The Quests Out West

Tuesday, July 26, 2011 /by

Sw So it begins, that all-too-brief brief window of time when tennis lovers in the U.S. get to feel like normal sports fans. For the next six weeks or so, we can come home from work and, quite possibly, find a live tennis match on the tube. On weekends we can run our errands and take our naps and mow our lawns knowing that the DVR is taping a semi or a final for us. Can you imagine? This is how team-sports fans get to feel all the time.

Last week the men opened the window in Atlanta, a tournament that looked much less painful in the evening—maybe someday they’ll try out my idea of an all-night-match event down there. This week the men, including Atlanta champ Mardy Fish, move on to Los Angeles. But it’s the women who are the bigger story for the moment. They get their own American summer started with an intriguing, high-quality draw in Stanford. As you may already know, that draw has Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams in a potential face-off very soon. Too soon, unfortunately, for ESPN or the Tennis Channel, which don’t get to Stanford until Friday. Our all-too-brief window of normality is even briefer than I realized.

*****

Bank of the West Classic, Stanford, Calif.; $721,000; hard courts
There was some giddy Internet and TV talk this past weekend about how Sharapova had “thrown down the gauntlet” at Serena Williams. What did Maria say, exactly? That she was looking forward to playing Serena sometime this summer (they’re each entered in four tournaments before the Open); that they’ve had some “tough matches” in the past; that rivalries are good for tennis; that she likes playing Serena, even though she doesn’t have a good record against her. Oh yes—it is on.

Sharapova is the second seed here behind Victoria Azarenka. It won’t be an easy run for either of them. The draw is small—32 players—but decently stocked. The bold-faced names include Marion Bartoli, Sam Stosur, Julia Goerges, Agnieszka Radwanska, and, somewhere between bold and plain text, seventh-seeded Ana Ivanovic. Unbolded and unseeded names of note include Sabine Lisicki, Serena, Daniela Hantuchova, and, of interest to American fans, Christina McHale.

Considering that none of these women has won a major since Serena did it at Wimbledon in 2010 (the current Slam queens, Clijsters and Kvitova, have regally held themselves out this week), this tournament will serve as a jumping off point for everyone. Azarenka, Sharapova, Lisicki, and Bartoli will want to continue their All England momentum. Serena will want to get in as many matches as she can. Goerges will want to prove that this spring was no fluke. Stosur will want to prove that last spring was no fluke. Ivanovic, you would think, will just be happy to be back on California hard courts.

Starting with, but not ending with, Maria vs. Serena, this should be a fun tournament. It’s enough to make me wish, even after I temporarily swore it off after the French/Wimbledon double, that I was back on the road.

*****

Farmers Classic, Los Angeles, $619,500; Plexipave; 250 ranking points
As the big dogs continue their summer siesta—it seems to get a little longer each year, doesn’t it?—the rest of the men scatter themselves to the 250 winds this week, in Umag, Gstaad, and Los Angeles. The latter has the highest-profile draw, topped by the first two seeds, Fish and Juan Martin del Potro. We know the American loves the hard-court season, and with his new Top 10 status he’ll have one more reason to love it: the appearance fees. Let’s hope he doesn’t play too much or peak too early this summer.

Del Potro may love this time of year even more. He began his own ascent into the Top 10 at this point in 2008, and extended that run the next season all the way to a U.S. Open title. This should, finally, be the moment when we can say he’s officially back, at full strength, with all the match preparation he could hope for. I’ll be interested to see how del Potro does from here through the Open. Did his year away permanently halt the momentum that took him to that title at Flushing Meadows? At the French and Wimbledon, he gave Djokovic and Nadal a scare for one set, but he was clearly a level below them overall; he wasn’t consistent enough for Djokovic, and he didn’t play the big points the way Nadal did. Is that where he’s going to continue to be for the long haul? The “Next” label that del Potro wore in 2009 is no longer available, after all. Djokovic has grabbed it back from him, and he doesn't look ready to give it up again.

Other names in L.A.: Ryan Sweeting, winner in Houston, who opened with a nice victory over Somdev Devvarman; Gilles Muller, enjoying a mini-renaissance of late; Fernando Gonzalez, still playing tennis, perhaps holding on until next year’s Olympics; Marcos Baghdatis; Grigor Dimitrov, who may have already faced Tommy Haas by the time you read this; blue-collar grinder and screamer Alex Bogomolov, Jr.; James Blake, also still playing tennis; Ernests Gulbis, also still playing tennis, from what I've heard. And, in a first-round match to watch, the returning Richard Berankis vs. rising Ryan Harrison.

Dang, this tournament sounds good, too. That’s tennis for you; just when you feel like getting out for a while, it pulls you back in. Now if only I didn’t have to wait until Friday to see it on the tube, like a normal sports fan.

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