Thursday, January 15, 2015

A debacle in Auckland

There are worse things that could happen. I'm not just talking about worse things in life (one would hope that was obvious) - I mean, on the tennis court: there are worse calls that could be made, more career-hampering losses, more massively unjust occurrences.

And who knows, maybe it's because I was up too late, a time when one doesn't always think the sharpest or handle adversity the best, but boy did that missed call last night at the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand, feel like a huge debacle. More for the tournament than for me as a fan.

To set the stage, this event was already fraught with weirdness, as far as American tennis was concerned. First, defending champion John Isner pulled out, citing "tired," a move that was met with one of the more incredible rants you'll read about a 250 event:
Americans have different ways of saying things. They say elevator, we say lift; they say sidewalk, we say footpath; they say jelly, we say jam. They say "tired", we say the defending champion of the Heineken Open should bleeding well turn up.
(The tournament field was weakened further given Gael Monfils' withdrawal due to "personal issues," and then again when higher-ranked David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo both withdrew after the draw was made, both facts which seemed to cause much less consternation. And then Roberto Bautista Agut retired down 62 21 to Adrian Mannarino! Rough times.)

Hurt feelings probably weren't mended when Isner showed up playing the Kooyong exhibition, although to be fair, a practice set or two of tennis is much different from flying 1600 miles to a different country to play a full-on tournament where you'd likely have gotten at least to the semifinal. Last time he did that, he got hurt and had to pull out of the Australian Open.

Then, the top seeded Bryan Brothers celebrated a victory in their first match, only to have it snatched away from them like a contestant's wig in the middle of a RuPaul's Drag Race fight (I have no idea if that's actually ever happened) when somehow an out ball was called in. Chair umpire Kader Nouni refused to overrule this injustice, and the Bryans went on to lose that supertiebreak a few points later. See for yourself how bad it was:

Which brings us to last night (aka Thursday afternoon in Auckland). Here's how it went down: Donald Young had already lost to a very impressive Jiri Vesely, leaving 8th seed Steve Johnson as the only American left in the tournament. Johnson, as luck would have it, had to play the only other remaining seed, Kevin Anderson (another college tennis stalwart), in his quarterfinal. Yes, Johnson had beaten Anderson here last year, but Anderson was playing great in this match. Fantastic, actually, according to reports (the match was not shown on the Tennis Channel until after the conclusion of the Juan Martin del Potro/Mikhail Kukushkin match in Sydney), and broke Johnson in the first game of the match. Johnson couldn't touch the South African's serve, and the first set went perfunctorily, 6-4.

In the second set, Anderson's level stayed high, but Steve raised his game a bit and didn't face a break point until 4-4 in the set. Then, Anderson elevated even higher: at 40-40, Johnson hit a deep volley into the deuce corner that Anderson somehow tracked down and hit a disgusting lob that the Southern Californian had no chance at. Johnson would save break point with an ace, but then Anderson hit an incredible down-the-line return shot to set up another break point. Johnson saved that one as well, but then Anderson hit a cross-court return winner that left us all reeling. Faced with his third break point, Johnson hit an error and Anderson would serve for the match. And I turned off the TV to finally go to sleep.

But then immediately, Anderson's first serve deserted him like Meryl Streep did her family at the beginning of Kramer vs. Kramer and I saw that it was 0-30 and turned the TV back on. Three points later, Johnson hit a sick forehand down the line that caught the corner and sent the crowd into a frenzy. 5-5. Two quick holds later and it was a tiebreak.

Blah blah blah, good tennis, 6-6 at the changeover. 7-7. And then it happened.

Kevin serving, approaches the net. Johnson hits a brilliant backhand (YES A BACKHAND) down the line to set up set point on his serve. Truly his second ATP "hot shot" of the set, and at an extraordinary time! The crowd went wild!! This match was about to rescue the tournament from being a pretty lousy one into a potentially memorable one.

Except the apparently volunteer line judge called it out. And veteran chair umpire Gerry Armstrong didn't overrule. And there's no Hawkeye in Auckland. It was bad.
Sure, it was close. But remember, 99% out is 100% in.

The crowd was aghast. Twitter erupted. Steve said "fucking" a few times. Johnson then hit an ace (which, had the BHDTL call gone the other way, would have taken the match to a 3rd set, which, of course, he wasn't guaranteed to win but would at least have had a chance) but then hit a forehand long and on the next point, it was over.

Who knows, this might be a blessing in disguise for Stevie Johnson. He has to feel happy about his first two weeks of 2015, going 3-2 and losing only two tight matches to Top 16 players. And now he gets to join everyone else and head early to Melbourne - which IS NOT CLOSE TO AUCKLAND - to prepare for what could be a nice run at the Australian Open, draw depending.

But here's the other thing: it wasn't just one match for Johnson. No match is at this stage in his career. A win would have matched him up against Vesely, who is good but certainly beatable, for a chance at his first career final. Where he would face Pouille or Mannarino - also both very good, but very beatable. A title would have given him another 200 points - and moved him to #32 in the world (yes, higher than at least a couple of Australian Open seeds). Those opportunities don't come around every day for a tour grinder. (He also has 400 points to defend over the next couple of months, and so boy howdy would those 200 have come in handy.)

Look, Steve is a winner. He was in college and he's proving himself to be at this level as well. I think he'll be fine, and perhaps this farce will motivate him to turn things up even one more notch. Perhaps all the way to 12 (he is already at 11).

The Heineken Open turns out to be the loser in all this. I hope, for the sake of the tournament (and tennis in New Zealand), they get their house in order soon.

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