You know how the first thing you do when you walk on a tennis court is always the first thing you do when you walk on a tennis court - a ritual, a rite of passage, an homage to the faces on Mt. Rush(the net)More? For some it's doing your laces a certain way, for others perhaps arranging the water bottle in some perfect alignment with an empty can of balls, that serves a purpose known only to your own imagination. Well, I have a ritual every time I go to the Citi Open - the first thing I do after I cross the main entrance, and pass all the promotional modules is hang a hard left to visit the first 3 practice courts. These days one of those courts is Grandstand 1, a beautifully seated stadium court, from which almost every seat has a perfect vantage point to view a match tennis - sufficiently distant to appreciate the angles, but close enough to feel the weight and pace of every shot.
But back in the day, Grandstand 1 used to be 3 practice courts where you could often watch 6 of the worlds best players at once, getting into the kind of groove that you rarely get to see in a match. And it is as they train that you truly appreciate what it takes to be a professional tennis player. The warmups begin with a slow exercise in simply increasing the blood flow and finding the range - they are hardly putting anything on the ball, and all the pace and spin are generated by rote. This is where, if any conversation takes place, it will take place - I remember back in 1990 watching John Boytim, a top shelf junior from the great state of Texas, who had turned professional to ignominious results, telling his practice partner every sordid detail of a dinner and a movie he had been to the night before. I was as fascinated by the day to day lives of these players, as their games...but I digress. Not so any more - with the pervasive presence of perma-coaches, these conversations are not as extensive or intimate or frequent.
Then the pace picks up slightly, with players putting a little more spin on the ball, making the flight path tighter and tighter over the net until it reaches an impossibly tight curl over the net and the ball lands somewhere in the middle of the no-man's land (that area just beyond the service line and before the baseline). With modern poly-strings and composite racquets, the spin on shots landing that short push players at least 6 feet beyond the baseline at this point in the warm up. By now, the sinews are stretched, the blood flows readily, and the players are ready for their full throated knock about - this is when it becomes truly amazing.
Because at this point, the players begin to strike the ball with true venom, full-bodied pace and spin, on a line tighter and tighter towards their partner, harder and harder, until one of them folds by dumping it in the net or long. They're not moving themselves around, in fact that is considered a soft cop out, because the objective in this exercise is to hit the ball as hard as you can straight at your opponent, and they do the same, straight back at you, until somebody folds. In this way, they're fighting a battle of attrition, and the loser is the guy with the ball on his side of the net. This goes on until they have to wipe the sweat from their hands, or someone breaks a string.
They then move onto a long session of volleys, with the same principle, you're not trying to pass your partner, as much as you're trying to hit the ball through him, and he loses if he dumps a volley straight into the net or long. They do this over and over again until the reactions are so quick and instinctive, you almost wonder how their minds are able to process all the variables and decision points to arrive at just the right point of contact. After a few overheads, then a few serves and returns, a practice set is played.
The best set of tennis I saw last year won't show up on the AT P's head to head records. That's because it was a practice set at, hideaway on practice court 2, between Richard Gasquet and Michael Llodra. And after the initial pleasure of watching an extended 30 minute warmup, I then witnessed one of the best sets of tennis I've ever seen. Not only because Gasquet has one of the most beautiful backhands in tennis, and Llodra is one of the last bona fide serve and volleyers left in the game. The set was extraordinary because the spirit of these two players, their trades plied at opposite ends of the tactical spectrum, is exactly the same - swashbucklers. Not that the term isn't overly used, particularly when it comes to french tennis players, but it very much applies to these two. They do whatever they can, whatever it takes, whenever they can do it, to win the point, and entertain, and not necessarily in that order. There is a quality of the spectacle which is as important to french players and french audiences, that must be met in order for the match to have been worth watching. And boy was this one worth watching.
Gasquet started serving, wide serve in the deuce court, which is the right play against a lefty with a one-handed backhand, but because the pace was reduced to ensure placement, Llodra promptly replied with a drop shot return - I repeat, a drop shot return - to which Gasquet had no choice but to pump his desperate foray to net with a cross court angle which Llodra promptly hit around the net post for a winner.
That was the first point.
And it continue like this, shot after shot was hit with angles so acute the players were continually trying to avoid running into things - the net post, the side fence the back fence, the change over chairs, etc. Some players shrink the court by forcing you to hit to the same spot over and over again, but the vision and improvisation of Gasquet and Llodra had them making the court every larger with each point. Llodra once hit a kick serve to Gasquet's forehand in the deuce court on break point, which Gasquet replied with a chip forehand lob over Llodra's backhand side. And as if that wasn't difficult enough to handle had he taken it conventionally, Llodra decided to hit a tweeter lob (also over the backhand), which Gasquet dispatched with a blind leap and incredible backhand smash - made all the more impressive when you recall the he stands 5'11 if he's got two pairs of socks on.
And there's something about the vantage point of watching from the side, as those practice courts force you to do - particularly when you watch from the net. As a conventional tactic, topspin is usually associated with more margin over the net, but keeping the ball inside the baseline, but actually from this vantage point I could see the effects of Gasquet's reverse forehand (hit almost as frequently as Nadal's but his with a continental grip that also allows him to switch to or from a forehand slice) not only imparted enormous topspin, but used in conjunction with a very low net clearance, actually worked to keep the ball very low. This is of particular use to a player who hits through the ball on the forehand side and is unaccustomed to having to generate either his own pace, or his own spin on the ball.
The set finished in a tie-break after each player broke once, then the other immediately broke right back. The serves were not huge, but hugely effective, placed in all four corners, with slice, top and flat making for a beautiful array of 18 different kinds of serves from two players using the serve to set up very different things. The shotmaking was fearless, which is nothing to shake a stick at when you consider the kind of impact losing would have on either players' reputation in their relatively large circle of compatriots (people talk about Spanish tennis, but really, it's the French that have the most players of consequence in the top 100 today). But most importantly, although there were only 5 people watching that set, it was enough motivation to those two to entertain, curse each other out (in a playful way) and along the way play one hell of a practice set of tennis - indeed one of the best I've ever seen at the Citi Open.
So, for making the first thing I do, one of the best things I do, every time I go to Rock Creek in August, I say, "Thank you Citi Open".