NEW YORK—After he beat Roger Federer, 7-5, 7-6 (7), in the BNP Paribas Showdown, the main event in the Tennis Night in America promotion, Andy Roddick's first words were: "It's pretty clear tonight. . . I'm in Roger's head."
It was that kind of night.
Part fantasy, part fun, part hit-and-giggle opportunity for four of the game's biggest stars (the WTA's contribution to the field was Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki), the exhibition in Madison Square Garden attracted 18,079 spectators, and at times it seemed just like old times in the Garden again. It might have been Bjorn Borg down there, in his form-fitting Fila pinstripes, and John McEnroe, hair exploding out of his crimson headband like so many fried electrical wires. And Chrissie and Martina.
In the opening match, Sharapova rolled through Wozniacki, 6-3, 6-4. The highlights in that one included an eight- or 10-stroke exchange of moonballs the likes of which we haven't seen since Tracy Austin appeared on the tennis scene (and, frankly, none of us has really missed), and impromptu dancing sessions in which Wozniacki plucked a cute seven- or eight-year old girl out of the stands, only to see Sharapova respond by dragging a bald dude in a suit out to shake and shimmy for a few moments. Judging by their moves, I'd say both women should keep their day jobs.
The highlight, though, at least for those fans who knew what was what, occurred when Wozniacki coerced her boyfriend, Rory McIlroy—who recently become the top-ranked golfer in the world (unlike his squeeze, McIlroy has won a major to go with that ranking)—to take her racquet and play a point against Sharapova.
McIlroy showed that he owns a devastating slice; presumably it only appears to be part of his repertoire on the tennis court. Looking like any of 3 gazillion 2.5-rated tennis players in this world, he nevertheless forced Sharapova into a error borne of her desire to resist cramming the ball right down his throat.
It was all amusing, in that slightly forced way that seems to characterize all of Wozniacki's otherwise exemplary efforts to reach out and engage. This girl seems hellbent on replacing Kim Clijsters as the quintessential "nice girl" of the WTA. Sharapova, god bless her for her authenticity, still has the other end of the spectrum well-covered.
But most of the buzz tonight was about the main event, and Federer was accorded a hero's welcome by a New York crowd equally well-known for its discrimination and self-regard. In a nice, show-bizzy touch, the men made their way down to the floor of the stadium from the promenade level, high-fiving fans in the aisles on either side as they took the steps. In his black LaCoste hoodie, Roddick looked slightly thuggish—not an easy look to pull off when you're wearing anything with the iconic crocodile.
Federer, by contrast, looked almost sheepish, as if he found all that attention embarrassing. His attitude is closer to that of his pal Pete Sampras, who often said he prefers to let his racquet do the talking. But you know how it is with exhibitions. Even the most eloquent racquet is given to mangling metaphors, confusing tense, and dangling participles.
The big misconception about exhibitions is that the fix is in, when the reality is that it doesn't have to be, and certainly doesn't need to be. Players of Federer's and Roddick's caliber (the reputation and legacy of both is already written in stone, given that Federer is 30 and Roddick is hot on his trail) go into these exos with a come-what-may attitude, and the best way to understand what that means is to recognize that they don't play tournaments in that same frame of mind.
The missing ingredient in most exhibitions is competitive intensity, which can make all the difference in the world but isn't necessarily obvious in the shotmaking. Nor does it, or more properly the lack of it, shape the tone, tenor, and outcome of an exhibition match. In some ways, watching an exhibition is like observing a practice session. And those workouts, when they feature players of noticeably different levels, are almost always much closer than for-keeps matches between the same men.
The court in the Garden was fast and low-bouncing, properties that Federer is well adjusted to, given his intinerary over the past few weeks. But they also ensured that Roddick would be competitive, because he would be able to hold serve. The fact that this was an exo seemed to free him up, despite his struggles this year (he's a disappointing 4-4 in matches and ranked No. 31). More than once I watched him hit a shot, usually a forehand but sometimes a heavily cut backhand, and found myself wondering, "Where's that shot during tournaments?"
Roddick is 2-21 against Federer in official matches, and I imagine that one explanation for his vim and vigor in this exhibition was the knowledge that the outcome wouldn't affect that dispiriting statistic, one way or another. Hence, a freedom, a bouyancy that is unavailable to a player like Roddick in a typical tournament. It makes you appreciate how tough it must be to go out there and square off with Federer at Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open.
The highlight, hands-down, was Roddick's impersonation of Rafael Nadal during the final point of the fifth game of the first set, the score at 2-2. With a point to hold serve, Roddick suddenly rolled up his sleeves to expose his guns. Then he mimicked Nadal's distinctive, forced service preparation and motion. With the ball in play, Roddick successfully pulled off a hilarious imitation of Rafa's stroking technique, right down to the helicopter forehand follow-through (surely it's making its way to YouTube as I write this). Despite the clowning, he still managed to win the point and game, whereupon he wryly observed: "I guess that's all I had to do."
At another juncture, Roddick waded into the crowd and got an autographed program from Ben Stiller (whose wife, Christine Taylor, is the official spokesperson for the USTA's 10-and-under initiative). And later, he nearly decapitated a ballgirl when he hurled his racquet later in the match but, as they say, that's a whole other story.
The tiebreaker was a valuable repudiation of the persistent idea that exhibition matches are fixed. Federer had a set point in the second set when he served after a mini-break at 6-5, but Roddick ended a rally with a clean inside-out backhand winner. Federer set himself up for anther set point with a service winner, but Roddick forced a backhand error after a brief rally to dispatch that one. Roddick then clubbed a service winner to Federers's backhand to reach match point, and it ended on a forehand volley error by Federer.
Come what may finally came Roddick's way, even if it was just an exhibition.