Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tennis Night in Gotham

by Savannah

There is something about Madison Square Garden and the New York sports fan. Male or female, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or age, you know it's something special when an event is held there. If you're a sports fan of a certain age walking into the place and seeing the retired numbers of the great Knicks teams from long ago sends you on a trip down memory lane when men the likes of Willis Reed and Walt Frazier played ball with New York swagger and won because they had it like that. It is the closest to sacred space for sports played indoors in the City.

I never quite got why tennis decided not to stage events in the Garden anymore. I remember reading about the end of year WTA championships that were held there, and later in Philadelphia and vowing one day to see the great women players in the flesh. Unfortunately until last night that was an unfulfilled tennis pipe dream.

In case you didn't know New York City and it's suburbs were hit with a fair amount of snow yesterday. The main streets of the city were pretty clear and since many of the streets in the downtown area have steam underneath them the snow, aided by the Department of Sanitation, had been reduced to slush on corners and curbside by the time I reached the Garden.

I had to wait for my daughter so I took refuge in the Borders book store that shares street space with the Garden. It seems that a lot of tennisheads did the same thing. It was as if everyone in the store was on a cell confirming where they were going to meet friends coming from work or home or just letting people know they'd arrived safe and sound. It was comical really. People were wandering around checking out the books but no one was buying.

There were also the requisite scalpers hustling tickets on 33d street as well as people looking to buy tickets. It was bitter cold so I have to give the guys props for standing out there. It's not as if they could scalp the tickets in the Borders store where everyone was holed up.

My daughter arrived - on time - and we went inside and took our seats. We would have a great view of the action from where we were. Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins was seated to our right and later we got a chance to both shake his hand and get a close up of him. We also found out that a woman sitting two rows in front of us was a former center for a WBA team. Larry Scott was sitting almost directly across court from us and I noticed a silver haired gentleman sitting across the aisle to Scott's right a few rows back and wondered if the rumor about former President Bill Clinton being there was indeed true.

It should be said that tennisheads are tennisheads no matter where they are. People were sitting pretty much wherever they wanted - not us, I'm a scaredy-cat - and as people showed up with their tickets there was no drama they just went to their right seats. One woman had refused to show her ticket to the ushers and got hassled for what turns out no reason since she had the ticket for her seat. New Yorkers.

But enough of that. How was the tennis is what I'm sure you want to know. The first thing I want to say is this - Jelena Jankovic does not look like the Hulk in person. I'd never seen her before so I had no live image to compare what I was seeing to. She is athletically thin which is good.

Serena Williams is also in great shape. She does need to face facts though and throw that blue thing in the trash. It's too small for her. I understand that she wants to show how fit she is but wearing a dress at least a size too small around the hips doesn't help her look her most fashion forward.

As for Venus Williams that "yellow" dress is really chartreuse. Venus is fit and as for swagger no one has it like her. She literally "sashay's" around the court. In other words she struts. That is why she is called Queen Venus. No one likes swagger like we do in New York.

Ana Ivanovic is indeed a very pretty young woman. She wore the purple horror and it looks just as bad in person as it does on television. She is also extremely fit.

The first one set match was between Venus and Jelena. Venus won but Jelena made her work for it. Watching Venus serve became an event in itself as the night wore on since she didn't seem to have control of her toss at all. Knowing she'd won Dubai and then Acapulco back to back I wondered if she would have enough steam left to play the Final.

Ana tried to make Serena work but in the end couldn't mount much of an offense, or defense, against the World Number 1. Serena barely broke a sweat winning their match.

Ironically there seemed to be more fans of Jelena than Ana there last night. And yes, Jelena did try to go into her act - she thought a let call hadn't been made when Lynn Welsh had indeed called the let and given her her first serve - and that was the only time the crowd got a little restless. You don't want to be booed in New York. We've got nothing on Philly but still.

The organizers did the right thing by letting Venus go on first and then scheduling the salute to Billie Jean King. It gave her almost an hour to rest.

As for the ceremony it was wonderful. Leslie Visser was an efficient Mistress of Ceremonies although her comment about the girls in her dorm back in 1973 waxing emotional over what Ms King was doing for women's tennis made my eyes roll.

When former President Clinton came out he received a rousing standing ovation from the crowd. Knowing how Bill likes to talk I wondered if we'd make the last express bus at 12:15a. But someone must have told him not to take a deep breath and he spoke eloquently about girls and women being able to achieve their potential in any field. His mention of the Secretary of State and
President Obama brought cheers from the crowd. He also made sure to mention that women who were struggling during these economic times now had a reason to hope. No one thought his remarks were out of place during a sporting event.

Then came the Final we all wanted to see. If anything the crowd was more for Venus than Serena. Not that people were hostile to Serena it's just that everyone where we were sitting was pulling for Venus. If Venus had won that crucial eighth game in the first set we may have gone to three sets but she didn't and I knew then that Serena would win.

I think Venus would've been gracious about letting her sister win but then Serena had to go and execute that nasty little drop shot in the first set. From then on it was really a war. Venus was ripping first serves between 120 to 126 miles per hour but her second serves were in the low nineties and at some points in the eighties. Serena was eating them for dinner. In the end all the tennis caught up with Venus and the crowd gave Serena a standing ovation.

I know I didn't say much about Ana's game but I was trying to figure out what to say. I don't see anything "wrong" in what she's doing. Her ball toss is all over the place and she could work on that but her game is solid. It could be what my daughter's tennis playing friend Gian Arceo said about Ana, that her game is top ten but not top five or top three. This year is going to be crucial for her to prove that sentiment wrong.

I'd always read that exhibitions were for fun and that the players didn't take them seriously. Well you couldn't prove that by the demeanor of the women last night. Everyone came with their game face on and while some will say that the Williams vs Williams final was inevitable or part of the contract I really didn't get that vibe from anyone who took the court last night.

As I said I had to leave and we did right after the match was over. I didn't see any of the trophy ceremony or hear any of the speeches.

I hope that Larry Scott sees that women's tennis at the Garden has a future. There was a pretty good crowd there last night and if the weather had been better I think the place would've been full. I totally enjoyed myself and appreciated the chance to see four of the biggest names in tennis up close and personal. I mean Ana spitting on the court was as personal as it gets you know?
Let's do this again next year Larry okay?


TopSpin said...

Hi Savannah

Entertaining summary of what sounds like a great evening out.

I was lucky enough to see Venus play live at Wimbledon in 2006 (think she was playing Lisa Raymond); she wasn't this confident back then but still had that swagger you speak of - and as far as her serve goes - well it made Lleyton Hewitt's (who also played that day) look pretty tame!

Anyway great to hear that MSG is being used for tennis again - let's hope they actually start staging some tour events there too..

Craig Hickman said...

Thank you for this!

Nothing like a first-hand account of a tennis match.

Savannah said...

MSG is located at a major commuter hub in NYC. Just about every subway line and the commuter rail road lines to Long Island and New Jersey are right there. Grand Central is a very short subway ride away.
The turn out last night should make it clear that they can draw a good crowd as long as the events start on time so everyone can get that last train (or bus) home.

Karen Flax-Jardine said...

Great article Savannah!

Are you sure that you are not a VIP? Seems the celebs were hovering around you!

It was great to see a big crowd in the Garden watching tennis again.

The tours never should have moved their year end championships away from MSG. Biggest. Mistake. Ever!

Mark your calendar for 3/1/10 - the date of next year's showdown.

Helen W said...

A delightful account of an historic evening. You really brought it to life, Savannah. I haven't been to NYC in over 20 years, and you made me wish it were different.

Savannah said...

Thanks everyone.