Contributed by Veronica Jackson
Saturday was semifinals day at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. When it’s the semi’s, the crowd understands the importance of these matches. Even the normal chatter outside the “sky boxes” was low to non existent. I was sitting next to my new tennis mentor, Gerald Weston. I met Gerald on my first day covering the tournament. He’s one of those guys where tennis exudes from his being. You know he’s a player the minute you see him – he has that tennis swagger. Gerald has been involved in Legg Mason since the mid 70′s when the tournament was on clay courts. He is now very much involved with the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation which is a great mentoring program for at risk youths. The program uses tennis to instill discipline and as a guide to prepare their kids for life.
Jaun Martin del Potro
As we were watching the first match between Fernando Gonzalez (CHI) and the defending champion Juan Martin del Potro (ARG), Gerald pointed out particulars that I know about the game but make more sense once they’re described to me and placed in context. For instance, both players love the baseline and slug it out from down there most of the match. Gonzalez has a slice backhand which really doesn’t do much damage to his opponent. Del Potro knows that and constantly hits to Gonzalez’s backhand. Del Potro is less comfortable at the net and Gonzalez knows that so he attempts many drop shots. But they are ineffective because they are not set up properly. Good pointers shared by Gerald. Both players used their individual strategies as the match progressed. Del Potro broke Gonzalez to go up 3 games to 2 and then Gonzalez broke back to make the match 4 games all. He then started to bring the heat with that vicious forehand to take the lead 5 games to 4. After two very long service holds we find ourselves at 6 all and the tie break. Del Potro held his own. Fernando attempted to employ those ineffective drop shots and Juan Martin took the first set 7 games to 6 (7-2).
Fernando attempts a drop shot
Saturday was a very hot day in DC. The paper fans were waving steadily in the stands and whenever a cloud cover came, you could hear the sigh of relief welcoming the brief reprieve. But the players were definitely more affected by the heat, and it seems that Gonzalez was more affected than Del Potro. At 30/15 in the second game of the second set Gonzalez falls down and stays down. Gonzalez reaches a hand out to Del Potro and after winning the point, Del Potro throws one leg and then the other over the net to help Gonzalez up. It seems the DC heat had taken its toll on both players and each needed this playful break.
Gonzalez asks for help…
…and receives it from Del Potro
Del Potro took that game and the next three. At 5-0 and in a seemingly last ditch effort not to loose the second set 6-0, Gonzalez won his first service game of the set, broke Del Potro the next game, and won his next service game to bring the match to 6-3. A glimmer of hope maybe, but it’s too little too late. After missing several match points, Del Potro finally delivers the goods to take the match 6 games to 3. I was sitting at the rail next to where the players walk off the court. So immediately after the win, I got bombarded by 5 million kids with huge yellow tennis balls vying for a signature from the players. Gonzalez throws his sweaty armband in my direction and the guy standing next to me swipes it away. Damn, Gonzo is so cute. I would have loved to have that armband. Then the armband swiper says to me “bye baby” and throws me a kiss. You gotta love tennis fans.
Later in the day, #1 seed Andy Roddick took on 6’9″ John Isner in the other semifinal. Isner started strong with a tiebreak win in the first set, but Roddick’s ability to scramble and put the ball exactly where it needed to go was too much for Isner to overcome. Roddick wins 6-7(3); 6-2; 7-5 to set up a final match between the tournament’s #1 and #2 seed with Del Potro (last year’s winner). It’s also worth mentioning that Roddick has a world rank of #5 while Del Potro is #6. Combined with the incredible heat and humidy expected during the final match, it’s anyone’s tournament to win.