Contributed by Paula Schumann
Tickets were sold out for Wednesday’s action at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in anticipation of seeing Andy Roddick play his first match of the tournament. The Stadium only really filled to its near maximum capacity as his match against Benjamin Becker (GER) was about to begin. Prior to that, I sat in on the Gonzalez (CHI) vs Falla (COL) match, which took place as the sunlight and heat were beginning to abate.
Alejandro Falla, who almost went out to Scott Oudsema in the qualifying rounds, held his own in the first set. Fernando Gonzalez looked a bit sluggish, but took the first set, 7-5. Falla came back to break Gonzo’s serve in the first game of the second set and Gonzalez started to look unusually fatigued, making a lot of unforced errors. Falla seemed unaffected by the heat. It was great watching these two players duke it out, as they both seem to have a similar quickness on the court. Gonzales fought back and brought the match back on serve, but at 2-2, he lost his serve and threw his racquet in frustration. Apart from the Chilean contingency in the stands rooting for Gonzo, the crowd was relatively quiet. The DC crowds have seemed a bit luke warm in the cheering department so far.
Falla seemed to channel Gonzales as he took the lead at 5-3. But the crowd seemed to rally behind Gonzales and he found a way to break Falla’s serve and hold his own to level the at 5-5. At that point, he seemed to find his rhythm and took the set 7-5. I’m glad he could pull through and hope he recharges the batteries before his next match.
I then went out to walk the grounds and take in some of the side court action. I’m always amazed how the grounds of the facility are so completely transformed for this tournament. I often play here during other parts of the year, but can hardly recognize it as the same venue. With the vendor stalls, umbrella tables for eating, hospitality tents, and the milling crowds, the Rock Creek Tennis Center really comes to life. But among the spectators, I saw lots of familiar faces in the crowd, fellow USTA tennis players and teammates. As I walked onto the Grandstand court to see the end of the Hewitt vs Sela match, I realized I was walking onto the court that I play on throughout the winter when the bubble is up. I felt a slight pang of envy but loved seeing these great players on my court. Hewitt won that match in three sets.
Next up was Sam Querrey (USA) vs Igor Kunitsyn (RUS). I had never seen the very tall Querrey play in person and had a feeling that it might be more exciting than the opening games of the Roddick vs Becker match in the main stadium. I took a seat that allowed me to peek over the fence and watch the battle that was happening on Court 1 between Wayne Odesnik (USA) vs Igor Andreev (RUS). Yes, another Igor. The crowds were a bit more vocal on these courts, maybe due to their proximity to the players, but still at one point, Odesnik attempted to pump up the volume by yelling to the crowd, “Come on, it’s USA!” Seems even the players are noticing the fans’ lack of energy. The crowd responded with some chanting and cheering, which probably helped push Odesnik to his victory, winning the match in three sets.
I couldn’t help but notice that virtually no sound was coming out of the stadium as the Roddick match was well into the first set. Where was the roar of the sold out crowd? An occasional bout of cheering let me know that anything at all was happening in there. So I turned my attention back to the Grandstand and watched as Querrey handily took the first set 6-3, and eventually the match in two sets.
And speaking of sold out crowds, I ran into two long time tournament fans, who will not be named here to protect their identity, who upon arriving at the venue only to get the bad news that no tickets were available, found their own way to gain entrance. Undaunted, they found a hole in the fence and crawled through, eventually, making their way down to box seats in the stadium as the crowd thinned out. Okay, this may not seem very newsworthy, but these two individuals were no cheeky twenty somethings with nothing to lose. One was a sixty something tennis player and enthusiast who has been playing at Rock Creek Tennis Center and attending the tournament for at least ten years. The other is a fifty something pro who attended the very first tournament here in 1969 as a ball boy. I think, by rights, their small trespass should be forgiven. They made sure to tell me that they spent a small fortune at the food stalls to atone.
Roddick’s monster serve
Back in the Stadium, I watched from high up in the bleachers as Roddick rolled over his opponent, easily winning the match in two sets and in less than an hour. Apart from not taking advantage of his serve quite as much, his game looked pretty solid; being patient in the long rallies, using his backhand slice to change up the pace and letting Becker make the mistakes. It’s also great to see Andy coming up to the net more, adding a little more diversity and drama to his game. In his post match interview, Andy said that his game strategy is to “not overplay out of the gate and just do the basics well.” When asked how he feels about all his newly found crowd support, he said he “has never felt this much positive public support before in his career” and went on to say that while “it is tough being objective about himself” he feels like at “26 years, he is more mature than he was at 19”. I think this was his way of saying he’s learned to be a little less cocky and take less for granted. He left the press tent to a waiting crowd of mostly swooning young girls waiting to get his autograph, but it was nice to see the love.
Roddick makes his entrance
The night seemed to get muggier, with an occasional small rain cloud passing over, but the energy level finally heated up when Tsonga and Isner took the court next in the Stadium. As the match got under way the French flag was waving in the stands, and the fans of both players came to life. Tsonga took the first set 6-4. He is such a fun player to watch, flashing the crowd an occasional impish grin and creating a bit of mischief on the court. At one point in the second set, his shoe came off but they continued to play the point. After he lost the point, he ran to the chair umpire, arguing and repeatedly pointing to his shoe. We in the stands could not imagine what his argument was, as the rules are clear that a point cannot be stopped for an equipment malfunction. That can include a string breaking, one’s hat flying off, or losing one’s shoe. If you play competitive tennis, you know this. But, he continued to argue, sans shoe, as the crowd both booed and cheered, and a very patient Isner paced the court. Eventually, he went back over to his shoe, and made a big show of putting it on and retying the laces. Still, Isner was patient as Tsonga took his time, almost risking a time violation. All the drama didn’t help him in the end, and Isner took the second set in a tiebreak.
At this point I was sitting with some friends right down in the box seats nearest the court where you can see all the nuance of the players ticks and tells. Someone next to me pointed out how, prior to serving, Isner bounces the ball once between his legs, always from back to front. And sure enough, he did it every time. The other thing I experienced sitting there, was the feel of Isner’s serves pounding into the mats that line the stadium walls. The reverberation is akin to the feeling you get sitting too close to the speakers at a rock concert. From time to time, the ball bounced up into the stands with the pace of a rocket, and you just had to duck and hope not to get hit.
There was a small rain delay in the third set tiebreak, but Isner pulled out the win. He will go on to play another Frenchman, Sebastien Chaunac on Thursday, but may face more rain delays based on the forecast. Check the Legg Mason website for updates if you are planning on heading there today.