James Pham is on the ground in Bangkok. He’s writing about the Thailand Open this week for The Changeover.
It’s Day 3 of the tournament, and three of the four top seeds have yet to play, the bane of a small draw with its more-than-fair share of qualifiers and wild cards.
I skip the day session in favor of Bangkok’s legendary clothes shopping and super plush movie theaters. After a late-afternoon meal of Thai street food, I head over to the players’ hotel. It’s too early to leave for the night session, so I camp out in the lobby with a book, watching players come and go. You can always tell who’s a player. Some wear their tennis kits even when sightseeing. But the dead giveaway is that they’re all wearing flashy, new sneakers. You can always tell by the sneakers. In the space of an hour, Milos Raonic, Leander Paes, Mark Woodforde, Ivan Ljubicic, Jarko Nieminen, and Jamie Murray walk by.
Tonight, though, top-seeded Berdych is taking on Roberto “No Squeak” Bautista Agut, fresh off a quarterfinal appearance last week in St. Petersburg. The normal ballboys have been replaced by model-esque Thai ballgirls, who are distracting to me but for all the wrong reasons. One girl keeps tossing the server two balls at a time whether he wants two or not. The players are obviously losing patience, just letting the second ball bounce off their bodies. Another seems bewildered as to why the players need so much toweling off, perpetually confused as to whether they want towels or balls. Early in the second set, Berdych gets a time violation and blames the ballgirls for being slow. “It’s probably their first time on a tennis court,” he calls out to the umpire. I can’t help but laugh.
After the match, I ask Berdych about the model ballgirls.
Berdych: “I like the idea. It’s definitely not a problem of the ballgirls, but it’s a bit of putting together a bit of inexperience and the rule [stricter enforcement on time allowed between points] that we have. If you have to be really strict, you cannot blame and complain, but this counts by the second which means it’s just one small thing, delay with a towel and you’re over the time. It needs to be not really that strict. On my first break point I get a time violation.”
[As I’m leaving the venue, I catch up to some of the ballgirls. They’re finalists from the Miss Thailand World beauty pageant and received two days of training.]
During the Berdych match, I see that Laslo Djere, the 18-year-old wild card from Serbia is sitting right in front of me. Starting the week ranked No. 556, this is his first-ever ATP-level tournament and while he lost 6-3, 6-3 to Feliciano Lopez last night, he’s partnering Wishaya Trongcharoenchaikul, Thailand’s No. 1 junior in a doubles match after Berdych’s. I saw him earlier in the week in practice and was impressed by his solid groundstrokes.
The Changeover: What does it feel like playing your first-ever ATP tournament?
Djere: This week is unbelievable. The players are so high level. I normally play Futures and it’s a struggle. Bad courts, no people watching. Even between Futures and Challengers, there’s a big difference. But you have to fight through that. It’s better if it takes only a short time to get to the next level.
The Changeover: A few years ago at this tournament, there was some talk because Marko Djokovic (younger brother to Novak) got a wild card when he was ranked 1,734. Do you feel receiving wild cards helps or hurts a young player?
Djere: It was a bit of a surprise [to get a wild card] but it’s good that I got one for this tournament because it was a huge experience for me, to motivate me in the future, but maybe if a player gets too many, he won’t learn how to fight through step by step, so it can be bad.
The Changeover: What’s in the water over there in Serbia?
Djere: The general situation is not so good financially so people are fighters, not just in tennis, but basically in life. We never give up and try working hard, and also Djokovic and Victor [Troicki] and the girls, they motivate young kids to start playing tennis. We have a tennis federation, but it’s not big like other countries. Your family is still your biggest support.
When James Pham isn’t aiming swing volleys directly at opponents, he’s editing a magazine in Saigon, Vietnam and traveling the world as a writer and photographer. He spent his youth ushering tournaments around the Washington D.C. area (and perhaps even skipped school to do so, but don’t tell his mom!) and remembers when the WTA Tour was sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes and you had to screw your wooden racquet into its frame after play. He blogs about his on- and off-court adventures at www.flyicarusfly.com.