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A Court with No Fame 07/25/2008 - 1:00 PM

By TW Contributing Editor, Ed McGrogan

Court 2 at the Rexall Centre is nice, for a practice court.  For match play?  You may want to look elsewhere, especially if comfort is of importance to you.

The court lacks even the most basic amenities.  There are no seats and no scoreboard, so when watching a match, your legs and ears become as important as your eyes.  You’ll need to listen intently to hear the score from the chair umpire, which can be difficult at times.  Whenever spectators are allowed to move on the neighboring Grandstand Court, a cascading rumble will sound behind you.

If this is where you’re expecting me to mention the court’s charm, you’d be wrong.  It’s a recent build, banished to the back edges of the grounds near a wooded field.  There’s nothing beautiful about it.  But it does come with some perks, namely that you can practically touch the action.

For a devoted tennis fan, Court 2 may be the optimal place to watch a match because of the proximity to the players.  You could whisper to a player returning serve while standing near the baseline, and will often have a better look at a ball than the line judges. 

This intimacy can make for some unusual encounters.  If a kick serve is struck sharply enough, it could head towards you, so watch out for the ball – and the player trying to retrieve it with his racquet.  Other shots can stretch the court’s dimensions as well.  I know first hand, after nearly being struck by an overhead smash from Robin Soderling.

RobinWith this unique vantage point, you notice minute details no matter where the players are positioned.  That’s why I headed to Court 2 on Wednesday to watch Soderling’s second round match against Fernando Verdasco.  A six-hour rain delay backed up the schedule to the point where matches were being played on nearly all side courts.  A day earlier, the only reason fans headed to this remote outpost was to see Roger Federer’s practice session with Tommy Haas.  Now, a spot in the final sixteen of a Masters Series event would be determined here.

I assembled on the sidelines with a crowd of about ten, two of which being Soderling’s coach and female companion.  We watched two bashing baseliners go through the motions in warmups; it was still a spectacle to see from this range.  It’s one thing to witness this power on television, and another to see it a few rows up in the stands.  But standing five feet away provides an entirely new experience.

Soderling hits the ball slighty harder than Verdasco, though both were willing to trade shots from the baseline repeatedly.  The blue paint in front of them was akin to quicksand.  To Verdasco’s credit, his more versatile groundstrokes kept Soderling on his toes, and kept himself in the match.

The big difference between the two is the serve.  Verdasco’s kick serves troubled Soderling on ocassion, but the Swede always had a weapon that Verdasco had to contend with.  Early on, Soderling’s serves were struck with such velocity that they emanated a sound I’d never heard before.  (Primarily because I have never stood so close to the court before.)  I called it, “breaking the tennis sound barrier.”

These were not the only sounds we heard from Soderling.  At 4-4, after losing a 3-0 lead, Soderling had the first of many Swedish conversations with his coach, who stood right next to me.  At this point in the match, they were civil in tone.  But serving won Soderling the set – though not his own.  Verdasco double faulted three times in the final game to hand it to his opponent.

A baseline battle brought the second set to 5-5, but evidently, that wasn’t enough for Soderling.  Chats with his coach became more frequent, and the crowd, which had tripled in size, came along for the ride.  After all, he was more or less talking to us too.  Soderling’s coach said nothing back, but Robin remained chirping.

VerdascoI didn’t envision how Soderling’s constant irritation could possibly help his cause.  Surely enough, he went on to lose the second set.  This time, it was Verdasco who broke the tennis sound barrier, cracking the hardest return of serve I’ve ever seen in person.  It drew “ooohs” from the crowd, and a tirade from Soderling.  The bird was still chirping.

By this point, Soderling was complaining no matter what happened on court.  Winners, errors, missed first serves by Verdasco (!) – they all led to more chirping.  Verdasco picked up on this, and let loose some “VAMOS!” chants at exceedingly high volumes.  Needless to say, it was an entertaining third set for the growing number of onlookers.  I had a front row seat to a high quality tennis match and a carnival sideshow.

To my surprise, Soderling didn’t implode in the third set; he actually played his best.  The match had stretched past the two hour mark, and fatigue started to become a factor.  Each player was using more energy, but for very different things.  Verdasco put everything he could into his groundstrokes, though they were still relatively powerless.  Conversely, Soderling was focused more on court position, giving him more time to generate the necessary pace. 

It was clear that the Spaniard was working the hardest, and it caught up to him in the fifth game, when Soderling broke for a lead that he wouldn’t relinquish.  Surprising as Soderling’s victory was, even more astonishing was the fact that he said nothing when he got the crucial break.

One last note from courtside: During the third set, Verdasco called for the medical trainer.  It probably took five minutes for him to arrive, and then another eight passed by after a medical timeout was taken.  Soderling was none too pleased, and complained to the umpire.  When Verdasco and Soderling met at net after the match, there was some tension, and they continued to go back and forth at each other on their way out.

The bird was still chirping, and I heard every bit of it.  Find a court like this the next time you’re at a tournament, no matter the match.  You’ll thank yourself later.


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Posted by afwu1216 07/25/2008 at 01:07 PM

FIRST!!!

Posted by afwu1216 07/25/2008 at 01:11 PM

FIRST!!!!!!

Posted by afwu1216 07/25/2008 at 01:13 PM

Sorry, didn't mean to rub it in even more, typepad when psycho.

Posted by Jeff in Rochester 07/25/2008 at 01:22 PM

Ed,

I don't know if you remember the old site at York University, but those were the pits! The outside courts were on top of each other and impossible for more than a 50 or so people to view. The stadium was lacking in ALL aspects with no shade at all and forget about bathrooms!!! The place should have been condemned 10 years before they played the last match there.

I've only been up to Rexall Center the year it opened and found if a 1000% improvement! I remember my buddy trying to get me to see this Spanish kid play................and I told him I didn't want to watch another Spanish pretender...........it was 16 or 17 year old Nadal!

If your up there with Andrew .........I have played at:

York University Courts

Toronto Lawn Tennis Club(former site of the Canadian Open) in downtown( 15 + clay courts + paddle courts)

Bouvlard Club - 12 clay courts on Lake Shore off the QEW on the lake..............say your a press guy( tennis.com)

Posted by Rachael 07/25/2008 at 01:25 PM

great account from an 'alternative' setting. thanks, Ed.
I'm jealous, and amused that they were nearly scrapping by the end of it.

watcing Verdasco in a similar tiny-court situation at Nottingham signified my jump onto his bandwagon. I could've enacted it literally by jumping on him during a sitdown.
I spent three days at Nottingham, and only ventured into Centre Court once. I just adored the outside courts and their intimacy.

I'm not sure how close I'd like to get to Verdasco in that colour scheme though.

Posted by jb 07/25/2008 at 01:27 PM

sure afwu - just trying to rub it in, we know...

Ed - great post! The smaller courts definately rule, that's why i'm going early to the open this year, in hopes of catching good matches on the smaller outer courts.

I'm still laughing at the thought of Robin as a wee birdie chirping irritatedly away at everyone and everything.

Posted by Heidi 07/25/2008 at 01:30 PM

Nice description, Ed. The small courts are hilarious, but this one sounds exceptional!

Posted by waylandboy 07/25/2008 at 01:37 PM

Thanks for this nice report. I look forward to visiting Toronto in the coming years and will make a point of checking out Court 2.

Posted by GVGirl (USO Tailgate 8/30, Spain in September! ) 07/25/2008 at 02:10 PM

Thanks, Ed. I love intimate courts! I am the Queen of the Grandstand court at the US Open.

Posted by Cheshire Cat 07/25/2008 at 02:11 PM

Verdasco's forehand is "relatively powerless"? High standards, Ed, high standards.

Posted by Asad Raza 07/25/2008 at 02:33 PM

Nice work, Ed! I'm glad you drew attention to just how freakishly well any top pro hits the ball, not just the top dogs.

Soderling also hits an unusually flat ball for a top guy, he really CONNECTS. I saw him push Gonzo (Gonzo!) around at the U.S. Open a couple years ago.

Posted by Syd 07/25/2008 at 03:16 PM

Asad:
Did you see the Soderling/Safin match at Wimbly? Even on TV. I mean, Soderling was playing elite tennis. He lost though.

Posted by felizjulianidad 07/25/2008 at 03:17 PM

Cheshire Cat,

Although plenty of people misuse it as a filler word in lieu of actually taking a position with some conviction, "relatively", in this case, likely means relative to Sodering, who is more of a hard-hitter than Verdasco.

Posted by crazyone 07/25/2008 at 03:18 PM

Syd: do you mean Soderling/Federer?

Posted by Master Ace 07/25/2008 at 03:21 PM

Ed,
I am surprised that Robin did not lose it mentally as Fernando was probably tired from playing in Umag, then traveling to Toronto on Monday, and playing 2 more matches in consecutive days must have finally fatigued him.

Posted by PC 07/25/2008 at 03:45 PM

That's an awesome match to witness. Tennis is a brutally competive sport, which gets lost in translation sometimes.

Weirdly, I play strangers more kindly than I play friends. I want to tear my friends to pieces. I let strangers walk all over me. My own hell I suppose.

There's a reason I'm not on the tour.

Posted by Syd 07/25/2008 at 04:03 PM

No, Crazyone. I meant Soderling/Safin. Unless I've lost my mind, which is possible.

Posted by 07/25/2008 at 04:04 PM

Jeff in Rochester,

"I remember my buddy trying to get me to see this Spanish kid play................and I told him I didn't want to watch another Spanish pretender...........it was 16 or 17 year old Nadal!"

Are there tears in your eyes as you recall this memory? Ahhhh, lost opportunities ;-)

Posted by Syd 07/25/2008 at 04:14 PM

Crazyone: What would I do w/o you? It was Seppi v Safin.

Posted by Ruth 07/25/2008 at 04:43 PM

Ed: Of such amazing matches are memorable tennis experiences made.:) It's enough that you had no scoreboard, but then you had trouble hearing the umpire, too. And to think that my spoiled tennis buddy and I whined our way through our first WTT match this summer because of a slow scoreboard and an umpire who seemed to be whispering into his mike!

Jeff: My first view of Nadal in person took place when he played Younes El Aynaoui in the Grandstand at the USO a few years ago. But I was so dazzled and fascinated by Younes (one of my all-time faves) that I had to admit that I hadn't noticed, when one of my tennis pals mentioned it later, that "the young guy (Nadal) was pulling at his pants all the time." :)

Posted by ace 07/25/2008 at 04:43 PM

I was there too peter, standing at centre court (wish I knew you were there!) Great match to be a part of...that close to. Real battle and the shots that looked like winners came back and with something on them...you could tell they both wanted the win big time. The whole time I too was wondering what Soderling was pissed about...was it his coach's advice or something else? Still remain curious cuz like you said he was chirping whether point went his way or not. I had day session tickets and had given up, in the van ready to drive off but at my son's urging stuck around and went back in to the stadium to catch this terrific match (as well as seeing fed and nadal!) Stormy day turned out beautiful in the end.

Posted by sblily 07/25/2008 at 05:35 PM

*wades into shallow end of pool* I just spent the last few minutes gazing at the pic above and Hott Sauce's, errr, abs. Lord, that is a beautiful man.

More pertinent to the topic at hand, great piece, Ed (lol at the bird chirping). Sounds like it was a great experience. Y'all have me convinced of the appeal of seeing matches on these out-of-the-way courts.

Posted by Acer 07/25/2008 at 05:45 PM

I heard that draws for wtas 08 rogers cup wil be made this aftern0n abt 5 p.M canada tym..Was that true??

Posted by Rosangel 07/25/2008 at 06:11 PM

Thanks, Ed.

In my continued travels, both personally and by reading what's written, I have yet to come across a reference to any other player who gets on with Robin Soderling. But plenty to the contrary.

Posted by ND 07/25/2008 at 08:12 PM

I remember watching Nalbadian vs Malisse on one such court at the USO. Man...it was scary how hard those guys were hitting it.

Posted by Tommy Balls 07/25/2008 at 09:08 PM

Oh, Djoko went down tonight! Damn, i think his game's slipping...i mean 2nd round at wimby, and now a relatively early straight set loss in Toronto where he was defending champ, i think he should consider retirement. Maybe bouncing the ball 25 times before he serves wore him out mentally and physically? His future looks poor, and now Nadal will be lonely at the top, since fed and djoko are all washed up.

Posted by etobicoke 07/25/2008 at 09:25 PM

Yup, Novak looked tamed ever since Hamburg loss to Rafa. I mean he played the best tennis of his life and lost. That;s though. And ever since, he looked deflated. Loss to Rafa in FO, loss to Rafa at queens, loss to Safin at W, this one today, he just looks deflated. Whoever advised him to become more "advertising-friendly" should be fired quiclky. You dont change the winning team.

Posted by abbey 07/26/2008 at 01:59 AM

i was waiting for this, ed. i wish i can someday experience seeing a pro match really up close like you've described. when shanghai turns into a masters event, i'll definitely go and check out the outer courts.


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