You Say Potato, I Say Potito

Saturday, January 11, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

MELBOURNE—Do you have trouble concentrating at work? How would you like to try it with a children’s carnival swirling around you? That’s what the 56 desperate, harried souls trying to qualify for the last 28 spots in the Australian Open main draw faced here on Saturday.

On the courts, this was the final day of the qualifying tournament, which is one of the more uptight and intense afternoons in any sport. Off the courts, however, it was also Nickelodeon Kids day, when parents bring their Baby Federers to the grounds to romp with Spongebobs and Ninja Turtles. There wasn't much doubt about who was in higher demand today. The kids went for the Turtles, and left the players to their own grim concerns.

Yet it wasn't all peace and quiet for the qualifiers. This year the tournament has revamped, and is still in the process of revamping, its third largest stadium, Margaret Court Arena, and an occasional chainsaw and hammer could be heard buzzing and banging away in the distance. But the matches around the side courts today were as tense as they always are when there’s a spot in the Big Show—as well as a record $30,000 in first-round prize money—on the line. 

Here are a few highlights of my tour around a sunny Melbourne Park today. I started it, like any self-respecting refugee from Brooklyn would, in a black sweater and jeans, but ended up in short sleeves. Next step: Sunscreen.

*****

“Sit down, please!”

Denis Kudla, fed up with fans meandering around the bleachers in Court 2, has finally taken it upon himself to tell them to cut it out while he’s trying to serve. With no ushers until Monday, this is a futile effort. Even the chair umpires don’t bother to try to maintain order.

Kudla is more frustrated with himself than anyone else. He’s down 4-1 in the first set to his fellow American Alex Kuznetsov. Or, I should say, his fellow Ukrainian-American. Kuznetsov, 26, and Kudla, 21, were both born in Kiev, but are both U.S. citizens.

If the old model of an American tennis player was the long and lanky serve-and-volleyer from California, the nation’s model for the baseline era may look something like Kudla and Kuznetsov. We will likely continue to see more players with Eastern European backgrounds, and stocky, sturdy body types. Soccer, rather than baseball or basketball, is the ideal extra-curricular activity for today’s speed- and stamina-based game. The ambition to cross an ocean to pursue the dream of becoming a professional athlete doesn’t hurt, either.

Kudla is younger, higher-ranked, and, after his slow start, ultimately better than Kuznetsov today. He settles down after his outburst and wins 6-4, 6-2. He'll face Florian Mayer in the first round.

*****

“OooOOOHHHH!”

This is the keening cry of thousands—OK, a couple of hundred—fans of Jimmy Wang on Court 10 today. The 28-year-old journeyman from Taiwan is the surprise star of the afternoon. When he wins a point, his devotees shriek like he’s the fifth, Asian Beatle. When he loses a point, a pall of silence hangs over the court. The Australian Open bills itself, somewhat agrammatically, as the “Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific,” and its organizers hope to draw many more of what they refer to as “premier Chinese tourists.” I’m not sure exactly what those are, but it looks like mission accomplished today, as Wang delights his fans and groupies with a straight-set win. 

It’s enough to make you feel for his opponent, Daniel Kosakowski. The American comes back from 0-5 down in the first-set tiebreaker only to lose it 9-7. When he misses the final shot, an easy putaway forehand, the crowd erupts—in laughter. Even worse, when Kosakowski tries to fling his racquet at his chair, a ball girl runs in front of him and forces him to hold his fire. He can’t even go properly ballistic.

*****

“Come on, Vicky.”

Roughly once a game, an American man in the front row on Court 9 utters these words of encouragement to his countrywoman, 18-year-old Victoria Duval. As the match progresses, he softens them to a near whisper. Duval, precocious folk hero of the U.S. Open last fall, doesn’t give her few fans at Melbourne Park much to cheer. The winners that sprang nonchalantly from her strings against Sam Stosur at Flushing Meadows fly errantly against Katerina Siniakova today. Worse, Duval struggles to catch up to Siniakova’s better shots to her backhand side. For Duval, who loses 6-2, 6-3, New York must feel like exactly what it is: A city on the other side of the earth.

But for two of her fellow teenage prospects, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland and Ana Konjuh of Croatia, Melbourne is still the place to be. The two Grand Slam junior champions, both just 16, are impressive in straight-set wins. The thick-legged Konjuh is strong, but Bencic has the moment of the day for me. Trying to serve it out against Russia’s Marta Sirotkina before a full house on Court 7, she faces multiple break points and squanders one match point. But just when it looks like she's going to choke, just when you expect her to choke, Bencic doesn’t choke. Instead, she wins the match on a wild, scrappy, side-to-side rally, with a final forehand that fools and wrong-foots Sirotkina. Sweet 16, indeed.

*****

You say potato, I say Potito.

These words crossed my mind as a I scanned the Order of Play on Saturday. Looking at a qualie draw and its wildly unfamiliar pronunciations is a quick reminder of the ornery, multisyllabic glory of tennis’s names. On one sheet of paper we were given all of these gems, no two of them alike: Blaz Rola, Zarina Diyas, Ying-Ying Duan, Ruben Bemelmans, Irina Falconi, Belinda Bencic, Katarayna Piter, Jimmy Wang, Carina Witthoeft, Daniel Kosakowski, Madison Brengle, Daniel Gojowczyk, and Irina-Camelia Begu. The game is so international now that “Heather Watson” sounded like the most bizarre name of the day to me.

Normally I would say that Potito Starace, who lost on Saturday to Frank Dancevic (whose name suits him) reigns supreme in this department. But Starace had a serious challenge from a Hungarian who goes by the name of Marton Fucsovics. Shame that he, and all of his inevitable nicknames, couldn't stick around longer.

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