So after the big, swirling tides of the Australian Open, here we are in the quieter waters of San Jose. It's fun to be at a smaller event and do the fan thing a bit, indulge your esoteric curiosities and check out all things that have to be to be ignored for more important happenings during big tournaments. If the Grand Slams and big Masters Series/Tier I events are the meat of the tennis tour, these smaller events are the potatoes, providing the carbs that keep the calendar going month to month.
I've been to this tournament a few times since I have relatives living nearby. Aside from the sunlight deprivation that's an inevitable part of indoor tournaments, the event has some interesting characteristics. Because there's only one court, a determined spectator can theoretically see every ball struck during the week. On the flip side, the single court also means that play has to start at 9:30 am to fit all the matches in -- and the emptiness of the stands at that time indicates that there are in fact very few people determined to actually watch every single point.
The field can be patchy, but is usually sandwiched by a few (usually American) stars and some interesting lower-ranked players. This year, the tournament has billed its star attraction a package deal -- the winning U.S. Davis Cup team of Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryan brothers. And as the team members would say, the practice partners are not to be forgotten -- Mardy Fish and Robbie Ginepri. A lineup of promising American hopefuls also dots the field -- Donald Young, John Isner, Sam Querrey, Jessie Levine, etc. There's also Tommy Haas, coming back from yet another shoulder surgery, and new Japanese sensation Kei Nishikori.
By geographic accident, the tournament is remarkably well covered for its size. In fact, as frequent TENNIS magazine writer Joel Drucker likes to joke, the media field is often better than the player field. He's a nearby resident and has been covering the event for 27 years. Also living nearby are Doug Robson of USA Today and the Oakland-based Inside Tennis magazine staff of Matt Cronin, Bill Simons and Richard Osborn. Compare that to say, Las Vegas, which last year had full-time coverage only
from one local reporter, one Reuters reporter and (to stretch a point) me. Others may also drop in, like Bonnie D. Ford of ESPN (if there's cycling going on nearby) and Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle (if there's a marquee match-up). Add to that a fairly large contingent of sports reporters from local papers who cover tennis once a year, and you're guaranteed some eclectic press conferences -- everything from the impossibly mundane to the improbably arcane.
The press box is right beside the court, which provides the rare opportunity to watch an Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras or Andy Roddick from ground level. The first time I was here, four years ago, Roddick was playing against -- Kenneth Carlsen, probably -- and kept glancing over at these seats, specifically the narrow area with Joel Drucker on my left and Matt Cronin on my right. It grew puzzling. Brad Gilbert's father, who bears a striking resemblance to his son, was sitting right behind, but that didn't seem to be it.
Was it because we looked like we were talking instead of watching the match?, I wondered. "It doesn't matter," replied Matt, following with what must be one of the immortal lines in tennis journalism. "He's a tennis player. He'll just think we're talking about him."
It still cracks me up.
As for the mystery, it was finally solved when Roddick hit a backhand winner down the line, looked over at Joel and said, "Looking good, Joel, looking good."
Needless to say, it takes a while to live down getting a shout out from a player during a match.
Another feature of the San Jose tournament is that that it announces its first few night sessions months in advance, something other events could probably think about emulating. This year, the first night match was actually an exhibition, between Pete Sampras and Tommy Haas. I've been a skeptic in the burgeoning Sampras-comeback debate that's sprung up since he's begun playing the one-off matches and seniors events: after all, he's 36, has been off the tour for over five years, and was struggling to win matches in the run up to his amazing 2002 US Open win. While he might still be able to win matches against current pros on a fast surface, he'd be a dangerous floater rather than a tournament threat.
Still, he looked impressive in his 6-4, 6-2 win over Haas in San Jose on Monday night. The leaping overhead has lost a little of its height but the serve and volleys are still lose to those of yore. Comparing his potential competitiveness on tour from these exhibitions, though, is tricky because the other player isn't playing at full intensity. It was less of a surprise that Sampras defeated Haas than the win he scored over Roger Federer in one of their three Asian exhibitions in the winter, but even then, Sampras told the crowd after the match that "Tommy was pretty nice to me tonight."
Sampras is clearly taking the relevance of these contests a lot less seriously than many of those watching, particularly in terms of what they mean to the players facing him. "Tommy has more important things to do this week than worry about me. It's an opportunity for him to get used to the court. It's tough to get practice time here."
The comeback talk may continue, but his stance makes it unlikely that it'll actually happen. "There's a lot to lose and not a lot to gain," he said firmly. "There's got to be a reason to come out of retirement. Some people miss the limelight, some people want to make more money, some people don't have anything else to do in their lives. And there's no reason for me to come back.
"I don't miss the limelight, I don't need the money, I -- the tricky thing with me is that I stopped not because of injury, it was more of an emotional level. I could still play at a high level, it's just emotionally I was spent."
And with 14 Grand Slams and six year-end No. 1 finishes, he has fulfilled his main goals.
But of course, one of the reasons people are keen to see Sampras take another shot at playing on tour is to see how today's players would react when facing a primarily serve-and-volley game. Sampras ponders the same thing himself -- maybe not enough to step up himself, but enough to quiz Federer on the topic when they hung out during their Asian exo swing. "We didn't talk that much about tennis but... I actually had a curious question. When he beat me at Wimbledon he served and volleyed, and I asked him, 'Why are you staying back now?," said Sampras. "He just said he was more comfortable staying back, that he wasn't comfortable coming in. I said 'Is the court slower and he said, 'No, it's not really slower, I've just figured out how I need to play on grass.'
"I think before he served and volleyed because he felt he had to, now he feels he's better than everyone just staying back. He doesn't need to worry himself about trying to come in. He can come in when he wants to, but nothing where he's trying to force himself to come in.
After all, the game that defeated Sampras also led Federer to lose to Mario Ancic in the first round the following year. "Because I guess after he beat he came back the next year and served and volleyed and lost, so I guess he didn't feel that comfortable coming in and he decided to stay back.
"It was a good decision," concluded Sampras, wryly.
But while he doesn't have much desire to rejoin the new baseline world, he did reveal he wishes he'd paid more attention to its newfangled equipment when he was still out there. Surprisingly or not, his first thought goes to the advantage he might have gained on his weakest surface, clay -- the French Open is the only major he never won.
"I regret it a lot, I do," he said. "Especially on the clay, I would have loved to put the bigger racquet with the sort of string everyone's using, you can get so much power from way beyond the court. The combination is incredible. I used a small racquet with the same specs my whole career, and at the end it started to catch up with me -- I'm playing Roddick with the big Babolat racquet, serving 140.
"If I was going to continue to play, I would have had to change my equipment. But looking back at it now, I would have experimented more, not been so mentally stubborn.
"Actually, [well-known coach Jose] Higueras recommended it... and I said no. I should have taken that advice, at least tried it. But I was too stubborn.
Now, he's armed himself with a bigger Wilson frame and hybrid strings. "I experimented a bit and kind of found of combination that I like -- you can still swing hard and have control," he said. "It's a great combination. It's almost like cheating."