Magical Mystery Tournament

Saturday, July 13, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The Hall of Fame Tennis Championships has a lot going for it, as you might expect from a tournament for which the final “tune-up” is Wimbledon.

Regrettably, “a lot” doesn’t include having Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, or Andy Murray in the draw—there’s a price to be paid for following Wimbledon; it’s kind of like some promoter screwing up and making the Beatles the opening act for Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. But that only adds to the charm of this hardy little survivor of what might be called the growth of the game.

How can you not love a tournament that for some years was sponsored by Campbell’s soup, that ubiquitous pre-requisite for American life? Did you really think it was tofu and bean sprouts that enabled two-time defending champion John Isner to grow to 6’9” and hit atomic serves?

Which reminds me—if you’re looking to kill a few hours on Sunday, try tuning into the final in the event that semifinalists Isner and Nicolas Mahut end up winning their matches today over, respectively, Lleyton Hewitt and Michael Russell.

70-68; I’ll say no more. (Except that there is a final-set tiebreaker at Newport.)

The Hall of Fame Tennis Championships is justly regarded as existing in a time-warp, and that will probably remain true even when it ends up swapping places on the calendar with Wimbledon two years hence. In doing so, what passes for a “grass-court season” will be expanded by a week starting in 2015, which is a welcome change. In reality, no new week is added, but pushing Wimbledon back will create that impression, because it will give the players an extra week of rest after the French Open, enable Newport to serve a more valuable function as a warm-up for the main event, and probably persuade the top players to enter at least one grass-court tournament (something neither Djokovic nor Rafael Nadal did this year).

That’s great news, particularly for those who reveled in the way the true differences between tennis on grass and every other surface was manifest at Wimbledon this year. But if you’re thinking you’ll see Federer or Murray scrambling around on Newport’s lawns for the first time in their careers, forget about it. They’ll almost surely stay in Europe, and leave Newport to the crafty Europeans who like the idea of taking a spot in a Roger, Andy, Nole, and Rafa-free draw—and, of course, the Americans.

That’s one of the other things that help make Newport the Magical Mystery Tournament; it’s the event that can take beleaguered U.S. fans back in time, back to the era when Americans sprouted in every draw like mushrooms in damp grass, and when they could still win titles all over the place. Newport still reminds us of the good old days, and now I’m going back to the era of Jimmy Connors, Stan Smith, Brian Gottfried, Roscoe Tanner, Dick Stockton, Eric van Dillen, and others—all of them accomplished and generally delightful grass-court players.

Isner is taking aim at his third straight title in Newport, and Americans have won six of the last 11 singles titles there. Take that, Halle! Robby Ginepri has won the whole shootin’ match before, and so has Taylor Dent. Rajeev Ram also did it—and as the only lucky-loser-turned-champion in the tournament’s long and colorful history. Non-Americans can turn up their noses at all this, but there’s something appropriate and pleasant about the way things have worked out, even if Newport moving ahead of Wimbledon is likely to destroy this last American redoubt.

After all, Newport was the home of the original tournament that eventually became the U.S. Open—the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships was moved from Rhode Island to New York in 1915. Beyond that, the rambling, largely-wooden, ancient Newport Casino is still the site of the tournament, and that’s magical and mysterious in and of itself, in a nation as infected by the tear-down/build-new influenza as the United States.

The International Tennis Hall of Fame is also lodged in the Casino, and the tournament is played during the celebratory induction week, the formal inductions taking place after a string of events before the semifinals. This year, the inductees are led by Martina Hingis and Cliff Drysdale, and you have to wonder if Drysdale, the much-loved ESPN commentator, won’t be tempted to rip off his necktie and nice suit jacket and jump into the commentary booth—although if it ends up being Isner vs. Mahut, I can easily see him running the other way.

Say what you will about the other ATP 250 events going on during this or any other week. The experience for a fan at Newport probably can’t be topped. Like some other cites that host 250s, Newport is held in a resort town—in this case, at the seaside. In that, Newport is a lot like another 250 happily chugging along in Sweden at another beach resort, Bastad (if these two aren’t “sister” cities, I’d write a letter of complaint to the respective mayors). But Newport has grass (Bastad is on clay), and even if you’re not inclined to snobbery, you just can’t beat the exotic appeal of that stuff.

An aficionado in Newport can engage in a close study in just how different the grass courts are from Wimbledon. Newport has what can be called “old-school” grass, having been spared the indignity of trying, like Wimbledon, to turn those lovely, soft, emerald-green courts into a surface with all the playing properties of the parking lot at Wal-Mart. Newport combatants can still pursue classic serve-and-volley tennis, not the highly watered-down variety you see even on the best of days at Wimbledon. As No. 4 seed Hewitt said after he vanquished qualifier Jan Hernych of the Czech Republic on Friday:

“To his credit, he surprised me a little bit, serve-volleying first and second serves today. He actually dug out a lot of good volleys and covered the net pretty well so it was actually pretty hard to pass him.”

Shades of Rocket Rod Laver! (By the way, his Rocket-ness is in attendance at Newport his weekend).

Hewitt went on to point out, for those who didn’t know, or maybe had just forgotten, that part of the appeal of grass-court tennis is playing one or two loose points—or failing to capitalize on one or two choice opportunities—can cost you a set. That helps explain why the pecking order is so easily upset at grass-court tournaments where the sheer pressure that kicks in at Wimbledon isn’t a factor.

Hewitt is down to No. 64 now, but it’s good to see that quintessential “Aussie battler” still out there, competing on the surface that has, somewhat surprisingly, treated him as well as any other. Hewitt has been a winner at Wimbledon, Halle, Queen’s Club—even at the How-Did-It-Get-That-Name Championships, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. This week, he’s just one of a number of attractions at the Magical Mystery Tournament, but perhaps he’s the best and most enjoyable one.

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