I love Fridays at regular tour stops. Fridays is always quarterfinals day, when all the remaining singles players are on show. I remember leaving the house one morning to usher a WTA tournament in 10th grade. When my mom noticed I didn’t have my schoolbag with me, I confessed I was ditching school to go to a tennis tournament. Let’s just say she wasn’t having any of that. (I grabbed my backpack, but still went to the tournament. It WAS quarterfinals day, after all. Sorry Mom!)
First match up today is Simon vs. Sijsling (who took out 7th seeded Jarkko Nieminen in the first round). At one point, the umpire thinks Sijsling challenges a call, but he was just talking to himself in Dutch. “Well, just be careful”, says the umpire, perturbed at having to cancel a challenge after it displays on screen. “I’m speaking Dutch! How can I be careful?” Sijsling asks. Fair question, Igor, fair question.
Early in the third set, it looks like Simon’s win in Metz last week is catching up with him. He calls a trainer for his back. After every point now, Simon takes a few extra steps towards the chair umpire, looking like he might retire.
But no, he still wants to win. He lets out a guttural scream when Sijsling again serves wide on the deuce court, making him stretch. “Sur la ligne chaque fois!” (“That line every time!”) he groans. The next game when he hits two aces in a row to hold, he screams again, this time with joy. Another huge “Allez!” when he breaks Sijsling at 3-3. This match is turning into a scream-fest.
Simon doesn’t even want to bend over now. He asks the trainer to pick up his towel from the ground and a ballboy to move his racquet bag closer. For the rest of the set, during changeovers, Simon simply leans against the courtside table instead of sitting down. But a final “Allez” as he unleashes an ace down the line and it’s all over.
There must be something in the Bangkok water as another player, this time Chinese Taipei’s Randy Lu, hangs tough with Berdych, losing 7-6, 6-4. I wonder if Berdych remembers telling me earlier in the week that Asian guys are so fast on their feet because after the match, he says that he felt like he was “sometimes playing against Playstation, he was always there, getting to everything.”
I have to admit that I wasn’t a huge Berdych fan at the start of the week, but his insightful, quirky answers during the pressers have won me over.
The Changeover: Is there any extra pressure when you’re top seed at a tournament, especially with a late withdrawal (Murray) like this week?
Berdych: Basically trying to get a positive things from that, possibly can get a bit better draw, not to face one of the top seeds in the earlier rounds and you know, the other way, it’s quite different because all the other guys just have nothing to lose, playing with first seeded player so nothing to lose, can play their best without any pressure. That was the case today. Randy played very well and when you look at his ranking and see how he’s playing, see how tennis is these days.
The Changeover: The Czech Republic has a long history of great players, both male and female. Asia, not so much, especially on the men’s side. Why do you think that is?
Berdych: Sometimes can find countries like Czech Republic, size like half of Bangkok [laughs], quite successful in the past, now quite well as well and you know, probably old tennis culture, maybe not that long in Asia, Thailand, and other countries. Probably needs time, people need to see others as idols, like I had Lendl and Navratilova, but needs to start one day and hope for all Asian guys and girls it’s going to be soon.
The third singles match of the day (Jamie Murray is into the finals with a win over Paes / Bracciali. Yay!) is the one I’ve been waiting for: #2 Gasquet vs. #5 Youzhny. One handed backhands are about as rare this tournament as are Federer wins of late (zing!) but to see two of them at opposite ends of the court in all their free-flowing beauty is akin to seeing the moon out during the day. You simply can’t bear to look away.
Youzhny takes a tight first set and the mood is tense. As the umpire calls “Forty-Love” in a Gasquet service game, a cheeky spectator breaks out into the Haddaway club classic, belting off-key: “Forty love! Baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me, no more.” Play freezes. The umpire is speechless. But Gasquet is feelin’ the groove and goes on to take the second 6-3.
By now the ballkids know of Gasquet’s penchant for re-using a winning ball, scrambling all over the court (and sometimes off court) to retrieve it for him. But he needs no luck to race to a 6-1 victory in the third. That’s 3 of 4 top seeds in the semis.
In the 10pm presser, Gasquet looks understandably tired, but I get off a few questions. This week, pressers have been fun. If there’s not a lot of media, I sometimes ask questions I’m merely curious about and not for any article I’m working on (shhhhh!).
The Changeover: One hand backhands are rare. Is it weird at all to play against someone who also has a one-hander? Does it give the ball a different look?
Gasquet: He’s very talented. It’s nice to have these guys on tour, not so many now. But it’s no problem to play someone with one-handed backhand. It’s nice to see it on tour and play against those guys.
The Changeover: Since you were quite young, people have identified you as a player with huge talent, huge potential. Is all that expectation a good or bad thing?
Gasquet: When I was younger it was a bit difficult for me, but now I’m 27. I’m not a newcomer on tour. There are less expectations than before. I try my best to improve everyday and see what happens.
In the last match of the day, Feliciano Lopez looks to crash the “Party of Seeds” against Raonic. Unfortunately, the “Deliciano” combination of nice volleys, good looks and great hair (oh, such lustrous hair!) is no match for the serving machine that is Milos. Ace after ace (20 in all) comes thundering down for a drama-free 6-4, 6-3 win.
All top 4 seeds have played true to form. Dream semis ahead. Life is good. (I could’ve covered the Malaysian Open instead: Melzer v Sousa; Wawrinka v Benneteau). Go Jamie Murray!
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.