Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sports: A Day at the Sony Ericsson Open

Colloquially known as "The Glam Slam," the Sony Ericsson Open is an annual tennis tournament that is a key stop on both the men's and women's tours. It's held at Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, so it naturally attracts all the glitterati Miami has to offer. Today, I was able to visit the grounds to get a firsthand look at some of the world's best tennis players.


My first stop was a qualifying match between Jesse Levine and Yen-Hsun "Rendy" Lu, who were dueling for a spot in the main men's draw. The qualifying rounds are a mini-tournament necessary to enter the main draw if your ranking isn't high enough (Levine is ranked 118, Lu is 99). Life on the ATP World Tour is tough for those outside the top 100, since both the prize money and endorsements are a tiny fraction of what the big stars get. Lu's career earnings, after 9 years as a pro, are about $1.2 million...World #1 Roger Federer has already made $2 million in prize money this year. Of course, there's a reason for that:

So, even though Lu and Levine were playing in front of only a few dozen people, the two men were going all out. One thing you don't understand from watching tennis on TV is how quick these players are. Even a normal rally, when viewed court level, is a violent back-and-forth baseline war. Nearly every shot, whether it was Lu's ripping top spin forehand or Levine's nasty lefty two-handed backhand, would have been a clean winner against an average tennis player. It was an impressive, up-close display of human athleticism.


Next was a look at some of the top pros' practice sessions. One of the main benefits of attending an early day of the tourney is that you get to watch these practice sessions without the crowds that populate the latter days of the event. In the main stadium, Novak Djokovic was practicing his volleying under the watchful eye of coach Todd Martin. His entourage would occasionally yell a "Bravo, Nole!" after a good drop volley.

Former World #1 and newly-unretired Justine Henin had a hitting session on one of the outer courts. From a distance, it's a mystery how this relatively slight Belgian woman could generate that much power in her groundstrokes. Up close, though, the answer is obvious - Justine whales on the ball, smacking it like it owes her money. Her one-handed backhand, the best on the women's tour, is mechanically perfect:


I did catch some of the main women's draw. Sorana Cirstea and Michelle Larcher de Brito were contesting a tight first-round match on the Grandstand, with both players looking jittery toward the business end of each set. I shuffled in and took a seat.

There are a lot of little details you catch live that are lost or changed when tennis gets aired on television. First, of course, was de Brito's infamous whinnying grunt. It's not that loud in person, but it's definitely distracting - I blame Nick Bolletieri:

Cirstea, for her part, was pretty quiet. She's an attractive young woman, though, and that probably had something to do with why she was playing on the Grandstand. Sometimes, both in tennis and in life, image is everything.


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