Following the Shanghai Masters and end of the WTA Championships, when I posted the Crisis Center posts here, I was slightly concerned that we were developing a TennisWorld photo/edit related hex comparable to the legendary Sports Illustrated cover jinx (I know, I know, SI is persona non grata around here these days!) But Paul Haarhuis and Guy Forget both sat for long interviews for me this week of the BlackRock Masters, and they went on to play the final. What jinx?
Haarhuis was the winner, getting by Forget in yet another third-set Champion's tiebreak. So Haarhuis is now the three-time running BlackRock champion, and congrats to him! [Note to Rafa: Knowing how superstitious you are, you should be aware of the linkage between doing an interview with me and success on the court! Just ask Paul H.!]
In my photographer's role, I was courtside yesterday for the semifinal between Haarhuis and Sergi Bruguera. But today, I decided to maintain a discreet presence in the press box. The final was televised, and I decided I didn't want the broadcast cameras to find me (What if I tripped going to my courtside place? What if I got hit in the face with a ball?). Yes, I was struck by a sudden fit of shyness. The fact is, I rely on anonymity for a measure of my comfort. I did get to know - and glean valuable tips from - some of the pro photographers this week.
Haarhuis was in excellent form on the weekend. There's a lot less pressure on this Tour than the ATP (heck, I doubt the ATP Tour would accomodate him by playing "Our House" - rhymes with Haarhuis - by the British ska band, Madness, each time he entered the arena). But you could tell from Haarhuis's body language this weekend that he wasn't taking any of this lightly. There were mutterings (in Dutch) and fist-pumps a plenty.
Forget has been no less expressive, though more through his eyes and the shrug of his shoulders. This tournament may be about entertainment, but the players realise that a lack of adequate preparation or fitness can prove embarrassing. So most of them have done the fitness spadework. Neither Haarhuis nor Forget appeared to be carrying extra weight; they were both wiry and lean.
In the semi yesterday, Bruguera went down in two sets to Haarhuis. The photos of their match are here. The first big vessel of what became known as the Spanish Armada, Bruguera started well. He had Haarhuis pinned 0-40 on the Dutchman's serve, but somehow Haarhuis escaped danger. Bruguera's high level seemed to bring out some of Haarhuis's best tennis. He served very well and made some pinpoint passes. In the end, I'm not sure whether the outcome was more about Bruguera losing confidence or Haarhuis getting into a groove. The court here definitely suits Haarhuis's game, and he's speedy enough to have handled most of what his opponents threw at him.
I've discovered that Sergi Bruguera is maddenly difficult to photograph. In most of the frames that I've reviewed of him, he has his eyes closed, or his teeth clenched, or both. It goes against the grain to put up pictures on the web that I feel are totally unflattering of their subject, so the relatively small numbers of him are because of these quirks. It's bad enough having to anticipate the arrival of the ball in the frame - opening and closing of eyes is too subtle for my skill level. Earlier in the week, I had a similar problem with Anders Jarryd, though in his case, the problem was that Anders tends to stick his tongue out during points.
After the second semifinal yesterday, the TV cameras were switched off, and there was a short interlude, during which Haarhuis was asked to hit some tennis balls into the audience. Some of these were specially marked - the five lucky recipients were asked to go on court, and compete for a prize (free flights from one of the tournament's sponsors, South African Airways) by returning Haarhuis' serves.
One contestant, a man, returned everything really well (maybe one return flew out). There were also two ladies involved, and I think our man Haarhuis went a little easier on the ladies, pace-wise. Partly because of that, the ladies went on to his final playoff while the competent guy fell by the wayside. Light-hearted as it was, I enjoyed the not-so-subtle chivalry that allowed the women to be at their best. The ladies (one of them was in high heels) were given nothing they couldn't possibly handle, although it's a fair guess that Haarhuis would ordinarily have little trouble hitting unreturnables against a lady in heels. Was the outcome ever in doubt?
During the final today (more photos to come soon - now working on the web gallery), Haarhuis ran away with the first set. Forget went down 0-4, and lost the set 1-6. His first serves were errant, and this allowed Haarhuis to capitalise on his second serve returns. The second set was a different story - Forget served much better, and there were no breaks. Then Forget won the tiebreak - and second set. Not much separated the two in the Champion's tiebreak. They both served well, but Haarhuis edged ahead after one sizzling passing shot, and held on to clinch the match. During the trophy presentation, he dropped his bottle of champagne. It landed with a thud - luckily, it didn't break.
I'll repeat: One of the disappointments of the week was that Bjorn Borg was unable to play, due to injury. He has played McEnroe twice this year, and I was hoping to see them face off again - this time, live. I've discovered that even if Borg had been here, he wouldn't necessarily have faced McEnroe - definitely no draw-fixing at this tournament. The draw is conducted fairly, by the tournament referee, Alan Mills.
Now, the last thing I'd normally advocate is any form of draw-fixing, but this tournament is as much about entertainment as about competition, and audiences clearly hope to see interesting matchups - like one of the greatest ever, Borg vs. McEnroe. It's one of those lose-lose situations - if you fix, it's unfair to the players and you lose credibility with the public and media. If you don't, the public gets cheated.
If Borg is here next year (I'm told that McEnroe will surely be back for one more year at least, whatever doubts may have come up after he lost), there needs to be a match between him and Mac - even if it's an exo. That might even be better for the event. Once the Henman-Edberg exo was announced for this week, ticket sales for that session immediately trebled. On that basis I'm pretty sure that the ticket-buying public here could happily sustain one or more guaranteed Borg-McEnroe encounters in a week.
This has been a good year for the BlackRock Masters, now in its 11th year - overall they were, as of Saturday, 18% per cent ahead of last year in attendance. While attending the Queen's Club tournament in the summer, I saw posters for the BlackRock Masters; it was one of the ways the event has raised its profile. The Albert Hall seats 3,635 people. With 11 sessions in total, that means that a possible 39,985 people could be seated during the week. The actual total was 32,123, which is a little over 80% full. 5,702 people, or around 17% of total customers were there due to corporate entertainment packages. At the weekend, it's just the ticket-buying public in attendance - so the house will be a little less full. From what I could see, the majority of the gaps were up at the top, in the "gods".
One of the toughest parts of staging a season-ending tournament like this in such a high-profile venue is inevitably the need to balance competitive tennis against appearances by stars. It's tougher here than for the ATP tour because senior tennis is more overtly about entertainment - witness the exhibition doubles. Privately, most people involved, including the players, acknowledge that a tournament director would like to have the biggest stars available on the weekend. But if you're not prepared to fix the draw, and if the players play as well as they can, you almost invariably end up with a Forget/Haarhuis final (Not that there's anything wrong with that!). Great for the game (not to mention those two guys), but a hard sell, media and PR-wise.
I believe that the sanctity of competition ought to be preserved, while also thinking that in a setting like this, high-profile exhibitions featuring known-quantities who are guaranteed to play at a pre-determined time are good for business. The tournament tries to bring in new stars each year - I only hope that Borg makes it in 2008. If a Borg-McEnroe encounter happens earlier than that, don't be surprised if I end up in some European city to catch it.
This time Borg will win, I'm sure.....
[Note: the web gallery of the final is now available on this link].