Garden of Tennis Delights

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NEW YORK—With Novak Djokovic up a set in his exhibition match with Andy Murray at Madison Square Garden last night, the two men met at the center-strap of the net after the changeover. They whipped out their cellphones and, imitating Ellen DeGeneres’ act from the previous evening’s festivities at the Oscars, took selfies with their arms around each others’ shoulders, and the crowd (nearly 16,000 in attendance) in the background.

It was standard fare that the crowd at an exo laps up. Besides, neither man had ever set foot inside MSG before this night, and the mythology—much of it nakedly and shamelessly self-perpetuating, like all things New York—had left an impression.

A wag, though, might have thought those selfies were destined to go on the side of a milk carton, as both Grand Slam champions have essentially been missing in action thus far this year. Djokovic will be heading to the desert for the Indian Wells Masters without a title to his name in the third month of the year, the first time that’s happened since 2006. And Murray, who’s recovering from minor back surgery he underwent last fall, has yet to reach a final—his best effort was a semifinal in Acapulco last week.

Both men are in need of a few good wins, and they played like it last night.

It was a tough night for those who are certain that exhibition matches are fixed in order to please the crowd and prolong the action. They were doomed to second-guess the authenticity of every errant second serve and every mangled break point. When Murray broke Djokovic to go up 5-3 in the second set, suspicious minds leaped to work—Aha! The fix is in! We’re going three!

Whoops. Djokovic broke right back, in a game prolonged by an unexpected guest appearance by Wimbledon champ and now retiree Marion Bartoli.

Ms. Bartoli popped out of the courtside seats, and immediately began to disrobe; she was just getting into something more comfortable—for tennis. This took quite some time, as Maid Marion, never an ascetic, seems to be living the good life. When she went on court, Murray promptly whistled a serve past her while she stood rooted in her signature pose, with both hands on the racquet handle. If she tried to hop around like in the good old days, it wasn’t obvious.

Murray turned the heat down a bit and served a ball that Bartoli did return, and they engaged in a long and entertaining rally that took the crowd by surprise. That’s because the vast majority of the onlookers had no idea who Bartoli is, or what she so recently accomplished.

When Bartoli smacked a crisp backhand return, the fans issued a collective sigh of approval. With each passing stroke, and it was a long and entertaining rally, their amazement grew more voluble as they turned to each other, asking, “Who is that girl? Where did they get her?” When the rally ended, the Jumbotron high above the court cleared up the mystery of her identity. Djokovic gave her a big hug as he escorted her off the court and he then proceeded to break Murray, to stay even on serve.

Djokovic would go on to win the tiebreaker, 7-2, to end the BNP Paribas Showdown in straights—and flummox the conspiracy theorists. So let’s walk through this one more time, for these days this appears to be how it works:

The players tone down the big serving (last night’s match was brimful of 110 M.P.H. first serves, and 90 M.P.H. seconds), so that almost every point features a rally. They regularly hit spin overheads, to see of the other guy can run them down and do something spectacular. They jump on any chance to hit one of those cursed ‘tweeners like Brad Gilbert jumping on chance to invent a nickname.

And, of course, both players carve out time for a little levity (after Murray lost one lengthy, spectacular point, Djokovic ran over and massaged his thigh) and crowd participation, although this habit of handing off the racquet for a point or two to some rich kid in a choice seat is getting tiresome.

The best piece of ham acting last night? Djokovic hit a ball that appeared to fly long at Murray’s baseline. When it was called out, Djokovic mimicked the familiar challenge used when Hawk-Eye is in play, although he knew full well that it wasn’t.

When the chair umpire waved off his protest, Djokovic held the ball high in the air with two hands and walked it the length of the court, mimicking its trajectory and flight. He even turned it in his fingers, to indicate topspin. Then he gradually lowered it and let it sit eight inches inside the baseline. Whereupon Murray stepped forward, picked up the ball, and moved it eight inches behind the baseline. Djokovic then moved it onto the line as if it were an acceptable compromise.

Cute. Anyway.

The bottom line is that both men used the occasion to unlimber some of their most potent groundstrokes, and Djokovic in particular seemed to play with increasing risk and intensity as the match went on. He hit some spectacular shots as the end came into view, but then Murray didn’t rise to the bait and respond in kind. If this suggests that somehow Djokovic needed this meaningless match more than Murray did, so be it.

The evening began with a doubles duel featuring les freres McEnroe, John and Patrick, against the Bryan brothers. John McEnroe had lately made some mean-spirited comments about the Bryans, so there was a definite edge to this demonstration—so much so that I’ll write a full post on it, and some of the controversy it generated, tomorrow.

For now, suffice it to say that the Bryans ripped off a 7-0 lead in the eight-game pro set, then lost (insert sound of throat clearing) two games before they closed out the Macs, 8-2.

One of the nicer features of the evening was periodic touch-ins with people on foreign shores celebrating World Tennis Day. This concept has really flowered, and it could become a welcome addition to the tennis calendar as well as a fun, promotionally useful tradition. Give credit to the ITF, the USTA, and promoters who have signed up to take part in different corners of the world.

When the featured singles match was over, Djokovic and Murray sat together on a dais in the press interview room. I asked each of them to comment on what has been, thus far, a year of some trials and tribulations. Here’s what they said:

Murray: “It’s only March. Coming back from back surgery, the first couple of tournaments I was pretty happy with. At the Australian Open, I felt I wasn’t that far off the pace to be honest. Now my body feels good and I played four matches in four days last week in Acapulco—for the first time since my surgery. I felt I recovered well, so I’m really looking forward to next week.

Djokovic: “I had an incredible finish in 2013, and I came into the year with a great deal of confidence. I felt great for the Australian Open, but I lost to a great champion. Obviously, it wasn’t as great a start for me as in previous years, but I lost a match against a better player (Stanislas Wawrinka). Last year, I also had a five-setter with Stan and I got lucky and I won it, then won the tournament. I haven’t really had that many matches. I played just two tournaments so far in the year, but my game is there even if I still need to work on some things.”

The message: Hold off on printing up those images on the milk carton for at least a few more weeks.

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