“So, what the hell is going on in Weston?” you may be wondering, if you’re a particularly curious type. After all, I’ve been going there almost every day since last Friday and have yet to write a damn word about it. But keeping my Westonian insight and experience from the world only increases it as a commodity by making it scarce and in demand, don’tcha know?* And yet here I go cheapening things again by pressing fingers to keyboard.

Well, after witnessing the madness that was the Jesse Witten vs. Daniel Garza USA F2 Tamarac semi on Friday, I hightailed it over to the Midtown Athletic Club in Weston, a gorgeous and sprawling 25-court establishment located off the same lot as the Weston City Hall (which is decidedly less gorgeous and sprawling); the sign on the street literally directs you to the “City Hall/Midtown Athletic Club.” Which is a pretty convenient setup when it comes to enforcing code violations, I suppose. I thought it was strange at first, but after five days I’m starting to kind of like it. If I ever run for office now, it’ll be on a “racquet club for every city hall” platform, I think.

So tennis? Of course. A ridiculous amount of it. Sickening, even. Or maybe that was just the smell of the wet clay – hard to say. The 128 qualifying draw format employed on these USTA Pro Circuit Futures events ensures an orgy of frenzied activity in the early going. On the first days, with 64 matches, no posted court assignments, and no on-court officials, it’s as close to athletic anarchy as one could hope to find at a combination tennis club/city hall.

On the way past one of my favorite signs on the grounds…

…I catch my first recognizable player sighting, and it’s none other than Wayne Odesnik, walking back to the clubhouse, sweaty, towel around his neck. Since it’s only about 45 minutes after his match was scheduled to begin, I just assume that Wayno took Nikki Madregallejo to the cleaners. Turned out, however, that Odesnik retired in the first set tiebreak. Some spectators I spoke with later told me they saw Odesnik actually win that breaker (which wouldn’t be the first time the ITF, the USTA, the spectators and/or the players haven’t been in agreement on the score or even outcome of a particular match). Hard to say for sure either way, and I haven’t yet been able to determine what exactly happened in that one.

I wander out near Court 23-ish to the player check-in and ask annoying questions about court assignments. Then I complete my trek over the spacious layout and plop my ass in the comfy grass near Court 22, where Austin Smith takes on 7th seed Joel Kielbowicz. For those who don’t remember (or never knew in the first place), it was Austin who’s credited with coming up with that infamous B-word on then-girlfriend Melanie Oudin’s sneakers during her spirited US Open run (“Believe”, by the way – I have no idea what you’re thinking). Kielbowicz is a 27 year-old four-year UNLV product with a monster serve. As there are no chair umps and players only sometimes call the score (or call it loudly enough when they do), the only way to determine where one is in a match is by checking the tennis ball scoring devices or by paying very close attention.

I’m not doing a good job of either, but it seems like Smith is handling the heat from Kielbowicz, so I amble away to the opposite corner of the grounds; there, 18-year-old, 12th-seeded 1,068th-ranked Brit Jack Carpenter, semifinalist of the 2009 Eddie Herr International junior championships, is taking on unranked 19-year-old American Kurt Thein. The only other people watching the match are each player’s coach. That is, until the affable Alex Ward comes round the corner.  The 8th seed in the main draw and the funniest sub-250-followed tennisser on the twitter had seen me skulking about Tamarac for the better part of the week, and now here I am in the furthermost corner of the complex at the other place, watching his roommate play quallies. What else was there to do but point and laugh? (Amiably, of course.)

I pick myself up out of my comfy chair to have a chat. I plead guilty to their suspicion that, yes, I am the idiot who’s been tweeting every last bit of nonsense from Tamarac the past few days (although they phrase their accusation in a much friendlier fashion). I, in turn, ask Alex whether Katie O’Brien is still kicking his ass in fantasy footy, but he insists he’s had a good week. He tells me about a race to 500 Twitter followers he’s having with another British player and I promise to aid him in his quest. Later, I send out an urgent plea to my loyal minions (or so I thought) to start following him immediately, but his numbers don’t budge. Come on, disloyal minions – do what I tell you, damn it! You’re making me look bad. The next day, I see him again (the entire Brit crew must be convinced I’m stalking them at this point, but it’s not my fault they’re always at the damn tennis) and I ask, “Ya hit 500 followers yet?” “Not quite,” he says, diplomatically. Anyway, here’s you’re last chance to get in on the ground floor of the next Tennis/Twitter superstar. Follow him, you fools.

Meanwhile, on court, Carpenter manages to take a come-from-behind second set and win the match in straights. I say my goodbyes and run over to catch the end bits of three other matches – Nathaniel Gorham beating Alex Halebian 7-6(5) 7-6(5), Morgan Mays ousting Serbia’s Jovan Parlic, 6-3 2-6 6-1 and Mark Oljaca upsetting eighth seed Martin Prikryl 7-5 1-6 6-3 – all of them intense and contentious at times. Guys constantly griping about “lucky bounces” from their opponents, intent on being heard, guys mocking the applause of their errors by their opponent’s handful of supporters, “Oh, yeah – that was such a great shot!”, guys anxious to let the man across the net know that none of the advantages he thinks he has are even remotely deserved. And these are matches in the second qualifying round of a Futures event, folks. No ATP points nor prize money is even on the table in these clashes.

Watching this, I’m reminded anew of why I sucked so bad at junior tennis – I was too easily freaked out by all the sniping and head games. When I was 13 years old, I had beaten the reigning state high school champ in a practice set and was all but a shoo-in to become the #1 starter on my high school’s team as a freshman. The day before tryouts, I beat my best friend 6-0 6-0 6-1 in three practice sets on his court. Then we had to play on that first day of tryouts; he started swearing at me and being an ass, and I lost 4&4. Pathetic.

The level of passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive sniping at all these matches would eat me alive, if I even had the option to play them today, Reunion Island-style. Then again, I was always better at playing complete strangers in sectional tournaments than those I knew well in local events. I’m envious of these Futures players’ competitive abilities – it’s a dawg-eat-dawg world on these gritty clay back courts – and, rather than think these guys are acting like jerks, I merely see them doing whatever’s needed in the moment to keep them afloat and carry them through.

It’s an odd dichotomy, though, since I tend to harshly judge the top-tier pros – like Nicolas Almagro, let’s say – who behave in this exact same fashion at the ATP level. I guess all the aggro seems more necessary and at home in the Wild West environment of the Futures, where players are scrapping for a living, and less justifiable at a level where players are coddled and catered to. Some might argue that the stakes are higher in the ATP matches, so such behavior should be even more justified, and I wouldn’t even know how to provide a counterpoint. Suffice it to say it’s a personal preference, and I’m aware that it doesn’t jibe on a certain level.

Anyway. Remember when I said that I caught the end bit of Oljaca vs. Prikryl (hint: it’s four paragraphs above)? I lied: the weather turned cold and windy, so I went home. Turns out: I don’t even have what it takes to hang in with these guys as a spectator.

Well that’s all for now. Apologies for the lack of coverage from the event today. The place where I’m currently staying was fairly hard hit by storms and I had to spend some time tending to the literal fallout from this meteorological mauling. (I thought moving out of the Northeast was supposed to put an end to this sort of thing!) Anyway, our internet was just restored so I might as well post now in case it goes out again. Tune in tomorrow, when I’ll regale you with tales from the rest of qualifying, as well as yesterday’s main draw action.

*If you don’t, in fact, know, it’s probably because I’m making that up

End note: in case you’re not hip to it by now, my reporting for this Florida swing is done in conjunction with Tennis Panorama News, which is just about the best tennis site on the web.  Go on over and check it out, OK?  After you follow Alex Ward, that is.

Advertisements