsaw (which were to St Poeten and Sopot what Las Vegas was to Scottsdale: a nice spot for the tournament to sit with a rug over its knees as it quickly slid into its eternal goodnight). Both of these events were staged for the last time in 2008, which was something of a watershed year as far as these matters go. If the prevailing trend is for the United States to shed tournaments, five years ago Europe was suffering a similar affliction. It is curious that almost alone among this list, Davydenko is rare for being a player who was at the top of the game when he won these tournaments (ranked world No.4), although this says more about how modest his profile was even in his hey-day.
Ivo Karlovic (Nottingham 2008)
In 1998, the towering Croat became the two-time defending champion in Nottingham, which used to be the Wimbledon warm-up that almost no one played. On this surface, facing a weak field with his serve, Karlovic had no trouble making hay from the emerald sward. Nottingham was replaced (but not relocated) on the calendar by Eastbourne, which became a dual-gender event. The current Nottingham Challenger is a totally new tournament.
Michael Llodra (Adelaide 2008)
The French net-rusher was the last man ever to win the ATP event in Adelaide, also in 2008. The technical argument is that this tournament was moved to Brisbane, and combined with the existing WTA event. Technically this may be true, but really the Brisbane International is nothing like the old warhorse at Memorial Drive, where Lleyton Hewitt famously won his first career title as a 16 year old.
Richard Gasquet (Mumbai 2007)
The tournament that finally found peace in Mumbai had led a troubled journey through what some Australians quaintly persist in calling the Far East, beginning in Shanghai, moving briefly to Ho Chi Minh City, and finally gasping its last in Mumbai. After Gasquet won the final instalment, it was supposed to move to Bangalore, but security concerns cancelled the event the following year, and after that everyone seemed to lose interest. It was replaced by Kuala Lumpur, meaning that India, the second largest country in the Asia, lacks a tournament within the now-unified Asian Swing.
Filippo Volandri (Palermo 2006)
I confess I don’t know too much about this one, although I’d suggest that the days were numbered on any tournament whose final featured Volandri three years in a row.
Robin Soderling (Milan 2005)
The Milan Indoors was one of those tournaments with a tremendous history and a champion’s list that scans like a who’s who of the Open Era (McEnroe and Becker won four times each. Lendl, Borg, Edberg, and Vilas also hoisted the trophy). Roger Federer won his first title here in 2001. Nonetheless, the entry list had thinned calamitously by the time Soderling won in 2005, years before the Swede found his place in the loftier echelons of the sport. At the time he was just another in a lengthening line of journeyman champions, a line that leads smaller regional tournaments inevitably to the scrapheap.
*Amersfoort later moved to Belgrade, which has also been cancelled.
The ATP 250 tournament currently called the SAP Open, and currently hosted in San Jose, California, has been continuously operating in some form since 1889, making it the second oldest tennis tournament in the United States. The current edition will be its last. Next year the tournament relocates to Memphis.
One would hope that in its final year the SAP Open would make a strenuous effort to honor its golden past. If today was anything to go by, the tournament instead appears content merely to showcase its dreary present, and to illustrate just why it had to go.
Last Saturday night an attendee at the San Jose Sharks ice-hockey game tweeted their disbelief that within twenty-four hours the playing surface would be replaced by a tennis court. Attached pictures attested that the floor of the HP Pavilion was indeed composed of ice, and that the stands were packed with people. Really, one must have greater faith in modern technology. Stage-managing the set switch from a hockey rink to a tennis court is relatively easy to accomplish. Convincing the people to hang around, on the other hand, is apparently an insurmountable problem. As ever during the SAP Open, the stadium today looked like it had been converted into a storage facility for unused bleachers.
It is debatable whether the prevailing vibe is more depressed in San Jose than it was in Montpellier last week, which attained transcendent new levels of banality in striving to entertain its few attendees. (The best moment – if ‘best’ is the word – came when the court was invaded by a dance troupe pretending to be synchronized swimmers. Unfortunately for those of us watching, the impression was uncanny, achieving a manic exuberance unmatched anywhere outside of a North Korean military parade.) The SAP Open boasts nothing as overtly weird, although ones awareness that this is its last edition certainly helps to deflate proceedings. It didn’t have to, though: you’d hope the imminence of its loss would lend proceedings a bittersweet piquancy. But the organisers seem determined that blandness will prevail, at least until the weekend.
It shares every other current event’s penchant for incongruous and blaring music at the changeovers. This is staple fare during the slow month of February, and each region has its own preferred playlist, although the selection never seems quite to align with local tastes. Montpellier had a great time with ‘Part Time Lover’. San Jose differs in that fans may make requests of the DJ via Twitter. So far today I’ve heard Bon Jovi, Nickelback, Bruno Mars and Chumbawamba, among others. It is therefore theoretically possible to track down those responsible.
In the spirit of commercialism, the SAP Open periodically alleviates these pop-medleys by advertising local businesses. I now know that Blue Mango was recently voted best Thai restaurant in Silicon Valley, which will come in handy the next time I want to travel 8,000 miles for dinner. Admittedly the ads are intended for those in the stadium itself, but given that there were only about twelve people there today, I’m not convinced Blue Mango is seeing a decent return for its advertising dollar. Along with sparse attendance, the tournament has struggled with sponsorship for years. The impression, across the board, is that the event has been left to drift aimlessly for a good decade, a far cry from the days when Barry MacKay toiled tirelessly in its promotion. As ever, the whole thing feels provincial, and, despite its cavernous venue, cramped.
For those fans who unfortunately cannot attend in person – apparently nearly all of them – the television coverage hardly encourages them to tune in. It is seemingly directed by Terry Gilliam in full Twelve Monkeys mode, and assembled from whatever security footage he has at hand. The default camera is positioned along the doubles sideline on the umpire’s side of the court, on a shallow angle. This is periodically switched out for a useful low-angle behind the opposite baseline, or to another less-useful camera suspended from the ceiling. The perspective and the ends switch about restlessly, thereby making it easier to lose track of which player is which. I know this is the tournament’s last year, but could they not have positioned a camera in the conventional spot?
Ryan Harrison today was the tiny but vociferous figure who wasn’t wearing a hat, while Benjamin Becker was the one in white, with his hat turned backwards. Harrison was by all accounts unwell, although as far as I could make out from the bird’s nest vantage he was competing with undiminished gusto, especially when he fought to break back in the final set. The crowd went wild, although their meagre cheers were immediately drowned out by the sound system’s efforts to entertain them. Alas, Harrison was broken again immediately, and Becker eventually served out the match. The best points came at the end, as Harrison saved a couple of match points.
Jack Sock was clad in yellow, and like Becker wore a hat, which counts as a highlight. Marinko Matosevic was hatless, in white. Sock led by a break throughout much of the first set, lost it, then lost the set in a tiebreaker. Thereafter he lost interest, and soon afterwards, the match. The hatless Ryan Sweeting fared no better against the presumably be-goggled Denis Istomin (the security footage made it hard to be sure), losing in straight sets. Later on Tim Smyczek upset Fernando Verdasco, thus saving Milos Raonic the trouble.
It was thus a mixed day for the young American men, but a bad day for an old American tournament. At least for the former there is some hope that better days will come. For the San Jose tournament the best days, in which the world’s top players would do vigorous battle for a coveted title, are only fading memories. The ATP website put up a nice video to commemorate the passing, appropriately valedictory in tone, rich with recollection, and entirely contrasting with the limping haggardness of the event so far. Thankfully, they’ve planned something special for the weekend. I hope it’s an appropriate send-off.
By Matt Fitzgerald, Special for Tennis Grandstand
On a crisp January morning in Texas, four-time Grand Slam champion Mark Knowles found himself in an elementary school classroom in Southlake. Accompanying his eldest child Graham to a breakfast function, “Donuts For Dads”, Knowles spent the morning with his son’s classmates and fellow fathers in the area, who had made their usual plans to attend the occasion before heading off to work. But Knowles was turning out for the first time. The Bahamian’s profession is unlike anyone else’s in his community. His occupation forces him to make personal sacrifices on a consistent basis. Sacrifices like quality time with his children. But on this day, in this month of January, Knowles put his family first… and tennis second.
9,000 miles away in Melbourne, the Australian Open was just underway. It was an event Knowles had played professionally since 1993, a tournament where he first tasted Grand Slam glory in 2002. At 40 years old, it’s hard to fathom many players, if any, would forgo the year’s first Grand Slam tournament with a full bill of health. But Knowles isn’t ordinary. He’s extraordinary. Knowing it may have been his final opportunity to play Down Under, the precious time with his family is something Knowles wouldn’t trade for anything else. “I have been fortunate to have a long, successful career and I have reached a stage where all my decisions are family based as opposed to being based around my tennis,” Knowles tells Tennis Grandstand in Delray Beach.
“Things have changed a lot for me with the addition of our third child, and with my oldest son, Graham, starting Kindergarten last September. I always told myself that I wanted to be there for my kids growing up as much as I possibly could.”
His wife Dawn, whom he married in 2003, relished the change in dynamics. “Mark has a close bond with the children. For us as a couple, it was great, as we got to do so many things as a family. I’m usually doing many of things by myself,” said the Texan.
“The day in and day out of having Mark home with the kids was wonderful. One minute, he’s outside kicking the soccer ball with Brody. Or he’s working on Graham’s baseball since it’s starting up. The next minute, he’ll take Presley outside in the Baby Bjorn. There’s not a minute where he’s not with one of those kids, so it’s great for me.”
Family has always been a priority for Knowles, but with the birth of daughter Presley last March, it would seem to be even more difficult to strike a perfect harmony between his loved ones and his career. But not for the former world No. 1, stating, “I want to be a major influence in my kids’ lives. And with that comes the responsibility of being there for my wife and my kids.
“It takes so much hard work and dedication to be a great tennis player and I have chosen to shift those energies towards being a great husband and great father for my family. Just like tennis or anything else, you have to dedicate yourself completely to it. The best part about it is that I love being with my family so much that it makes it easier to be away from the tennis sometimes.”
The couple has found it challenging to deal with the requirements of Knowles being on and off the road, in particular with six-year old Graham, explains Dawn. “Mark will say that he’s just going to play tennis for a few days, but Graham knows the difference now with how long a day is. Brody doesn’t know the time frame.
“The hardest part is the kids are getting smarter, so we can’t keep saying dad is going to be gone for a couple days, because they’re counting the days he’s away. They ask for him at night. Mark helps Graham with his homework, taking the time to read the books and oversee all of his assignments. When it’s me doing it, it’s not the same for him. His expectation is that time is for him and his dad to spend together.”
Perhaps the best decision Knowles made after having two months with his family was a return to action at the Dallas Challenger in February, a virtual hometown event that would allow him to ease back into the reality of his career. Playing an ATP Challenger event for the first time in 11 years, Knowles didn’t put himself above the level of competition at the tournament, knowing that it would be an ideal environment to acquire some match practice. “It was interesting returning to the Challenger level. It was a chance for me to get some matches in and also to play at home with family and friends watching,” says Knowles.
“The level is so high at challengers that it prepares you well for the ATP World Tour events. Being from the Bahamas, I have never had a home event. To be able to drive 20 minutes and play and then come back to your own house and be with your family was awesome!”
Partnering Robert Kendrick, Knowles reached the semifinals, and then headed off to San Jose to rejoin Xavier Malisse. The two enjoyed success during the North American summer hard court swing in 2011, winning the title in Los Angeles and reaching the third round of the US Open. They clicked more with each match in San Jose, and went on to finish in the winner’s circle to win their second team trophy. The victory gave Knowles his 55th career title, and extended his impressive streak of winning at least one tour-level title to 19 of the past 20 seasons. He also became the first player in his 40s to win a doubles title since John McEnroe (who also won in San Jose). “Playing Dallas was a huge benefit and the reason I did well in San Jose. There is no substitute for match practice and match situations,” believes Knowles.
“I always go into a tournament thinking that I can win it. I think everyone feels that way. However, I know how hard it is to win tournaments, especially coming off a prolonged break. Xavier and I were able to raise our games with each match and that is what it takes to win at this level.”
Knowles hasn’t set any specific goals for this season, but will continue playing provided his ranking holds up to gain him entry into tournaments. For Dawn, she would love nothing more than for Mark to play in another final, with Graham cheering him on from the front row. “Graham is beginning to understand sports. Before Mark went to San Jose, he said, ‘I hope you get the trophy.’ His idea of winning is Mark getting a piece of silverware. That’s what they do at his age. For him to see Mark lift the trophy would be huge. He thinks that’s the best thing in the world.”
Either way, Dawn is backing her husband 100 percent, whether he decides to retire tomorrow, at the end of the year or further down the road. Being there with him through all the ups and downs, the former model believes his accomplishments speak for themselves. “If I could waive the magic wand and give him the men’s doubles Wimbledon title, I would totally do that. But that doesn’t define his career. He’s a good candidate for the Hall Of Fame. He has a proven record with a variety of partners to show he can win.
“If he decides at the end of this year that he’s done, I want him to walk away like he’s done it all and is satisfied. I’m going to support him through that decision. He’ll go down as one of the best doubles players to play the game and I’m not saying that because I have to as his wife. In a broader context, he has earned that among his peers.”
(All photos courtesy of Mark’s wife, Dawn Knowles via the author)
Matt Fitzgerald is the web editor for the ATP World Tour and Tennis Grandstand’s resident doubles specialist. He is in Indian Wells, California this week covering the BNP Paribas Open and will be in Key Biscayne, Florida next week covering the Sony Ericsson Open. Follow Matt on twitter @tennisfitz.
Milos Raonic received a bottle of Canadian maple syrup for the second consecutive year from SAP Open tournament director Bill Rapp on Sunday after he successfully defended his San Jose title.
The 21-year-old native of Thornhill, Ontario defeated world no. 61 Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan 7-6(3), 6-2 in the championship final to earn his third career title and become the first player since Andy Murray (2006-07) and Andy Roddick (2004-05) to win back-to-back titles in San Jose. Raonic also becomes the first player on the ATP World Tour to capture two titles in 2012 after winning in Chennai during the first week of the season. He is now 11-1 on the year.
Raonic, who did not drop a set en route to the title, once again showcased his dominance on serve, winning 41 of his 42 service games to remain undefeated at the SAP Open. In the final against Istomin, the Canadian lost a mere four points on serve in his 80 minute victory. Raonic also kept his unblemished tiebreak record in San Jose intact, improving to 8-0.
“I feel amazing. It’s definitely a different feeling from the first time last year. I think I’m more aware and more appreciative of the moment,” Raonic told the crowd in an on-court interview.
Raonic was able to defend his title at San Jose despite being unable to play his final singles match at the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas first-round match-up against France the previous weekend. What was originally thought by doctors to be a 4 millimeter tear in Raonic’s left knee following an ultrasound in Vancouver, turned out to be nothing serious once the swelling faded. He was re-examined upon his arrival at the Stanford Medical Center on Monday and the MRI results thankfully allowed doctors to give the fastest rising star in tennis the green light to return to the court after just a few days rest.
All three of Raonic’s ATP titles have come on hard courts and at 250 level events. The next step for the hard serving Canuck, nicknamed the “Maple Leaf Missile”, will be to make deeper runs at bigger tournaments on multiple surfaces where the competition is tougher. Raonic will get the chance to do just that this week in Memphis, an ATP 500 event, where he reached the final last year before falling to Andy Roddick in a hotly contested final that featured one of the shots of 2011 by Roddick on match point.
Raonic is seeded fourth in Memphis this year and finds himself in the same section of the draw as second-seeded Roddick, fifth-seeded Russian Alex Bogomolov Jr. and sixth-seeded Julien Benneteau of France. He will play his first match on Wednesday night against talented Latvian Ernests Gulbis.
Fellow Canadian Rebecca Marino, the reigning Memphis women’s finalist, is back on Tour and will play her first match since the Australian Open against second-seeded Ksenia Pervak of Kazakhstan in the opening round on Tuesday. In addition to Marino and Raonic reaching the singles finals in Memphis in 2011, Daniel Nestor also won the doubles title to complete an impressive Canadian trifecta.
There are times when it takes something special to invigorate a tennis tournament, to really make it feel like the competition has begun in earnest. Without question, the most thrilling and dramatic match in recent SAP Open memory came last night, when three-time champion Andy Roddick overcame a spectacular challenge from 19-year old qualifier Denis Kudla, 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-4. Under any set of circumstances, the match’s changes in momentum and stellar shot-making from both players would have had all the makings of a classic match. But it was an injury scare deep in the second set that raised the drama in this match to another level.
Roddick had started the match somewhat tentatively, which was cause for concern since the former world number one was playing his first tournament since withdrawing from the Australian Open with a hamstring injury. As the match wore on, it seemed to be more a result of a lack of match practice, rather than any lingering effects. Roddick found a serving rhythm, and while he was still not playing at his best, he was varying his shots effectively and moving well around the court.
It quickly became apparent that for Roddick, moving well would be an absolute necessity. His young opponent, who had to overcome some jitters at the start of the match, quickly settled into an extremely comfortable and surprising rhythm. Since Kudla is a newcomer to the ATP (he was playing in his ninth career tour-level match), not many of the viewers knew what to expect from him. Some had seen him play an excellent match in the first round against Jack Sock, in which he played solidly but largely beat the other young American with his consistency. He came out against the veteran with a much more difficult game plan.
Denis Kudla, who had reached the finals of the 2010 U.S. Open Junior tournament, played the majority of the match at a level that no one would have ever expected from a player ranked outside the top 200, except perhaps for Kudla himself. He had the confidence to go for shots that were for all intents and purposes, ridiculous. He would hit winners stretched wide to both his forehand and backhand side. He would blast shots up the line and rip cross-court winners. For a stretch, it not only seemed that Kudla was able to consistently paint the lines with his shots, it seemed that he was refusing to hit anywhere else on the court.
Roddick was clearly flustered by the flurry of winners coming off the 19-year old’s racket, and on many occasions when another cleanly-struck, line-licking ball flew past him, all he could do was roll his eyes in disbelief and get ready for the next point. This onslaught would have been enough to unsettle most players, but Roddick was clearly there to win. He may have only been playing, in his own words, “at 40%” throughout the first set, but he still managed to get it to a tie-break. Some aggressive play from his opponent in a key moment was enough to seal the set, and Roddick suddenly found himself down a set.
The second set saw Roddick up his intensity, buoyed by the crowd’s support and his own frustration. He started hitting his shots with more pace, while Kudla continued to swing freely, hardly concerned with the fact that he wasn’t supposed to be able to play that well for that long. Roddick was leading as the tail end of the set was drawing close, and the crowd was rooting for Andy to break and take the set. But when stretching out wide to return serve on the first point of the game at 4-5, Roddick rolled over on his ankle and screamed in pain as he rolled on the ground, covering his face with his hands.
The atmosphere in the arena was tense while the trainer evaluated the extent of Roddick’s injury. Ultimately, his ankle was put in a brace and took a few tentative steps. After the match, Andy admitted that he thought that the match might have been over, but he said in his press conference that he didn’t want to retire from another match with injury. He “was tired of doing that,” he said. Even when he returned to the court, it seemed like a long shot that he would be able to fight all the way back.
He was clearly moving a bit gingerly on his injured ankle, finding it difficult to push off that side. In his first service game after the injury, Roddick found himself in a love-forty hole. If he was broken there, surely Kudla would be able to serve out the match. It was at that point that the 19-year old first showed signs that he was feeling the pressure. Kudla had a simple cross-court pass that would have given him the break, but he pushed it slightly wide. Despite being slightly hobbled, Roddick seemed to detect the little waver in his opponent’s nerve, and he somehow managed not only to hold serve, but he also managed to eke out the tiebreak that followed.
Two hours in and the pair were tied at a set apiece. Each had held serve twelve straight times. Shockingly, the third set started with Kudla – who must have been severely disappointed that he hadn’t been able to wrap the match up already – finding a way to break Andy Roddick’s serve. It was at this point, once again, that Kudla blinked. He had the victory in his sights, and the pressure of beating a player who had inspired him while he was growing up proved to be too much. Kudla was broken twice, largely off of shots that he had been making for the first two sets, but were now landing well wide of the lines.
In the end, Roddick was happy to get the win and hopeful that his ankle would recover in time for him to play his best in Friday’s quarterfinal. But he believed that Kudla struggled with the prospect of winning the match, once the reality of it was so close. He knew that he’d been let off the hook, in some ways, by the younger American, and he understood the special kind of pressure that came with closing out a big upset.
Over the course of two hours and forty-two minutes, Roddick and Kudla played 257 total points. The match was so close that the final breakdown of points won was Kudla – 128 and Roddick – 129. The one extra point that Roddick won turned out to be the only point that mattered: match point.
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.
While the tennis season has been underway for nearly a month and a half already, the sport has to make its way onto US soil – with the exception of five matches a few weeks ago, when the United States bested Belarus in Fed Cup competition in Worcester, Massachusetts. That encounter was just a taste, because from now until the middle of April, there will be at least one professional tennis tournament taking place in the United States every week.
The first tournament is the long-running SAP Open in San Jose, and it must be said that US tennis is slightly stumbling out of the blocks. Even before the tournament has officially begun, the draw has been dramatically weakened by some high-profile withdrawals, particularly the veterans Hewitt and Blake, along with up-and-coming Aussie phenom Bernard Tomic. As if that weren’t enough, all three of the tournament’s top three seeds (Roddick, Monfils, and defending champion Raonic) have been struggling with injuries recently, and their ability to perform at their top levels has to be considered something of a question mark.
Fortunately for the tournament organizers, the remainder of the field – while not necessarily star-studded – is certainly varied. There are a handful of tour veterans, including Tommy Haas, Radek Stepanek, Xavier Malisse, and Michael Russell. The showing from the younger contingent is just as strong, as it features Donald Young, Grigor Dimitrov, Ryan Harrison, and (probably) Milos Raonic. In addition to those young men, there is an excellent chance that we’ll have at least a couple more, once qualifying is completed on Monday. Ricardas Berankis, Yuki Bhambri, and Denis Kudla are all young players who have a shot at the main draw. Several years ago, Andy Murray won his first ATP title in San Jose, so we could see another young gun using this tournament as a springboard this year.
There are a handful of other interesting players scattered throughout the draw, including a pair of Americans fighting their way back from injuries last year (Sam Querrey and Robbie Ginepri), one of the shortest and one of the tallest players on tour (Olivier Rochus and Kevin Anderson), as well as the most successful active player without a tournament win (Julien Benneteau, who is 0-6 in finals). I also happen to think that Denis Istomin is one of the most entertaining players who you’ve probably never heard of. Just check out this point he played against Nadal a few years ago. He’s a guy that I keep expecting to make a breakthrough, but it hasn’t happened, yet.
It’s always tough to predict how a tournament will break down, before you can see what sort of form players are in and how well they like the conditions that particular week. It’s especially difficult for a tournament when the favorites are carrying injuries that aren’t going to be helping their chances. Roddick, Raonic, and Stepanek are all former champions here. Raonic has another title this year already, and Monfils made the final of the last tournament he played in, losing a close match to Berdych in Montpellier. Roddick looked to be in good form at the Australian Open until a hamstring injury sidelined him against Lleyton Hewitt. Roddick is one of two active players (the other being Federer) to have won at least one title per year for the last eleven years. I know that’s a streak that Andy would like to see continue, and if he’s fully recovered, he has an excellent shot this week in San Jose.
If Roddick and the other big dogs aren’t able to play their best, then it might be open season. There are plenty of wily veterans who would love to get their hands on the trophy and just as many hungry young players who want their first taste of victory.
For years, Canada’s tennis accomplishments could be found in one man’s trophy case, that of doubles legend Daniel Nestor. The country’s tennis community has been starving for its first bona fide singles player since the days of Carling Bassett-Seguso, Helen Kelesi and Canadian turned Brit Greg Rusedski.
Over the past few seasons, Canadian tennis has turned over a new leaf. The proverbial ball started rolling in 2008 when Aleksandra Wozniak became the first Canadian in 20 years to win a WTA title and reached a career-high ranking of no. 21 in June of 2009. Fast forward two years and the emergence of a trio of 20-year-olds with big serves, Milos Raonic, Rebecca Marino and Vasek Pospisil will arguably make 2011 the greatest single season in Canadian tennis history.
An unexpected run to the fourth round of the Australian Open put Raonic on the tennis map, and in a big way. He proved his performance was no fluke, backing it up with his maiden ATP title in San Jose and a finals appearance in Memphis where he lost a dramatic championship match to Andy Roddick. His breakthrough season has allowed Raonic to become the highest ranked Canadian man in history and also earned him nomination for the ATP’s Newcomer of the Year award. In the process, Raonic has become Canada’s tennis ambassador, and a very good one at that. After recovering from hip surgery this summer, the sky is the limit for Raonic in 2012.
With Raonic watching on the sidelines, Vasek Pospisil single-handedly propelled Canada into the Davis Cup World Group for the first time since 2005, winning all three of his matches against Israel including the decisive fifth rubber. Pospisil also posted the first two Top 50 wins of his career in 2011 over Juan Igancio Chela at the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank and over John Isner at the Valencia Open.
A second round showing at the Australian Open, an appearance in the final at Memphis and a run to the third round of the French Open allowed Rebecca Marino to crack the Top 40 on the WTA rankings, overtaking Wozniak as the top Canadian in the women’s game.
At the junior level, Eugenie Bouchard won the Wimbledon doubles title this season and is the no. 5 ranked junior player in the world. At no. 20, Françoise Abanda is the top ranked 14-year-old on the planet.
The establishment of three National Training Centres in Montreal, Toronto and just last week in Vancouver, as well as talent id programs, is further proof that Canada is serious about developing tennis champions and intend on starting at an early age.
For the first time in a long time, the tennis world is sitting up and taking notice of Canada as one of the fastest growing tennis nations in the world. Perhaps what is most encouraging is the fact that success is coming by committee and not just the result of one player’s exploits.
Robby Ginepri beat Sam Querrey 6-2 6-4 to win the Indianapolis Tennis Championships in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Nikolay Davydenko beat Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4 6-2 to win the International German Open in Hamburg, Germany
Dinara Safina won the Banka Koper Slovenia Open in Portoroz, Slovenia, beating Sara Errani 6-7 (5) 6-1 7-5
Andrea Petkovic beat Ioana Raluca Olaru 6-2 6-3 to win the Gastein Ladies in Bad Gastein, Austria
“I have some exciting news to share with you. Late last night, in Switzerland, Mirka and I became proud parents of twin girls. This is the best day of our lives.” – Roger Federer, announcing the births on his Web site and Facebook page.
“The twins certainly come from good tennis stock. If they are half as good as their dad they will still be a potent force on the court.” – Nick Weinberg, spokesman for British bookmaker Ladbrokes on the twin girls one day winning Wimbledon.
“When you have a lot of losses, you start questioning if you can play at this level. It creeps in the back of your mind, so this is definitely a confidence boost for me the rest of the summer.” – Robby Ginepri, after winning the Indianapolis Tennis Championships.
“It’s been a great week for me. Of course, when you are in a final you always want to win but it has been a great week for me.” – Paul-Henri Mathieu, after losing in the Hamburg, Germany, final to Nikolay Davydenko.
“I know I am good enough to beat most players on this level.” – Andrea Petkovic, after reaching her first career WTA Tour final, which she won.
“I played better each match this week. I beat two Top 30 players this week, the best wins of my career. I’m sorry about today: I wish I could have done more, but there’s always next tournament.” – Ioana Raluca Olaru, who lost in the Gastein Ladies final to Andrea Petkovic.
“I am a hundred percent. I mean, if I wasn’t at that point, I certainly wouldn’t be playing.” – Maria Sharapova, who played for the Newport Beach Breakers in a World TeamTennis match against Kansas City.
“There’s always a lot of pressure against Korie (Homan) because I have not lost a set at this tournament since 2000 and of course I have the winning streak.” – Esther Vergeer, after stretching her unbeaten singles record to 364 matches in wheelchair tennis by again beating world number two Korie Homan.
“Andy’s presence really does give a boost to County Week and British tennis in general. It proves to 12-, 13- and 14-year-old children that if the world number three can be bothered to show up and compete for his county, then they can do it, too.” – Ian Conway, captain of the North of Scotland team, on Andy Murray playing an amateur event.
It’s been awhile since Nikolay Davydenko took home the biggest check at a tournament. The Russian won his first ATP World Tour title in over a year when he trounced Paul-Henri Mathieu at the International German Open in Hamburg. Davydenko last appeared in a final at the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai last November, and he hadn’t won a title since Warsaw, Poland, in June 2008. Davydenko also became the first Russian to win in Hamburg.
Until this past week, Andrea Petkovic had a 3-8 lifetime record in WTA Tour-level events, with all three match wins coming at Grand Slam tournaments. That changed in Bad Gastein, Austria, where Petkovic won five straight matches and her first Sony Ericsson WTA Tour title, the Gastein Ladies, when she stopped Ioana Raluca Olaru. The unseeded German dropped only one set all week, that to seventh-seeded Anna-Lena Groenefeld in the quarterfinals. “It’s the best moment of my career,” Petkovic said. “I hope I can keep playing like this and build on it.” Olaru was also appearing in her first Tour singles final, having upset third-seeded Sybille Bammer, sixth-seeded Magdalena Rybarikova and top-seeded Alize Cornet en route to the title match.
It didn’t take the British bookmakers long. Just a day after their birth, Roger Federer’s twin daughters were given 100-1 odds for either to win Wimbledon. Charlene Riva Federer and Myla Rose Federer are 50-1 to win a Grand Slam as part of the same doubles team and 200-1 to capture the Wimbledon women’s doubles. Andy Roddick, who has lost the Wimbledon final three times to the twins’ father, agreed with the bookies. The American sent a message from his Twitter page, which read: “Wimbledon women’s champs in 2029-2040 … the Federer girls: congrats to the new parents!”
Playing together for the first time, Dmitry Tursunov of Russia and Ernests Gulbis of Latvia won all four matches in third-set super tiebreakers to capture the doubles title at the Indianapolis Tennis Championships. “They’re obviously better as a team, but when there’s a lot of firepower against you, there’s not much you can do,” Tursunov said after the pair beat top-seeded Ashley Fisher and Jordan Kerr 6-4 3-6 11-9 (match tiebreak). Not one to break up a winning pair, the two plan to play together in Los Angeles this week. “It’s kind of like beginner’s luck in poker, so we’ll see how it goes,” Tursunov said. “If we’re having success, it makes sense to continue to play.”
STEPPING IT UP
The knee injury must be better. Rafael Nadal has returned to training for the first time since he was sidelined by tendinitis in his right knee. Nadal is planning on returning to the ATP tour at the Montreal Masters next month. He has been out since losing to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open, where he was seeking his fifth straight title. The injury also kept him from defending his Wimbledon crown. With Nadal not there, Roger Federer won both Roland Garros and Wimbledon to record his 15th Grand Slam trophy and reclaim the number one ranking.
Leander Paes was named the league’s male MVP as he led the Washington Kastles to their first World TeamTennis Pro League championship. Paes teamed with Scott Oudsema to win the men’s doubles and with Rennae Stubbs to win the mixed doubles as the Kastles downed the Springfield Lasers 23-20. Oudsema beat Springfield’s Raven Klaasen in the men’s singles, while Washington’s Olga Puchkova downed Vania King in women’s singles. King and Liezel Huber captured the women’s doubles. King was named the league’s female MVP.
Cara Black is only 5-foot-6 ( 1.67m) but she stands tall in the tennis record book. The Zimbabwean player is second only to Hall of Famer Martina Navratilova in the number of weeks spent as the number one doubles player in the world. When Black recorded her 125th week at number one spot, she moved past Natasha Zvereva. The 30-year-old first took over the top spot on October 17, 2005, staying there for 16 weeks. She regained the spot on June 11, 2007, before relinquishing it two weeks later to Lisa Raymond. But Black began her third and current stint at number one on July 9, 2007, after winning Wimbledon. Navratilova led the doubles rankings for 237 weeks.
Austria’s national anti-doping authorities are investigating Tamira Paszek after she received a medical treatment for a back injury that allegedly violated doping regulations. Authorities say that during treatment earlier this month, blood was taken from Paszek for enrichment, then later injected back into her, which is not allowed under international anti-doping rules. Paszek said she was not aware that the treatment was possibly illegal until a reporter told her. Paszek then alerted the Austrian anti-doping agency NADA, which began its investigation. The Austrian right-hander has struggled with back problems since last season. She has not played since retiring during her first-round match at Wimbledon.
Argentina’s David Nalbandian and Croatia’s Mario Ancic won’t be playing in this year’s US Open. According to the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the 15th-ranked Nalbandian is still recovering from recent hip surgery, while Ancic is battling mononucleosis. Their spots in the men’s main draw were taken by Ivan Navarro of Spain and Karol Beck of Slovakia.
An injury has caused Li Na of China to withdraw from China’s National Games in Shandong. The 27-year-old said she felt a recurrence of her right knee injury. Li will undergo tests in Beijing to determine whether she will be able to play the North American hard court season, including the US Open. “We have signed up for it and got the visa,” said Li’s husband and coach, Jiang Shan. “If she is OK by then we will go to play.”
John McEnroe seems to be a lightning rod for problems on a tennis court. His World TeamTennis club has been fined for what the league called “unprofessional conduct.” During the men’s doubles match between McEnroe’s New York Sportimes and the Washington Kastles, a shot by Washington’s Leander Paes hit New York’s Robert Kendrick. McEnroe and Sportimes coach Chuck Adams went to Paes’ side of the court and yelled at him. Four points later, Kendrick hit Paes with a serve, prompting more confrontations. The league suspended and fined Adams the next day, then, after reviewing the video and getting the umpire’s report, issued fines on both teams. Kendrick and Kastles player Olga Puchkova received individual fines.
SHORT STICH STAY
Michael Stich’s return to competitive tennis lasted only 62 minutes. The former Wimbledon champion lost his first-round doubles match at the German Open in Hamburg. The 40-year-old Stich, who retired from the sport 12 years ago, and 21-year-old Mischa Zverev were beaten by Simon Aspelin of Sweden and Paul Hanley of Australia 6-4 6-2. Stich won Wimbledon in 1991 and reached the final at both the French Open and US Open. His best ranking was number two in the world. As tournament director of the German Open, Stich gave himself and Zverev a wild card into the tournament. Stich is not the only retired player to make a brief doubles comeback. John McEnroe was 47 when he and Sweden’s Jonas Bjorkman won the doubles at San Jose, California. That came 14 years after his previous title.
SAYING AU REVOIR
Nathalie Dechy is calling it a career. The 30-year-old Frenchwoman is expecting a child and wants to devote her time to family life. Dechy reached the Australian Open semifinals in 2005, but is currently ranked 88th in the world. She won two US Open women’s doubles titles, with Vera Zvonareva in 2006 and Dinara Safina in 2007. She also won the French Open mixed doubles in 2007 with Israel’s Andy Ram. Dechy won her only WTA Tour singles title at the Gold Coast tournament in 2003 and reached her career-highest ranking in January 2006 when she rose to 11th in the world. She played for France in the Fed Cup in singles and doubles from 2000 until this year.
STRIKE IT WASN’T
Robby Ginepri had an unusual way of throwing out the game’s first pitch when he was a special guest at the Triple-A baseball game between the Indianapolis Indians and the Durham Bulls. In Indiana where he was competing in the Indianapolis Tennis Championships, Ginepri used his racquet and a tennis ball to serve to the Indians catcher. The umpire called balls on both of Ginepri’s “serves,” but the American was delighted with his performance. “It was very close to a strike,” Ginepri said. “It is quite different to have to serve at a catcher’s glove. The target is just very small.”
SCHOLARSHIPS BY MARIA
Maria Sharapova is continuing to give back. The former world number one has launched the Maria Sharapova Foundation to distribute scholarships among first-year students at Belarusian State University throughout the 2009-2010 academic year. The USD $3,500 scholarships will be available to Belarus residents attending BSU who come from areas formally recognized as affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. According to the BSU press office, recipients should actively participate in public, research and volunteer activities, and should have a high average grade in their general education school diplomas. It’s not the first time the tennis player has given generously. In February 2007, Sharapova, who serves as a Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Development Program, donated USD $100,000 for eight Chernobyl relief projects in Belarus and Ukraine. Sharapova’s father and pregnant mother fled Homyel, a town 80 miles north of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, shortly after the accident in April 1986. She was born in a Siberian city months later.
SUMMER COUNTY CUP
Forget the ranking. Andy Murray took time to compete in the AEGON Summer County Cup, a 115-year-old amateur team tennis competition. With no umpires, line judges or ball-persons, the players call their own lines in the last amateur grass-court competition in the United Kingdom where senior professionals mix with junior players to represent their county in a competitive team environment. It was a huge surprise to the other players and the 300 spectators at Eastbourne when Murray showed up to play for North of Scotland. “Andy has come down to Eastbourne under his own steam, paying for his transport and lunch out of his own pocket,” said North of Scotland captain Ian Conway. “I was surprised and delighted, and his presence has given the rest of the team a huge boost.” While Murray and Owen Hadden won all three of their matches for the North of Scotland, Hertfordshire won the tie 5-4 when Andy’s brother, Jamie Murray, and his partner lost the deciding match 6-3 6-7 (3) 10-8 (match tiebreak).
Esther Vergeer is not slowing down. The Dutch woman won her ninth consecutive women’s wheelchair singles title at the British Open in Nottingham, defeating Korie Homan. Ranked number one in the world, Vergeer stretched her winning streak to 364 matches.
Shingo Kunieda of Japan won the men’s main draw singles, while American David Wagner captured the quad singles titles. Kunieda beat Stephane Houdet for his third successive men’s main draw singles title. Wagner won his second British Open quad singles in three years as he beat world number one and home favorite Peter Norfolk.
Nicole Pratt has been appointed Australian national women’s coach. A former junior Australian Open champion, Pratt will work with Australia’s Fed Cup team and on player development, according to Tennis Australia. Pratt’s highest ranking on the WTA Tour was 35th in the world.
Indianapolis: Dmitry Tursunov and Ernests Gulbis beat Ashley Fisher and Jordan Kerr 6-4 3-6 11-9 (match tiebreak)
Hamburg: Simon Aspelin and Paul Hanley beat Marcelo Melo and Filip Polasek 6-3 6-3
Bad Gastein: Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka beat Tatjana Malek and Andrea Petkovic 6-2 6-4
Portoroz: Julia Goerges and Vladimira Uhlirova beat Camille Pin and Klara Zakopalova 6-4 6-2
SITES TO SURF
Los Angeles: www.latennisopen.com/
San Marino: www.atpsanmarino.com/
Los Angeles: www.latennischamps.com/
TOURNAMENTS THIS WEEK
(All money in USD)
$700,000 Countrywide Classic, Los Angeles, California, USA, hard
$500,000 Allianz Suisse Open, Gstaad, Switzerland, clay
$450,000 Studena Croatia Open, Umag, Croatia, clay
$100,000 Orbetello Challenger, Orbetello, Italy, clay
$700,000 Bank of the West Classic, Stanford, California, hard
$220,000 Istanbul Cup, Istanbul, Turkey, clay
TOURNAMENTS NEXT WEEK
$1,402,000 Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Washington, DC, USA, hard
$150,000 ATP Open Castilla y Leon, Segovia, Spain, hard
$120,000 San Marino CEPU Open, San Marino, clay
$100,000 Odlum Brown Vancouver Open, Vancouver, Canada, hard
$700,000 LA Women’s Tennis Championships presented by Herbalife, Los Angeles, California, USA, hard
Croatia stands just one win away from a third incredible win over the United States in Davis Cup play. Croatia, in fact, is the only nation the United States has never beaten in Davis Cup play and it will remain as such unless James Blake and Mardy Fish can sweep Marin Cilic and Ivo Karlovic in Sunday’s reverse singles. On Saturday, Bob and Mike Bryan defeated Roko Karanusic and Lovro Zovko 6-3, 6-1, 6-3, cutting the Croatian lead from 2-0 to 2-1.
After losing to Croatia 3-2 in the opening round of the 2003 competition, the United States was again upset by Croatia in the first round in 2005, despite the United States having Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and the Bryan twins on the squad. That 2005 upset – a match that was ultimately the Davis Cup swan song for Agassi – is documented below.
The day after returning back in New York after the 2004 Davis Cup Final in Sevilla, Spain, where the U.S. lost 3-2 to the Carlos Moya/Rafael Nadal led Spanish team, U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe called into the nationally-syndicated morning radio and MSNBC cable show “Imus in the Morning,” where host Don Imus and his sports reporter Sid Rosenberg had been ridiculing McEnroe for the final round loss to Spain – or as Imus described “a team of leaf blowers and cab drivers.” McEnroe was introduced onto the program as the “tennis terrorist” in that he had embarrassed the United States to the largest degree.
After taking the playful ribbing, McEnroe told “the I-man” and gang that he wanted to have a serious reflection on the Davis Cup Final, stating that he felt proud in the way that he and his team represented the United States in Spain and that the conduct and sportsmanship displayed by his team “had restored a little respect for our country in a part of the world where the U.S. is not looked upon in the most positive way” in reference to Spain’s recent objection to the foreign policy of the United States, most notably the war in Iraq.
“Next year,” Pmac then boasted. “We’re going to bring back the Cup I-man.”
Imus, quick with the retort, then stated, “When the authorities find you, they’re going to ask that you give it back.”
The United States had drawn a first round home tie against Croatia and the USTA selected The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, as the site of the contest. Los Angeles is a town that like stars and while the U.S. Davis Cup team did have a star in Andy Roddick, the one star that it was missing was one Andre Agassi.
McEnroe had always kept Agassi in the loop as far as Davis Cup goes since taking over as captain and, after asking him to play in the Final against Spain, sensed that Agassi was considering a return to Davis Cup in 2005. McEnroe began to push the buttons again at the Australian Open, where Agassi first addressed his possible comeback after his second round romp over Rainer Schuettler.
“I’m going to have this discussion with Patrick, just because he’s made the effort to want to have conversations with me about it, so I’ll be respectful of that,” said the 34-year-old Agassi. “But it’s just two-fold. I have a lot of regret not playing because it’s one of the best memories of my career, playing Davis Cup, not to mention playing with another generation of guys that have such a good fellowship and team camaraderie together. To experience that would be a great feeling. But the other side of the coin is really what my decision has come down to in the past, which is what can I really do. I’ve never been a big fan of being halfway playing at your convenience. It’s always been something I haven’t respected a whole lot in the past when it’s come to that for others. The decision I had to make is not an easy one and it hasn’t been easy, but it’s something I’ll discuss with him.”
A few days after Agassi’s quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer, McEnroe phoned Agassi at his home in Las Vegas and offered to sit down with him in person en route back to New York after the Australian Open. Agassi told McEnroe he was still hung up on the year-long commitment that he expected he would have to give to Davis Cup. On Monday January 31, McEnroe arrived in Los Angeles from Melbourne and stopped off in Carson for a media luncheon to promote the USA vs. Croatia tie. McEnroe then revealed to the gathered guests and media that he was en route to Las Vegas that evening to meet with Agassi.
”I think (Agassi) finds that right now, it’s hard for him to commit to every match because of his family and his responsibilities and because he is going to be 35 and it’s a little taxing on him,” McEnroe told the assembled press. “My job is to alleviate his fear that we don’t necessarily have to have him play ever match… I don’t need to hear from Andre ‘I’m going to play every match.’ My feeling is, let’s see how it goes. Let’s get you to play in the first round and let’s see what happens and take it from there.”
McEnroe tagged his chances at “less than 50-50” before boarding the AmericaWest Airlines flight to Las Vegas. “I don’t have any expectation other than I hope he says yes,” said McEnroe. “I have to field the best team I can and I have to exhaust all possibilities. If that means getting on a plane and sitting down with him face to face, than that’s a small price to play for trying to get him to join up.”
McEnroe met Agassi and his coach Darren Cahill for a two-and-a-half hour dinner at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The three reminisced about Davis Cup stories of old, talked of the passion of the current group of Davis Cuppers and addressed the concerns and issues that Agassi had with committing to Davis Cup. McEnroe later said he told Agassi, “Don’t cut off your options by saying it’s all or nothing, because to me it’s not. We’ve never had a year where we’ve had the same four guys every match. It’s too unrealistic for that to happen, with injuries, with different surfaces, with schedules, you name it.” McEnroe said he, the team and the tennis industry in general would not hold it against him if he could not commit for every match in 2005.
Two days later, after consulting with others in his inner circle – most notably his wife Steffi Graf – Agassi phoned McEnroe to tell him to count on him to be in Carson. Agassi then called all the members of the team – Roddick, the Bryan twins and Taylor Dent (who would travel to Carson as the “fifth” player on the four-man team and would have been the No. 2 singles player had Agassi not decided to play) – to get their approval on his returning to the team. On Monday, February 7, McEnroe made the Agassi news public in a conference call with the media.
“We’re going to take it one match at a time,” said McEnroe in explaining Agassi’s commitment to the team. “It’s not just this match. It’s not every match. I think it’s a case-by-case basis situation. He’s not coming back simply to play because it happens to be the week before Indian Wells. At the same time, I didn’t ask him to say, “Are you going to play every match?’ I understand where he is in his career, personally, professionally with all the different things on his plate. We will take it one step at a time…To me, it doesn’t make any sense to say to him, ‘Listen, you’ve got to play every match.” Things happen, things come up, whether it’s injuries, whether it’s having a tough major, whether it’s not having a tough major and maybe wanting some extra matches. I think you have to take all those things into account and understand that Andre is going to make the decision based on a variety of factors.”
Two days later, Agassi first addressed his return to Davis Cup following his first round win over xx in San Jose, Calif.
“What had a big influence on me was the camaraderie I saw last year,” said Agassi. “They’ve built a great team and are a part of something I never got to experience. I played Davis Cup with guys who were fighting to be the best in the world and everyone had a sense of their own goals…This group of guys really seems to look out for each other. I respect and admire it a lot.”
Agassi again addressed his absence from Davis Cup for five years, citing the demanding schedule and the difficultly in committing to potentially four ties during a calendar year, especially at age 34 with a wife and two children.
“I had gotten to a point that I didn’t have enough to give anymore when it came to the full goal of winning the Cup,” said Agassi. “I did it for 12 years and wasn’t convinced I could do it anymore and accomplish the things I needed to stay out here for the last few years. I never respected those guys who played at their convenience and didn’t play all times. Patrick was the first captain to show a strong sense of understanding and support in knowing it’s not realistic for me to play every tie.”
Roddick was estactic at the news and struggled to stay composed when Agassi reached him by phone while Roddick was in his car in driving several of his buddies around his hometown of Austin. Said Roddick, “I told him I was excited he was on board and then hung up the phone and started screaming.”
While the Agassi hype was substantial, insiders were paying close attention to the progress of the Croatian team. Ivan Ljubicic, who had almost single handedly defeated the United States in Zagreb two years prior in the first round, was fast becoming the hottest player on the circuit. Entering Davis Cup week, he posted three straight final round appearances in Marseille, Rotterdam and Dubai – the latter two losing to world No. 1 Roger Federer in three tight sets. Ancic had reached the semifinals of Marseille (losing to Ljubicic) and Rotterdam (losing to Federer) and had reached his second career ATP singles final in Scottsdale, Ariz., the week before Davis Cup. With Ljubicic and Ancic boasting a bronze medal in men’s doubles from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the Bryan twins would also face a stern test. Cautioned Ancic, “In Davis Cup, there are many surprises.” Croatian Captain Niki Pilic, who also captained Germany to Davis Cup victories over the United States in 1985, 1987 and 1989, echoed the sentiment of his young charge. “In Davis Cup,” he said, “there are no rules.”
To add to the intrigue of the first round tie, Roddick suffered a scare during his quarterfinal win over Robby Ginepri at the ATP event in Memphis, spraining his ankle just two weeks before the start of the tie. Roddick chose to default his semifinal match with Kenneth Carlsen of Denmark rather than risk further injury that would jeopardize his form for the tie with Croatia.
“The repercussions of this injury won’t just affect me, but they’d affect my teammates it would affect me playing for my country as well,” said Roddick. “That’s a lot of responsibility that I have to take into consideration.”
Gavin Rossdale of the rock band “Bush” and the husband of rock star Gwen Stefani pulled the ceremonial chip at the Davis Cup draw ceremony at The Home Depot Center that placed Andre Agassi against Ivan Ljubicic in the opening rubber of the best-of-five match series. Roddick would follow against Ancic, while the Bryan twins would face Ancic and Ljubicic in Saturday’s doubles contest. Whether it was nerves, discomfort with the cool, blustery conditions or Ljubicic’s game, Agassi showed distress and tentativeness as his return to Davis Cup began at 1 pm Los Angeles time on Friday, March 4. There was no swagger in the legend’s step or game as Ljubicic swept the first set 6-3. Agassi got out of his funk in the second set, taking a 5-2 lead, but faltered when serving for the second at 5-3 and was skunked 7-0 in the second set tie-break to go down two-sets-to-love. The eventual 6-3, 7-6 (0), 6-3 loss marked only the third time that Agassi has been dismissed in straight sets in 36 Davis Cup singles matches.
His anger and displeasure was apparent on his face as he briskly left the court for the U.S. team locker room where his Head tennis racquet was tendered to multiple fragments scattered throughout the locker room within minutes.
“Today was one of those days,” said a dazed Agassi in the post-match press conference. “I just never got settled and never got comfortable. It was just frustrating. You’re trying hard to figure things out and sometimes you wonder if you’re just trying too hard…I was useless to be quite honest, as far as being clear on what was going on out there.“
Said McEnroe, “Everybody gets nervous playing Davis Cup – even Andre Agassi.”
Down 0-1, the match virtually sat on the shoulders of Roddick against Ancic, who quickly bounced upon the tentative Roddick taking the first set 6-4 as panic began to set in among the American hopefuls. The second set marked the start of “the street fight” as Roddick’s trainer Doug Spreen would later describe the Roddick swagger and attitude, that translated the match into a 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 victory for the American – tying the first day’s play at 1-1.
‘I’m not going to lie, I was really tight during the first set today,” admitted Roddick. “I’m happy because I was able to dig down…I think this was a big steppingstone for me.”
The Bryans entered the pivotal doubles match on Saturday having not lost a set in Davis Cup play in their previous five matches. However, the twins from Camarillo, Calif., knew that Ljubicic and Ancic were by far the best team they had faced in Davis Cup play.
Jumping like a pair of Mexican jumping beans, the Bryans were quick out of the blocks to take the first set 6-3 in just 27 minutes, but Ljubicic and Ancic would stay tight in the second set, forcing a tie-break. The Bryans would hold three set points, including one of Mike Bryan’s serve at 7-6, but were unable to deliver what would be a near lethal two-sets-to-love blow. They surrendered the second set tie-break – and their first ever set in Davis cup play – 10 points to eight and gave new life to Ancic and Ljubicic. As the Croatians gained in confidence, the Bryans appeared drained and dismayed. As the sun dripped below the Pacific Ocean just xx miles away, conditions became cooler and slower, helping Ljubicic and Ancic close out the final two sets for the vital 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-4 win and the 2-1 lead for Croatia heading into the climatic third day.
Former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers basketball coach Phil Jackson entered the U.S. team locker room to try and cheer up the Bryan twins. “You guys think you are going to win every match you play?” a jovial Jackson told the Bryans as one must of wondered whether Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal received the same speech after losing an NBA game. Jackson’s words could not take the sting out of the loss for the Bryans, who for the first time tasted Davis Cup defeat in front of their father and numerous friends and family from Southern California
“We’ve had a lot of disappointing losses, but this ranks pretty high,” said Mike Bryan. “It hurts.”
McEnroe’s posture still exuded confidence. After all, the United States was still favored to win the final two singles matches – Roddick against Ljubicic in the fourth rubber and Agassi against Ancic in the fifth rubber. Roddick held a 5-1 career record with Ljubicic, having won the last five meetings, while Agassi’s experience and aura would make him the clear favorite against the 20-year-old Ancic, who had lost to Agassi in their only previous meeting.
“If there are two guys you want to roll out down 2-1, we’ve got the two guys we want,” said McEnroe. “I’m extremely confident that they’re both going to play well. Andre’s been in this position before and Andy’s been in a position where he’s had to win a match. These are the two guys we want to bring out. This is our best team. It’s our one-two punch. We’re playing at home. They’re going to have to play with a little more pressure on them now. Up until now, I think they’ve been able to sort of swing away and been the underdogs and go for their shots. If they can do that, if Ljubicic can do that against Agassi, the Bryans and Roddick, than that’s too good. But we’ll see if he can.”
Roddick and Ljubicic would battle in the fourth rubber of the tie – Ljubicic, like in 2003, trying to shut the door on the Americans – while Roddick trying to stave off elimination, a position he had been in on two other occasions without success – against France in 2002 and Spain in 2004.
After splitting the first two sets, the epic – and pivotal – third-set tie-break ensued with neither Roddick or Ljubicic willing to give the other the two-sets-to-one lead. Roddick jumped to a 4-1 lead and held three set points throughout the 24 point tie-break – tying the longest tie-break in U.S. Davis Cup history. However, Roddick’s inside-out cross court forehand at 11-12 landed wide giving Ljubicic the fourth set. The two players would again go toe-to-toe in a tie-break in the fourth set, with Ljubicic fighting off four set points before double faulting at 7-8 on the fifth-set point to give Roddick the set and square the match at two-sets apiece. The momentum appeared to be with Roddick, but he was not able to capitalize. Ljubicic ran off with the first eight points of the fifth set, breaking Roddick at love in the first game of the fifth set and cashing in on an insurance break in the fifth game of the final set. Three game later, Ljubicic closed out the crushing 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (11), 6-7 (7), 6-2 victory in three hours and 57 minutes.
Roddick and McEnroe slumped on their courtside seating while Ljubicic, Ancic, Pilic and the rest of the Croatian delegation danced and sang on the court with handfuls of Croatian fans in the audience waving flags and rejoicing in the historic first round upset. It marked the first time in 105 years of Davis Cup that the United States was eliminated in the first round on home soil.
Ljubicic would become one of only two players to win three live rubbers against a U.S. Davis Cup team on two occasions – joining Mexico’s Raul Ramirez who turned the trick against the United States in the 1975 and 1976 Davis Cup campaigns.
In all, Ljubicic labored for a total of eight hours and 44 minutes over 12 sets over the weekend. His career record against the United States in Davis Cup play now stood at 6-0 – with only Laurie Doherty of Great Britain holding a better record against the U.S. with a 10-0 record in matches against the U.S. in 1902, 1903, 1905 and 1906.
“I have no words, really,” said Ljubicic. “To beat Andre, the Bryans and Roddick in three days….it is amazing.”
Roddick was crushed, irritable, devastatingly angry and disappointed. He slumped in front of the microphone in the interview room and was asked to share how he was feeling.
“Probably not in words you would understand,” he slurred. “It’s tough to describe. Really, really bad….There’s no worse feeling than losing a match in Davis Cup in our sport, especially when your teammates are counting on you.”
“It hurts a lot,” said McEnroe, who spoke with the press after coaching Bob Bryan to a three-set win over Roko Karanusic in the dead-fifth rubber that made the final verdict a 3-2 win for Croatia. “After getting to the final last year, starting off at home with our best team, it’s disappointing.”