Half-Volleys: Stories from the US Open qualifications (Part 2)
Reprinted with permission by Jack Han
Check out Part 1 here
Check out Part 1 here
About the Author:
Jack Han is a business lecturer, entrepreneur, 4.5 level player and occasional tennis writer living in Montreal, Canada.
Background - how I met Jack Han:
I met Jack at the US Open and he shared some really great stories with me about Roger's Cup and his travels in the tour too. We were at Bolletteri's Hall of Fame induction night in NYC and enjoyed a few laughs as he belted out "Eye of the Tiger" like a champ at a Karaoke Bar in some Irish Pub in Manhattan. Good times =)
MY FAVORITE RESTAURANT IN THE WORLD
Living in Flushing during the tournament is the best way to save on hotel costs, beat the midtown traffic and sample really authentic Chinese cuisine. Exhibit A: Nan Xiang Dumpling House. If you are a fan of soft delicate steamed dumplings filled with savory broth and fresh pork stuffing, or want to eat breakfast the way people do on the Mainland (fried dough crullers, salty tofu soup and scallion pancakes), this place is for you. If I were to move to New York, this place would be one of the main reasons.
TEAM LI NA
Caught up with the Team (Li Na, husband/hitting partner Jiang Shan, new coach Carlos Rodriguez and Alex, the German physio) practicing on Grandstand mid-morning. Generally an up-tempo groundstroke session, Li Na had just arrived in New York and was looking to get a good feel for the conditions at the Open. She spent most of the hour hitting hard down the middle, before starting to move Jiang Shan side to side until he was ragged. Leaning over the backboard, I made a comment to him that he seemed to be working harder than his wife. He flashed a smile and joked it was really HIS workout, not her’s.
(In case you are curious about Jiang Shan, who really is quite a character and a very insightful guy, check out the recap of the long conversation I had with him after the Roger’s Cup final about tennis, education and success:http://bcomconfidential.wordpress.com/2012/08/16/how-to-achieve-ground-breaking-success-athletic-and-otherwise-a-chat-with-li-nas-coach/)
AGA AND VIKA
Aga Radwanska and Vika Azarenka practiced back-to-back on Armstrong at around 11AM. Radwanska was on the first of her two practice sessions of the day (she worked on her serve in the morning, and then hit with her sister Ursula in the afternoon). Smalltalk was made while Aga was winding down her session and Vika was getting set to begin hers.
THE ONE AND ONLY RON YU
I was walking the grounds when I spotted a stocky Asian man walking briskly in the opposite direction, carrying a Priority One racquet bag over his right shoulder. As a home stringer and occasional tennis gear geek, I quickly recognized him as an integral part of the team responsible for fine-tuning the racquets used by Sampras, Agassi, Federer, Djokovic and many other top pros. He was in a hurry, so I barely had time to have him pose for a picture and answer two of my questions.
Regarding how sore his fingers will be after this year’s Open: “It won’t be too bad. We did the Olympics just a few weeks ago so the calluses are built up pretty well.”
Regarding his occasional activity on Talk Tennis, Tennis Warehouse’s famous (or notorious) online gathering place for tennis gear fanatics: “You guys crack me up, I’ll leave it at that.”
THE CONSUMMATE PRO: MICHAEL BERRER
There are guys like Marc Gicquel (who you will meet in short order), and then there are guys like Michael Berrer.
I remember watching him on ESPN back in 2008, playing tough against Roddick at the Australian Open. The commentator didn’t think much of Berrer’s technique, and said something about him looking like a “park player,” an unfair comment given that Berrer has been ranked as high as 42 in the world (in 2010).
What did strike me about him back then is how stocky he is for a tennis player (he is listed at 6’4”, 220lb). His physique is more typical of a high-level hockey player or football quarterback. Seeing him in person for the first time, I also got an appreciation for the level of self-control he brought onto the court. The German left-hander hits a fairly traditional Eastern forehand and a compact one-handed backhand. He grunted slightly when hitting his shots, usually directed cross-court and with discipline. Between points, he politely deposited the towel in the ballboy’s hands after using it, unlike other pros who toss it behind him without so much as looking at where it might land.
That level of restraint helped him win the first set and get to 5-3 in the second. However, he failed to serve out the match on two occasions (despite his size and build, he doesn’t have an overpowering serve) and lost in three.
THE BALLKIDS OF THE US OPEN
A few readers wanted to know more about the ballkids selection process at the US Open, so I tracked down Chris, Miguel and Jomar today to ask them about how it was like. Here’s what I learned:
- There are two rounds of tryouts centered on throwing and catching skills to narrow down the field.
- The remaining candidates are appointed as ballkids and are cut as the first weeks of the tournament progress. By the final, only the best ballkids are still working matches
- Out of the three, only Chris plays tennis. The others are here to be with friends and to collect a paycheque (unlike at the Roger’s Cup, for instance, ballkids at the USO are paid)
Out of the corner of my eye, I also noticed a twenty-something blonde girl hiding out behind other ballkids. I came closer and realized why – she had an artificial leg from the right knee-down.
Her name is Danielle. She was a collegiate-level softball player who broke her leg sliding into first base about two and a half years ago. The wound became infected and, in order to save her life, doctors decided to amputate below the knee. To her credit, she did not take this setback sitting down. This is her second year working at the Open, and she is also staying active the rest of the year by participating in triathlons. An inspiring young lady.
FAN SERVICE: FERRER AND LOPEZ PRACTICING SHIRTLESS ON GRANDSTAND - “ONE-TAKE BRAD”
I first met Brad Gilbert four years ago to the date. On that day, we chatted with another former LTA coach, Paul Annacone, while watching Alex Bogdanovic, Brad’s charge at the time, lose his qualies match against Lukas Lackos. Back then, Brad’s third career as a tennis broadcaster at ESPN was just getting started. Today, he is a regular fixture on the small screen for his TV work during the Grand Slams.
Getting all the variables right for filming on the site of the US Open is a pain in the neck. Just when you thought the lighting, the crowd and the camera angles are perfect, along comes a big orange truck to take over the entire background of the shoot. The ESPN producer scrambles an intern to intercept the truck before it came too close. Meanwhile, Brad is signing autographs, posing for pictures, and looking over the just-released draw one last time before the camera starts rolling.
Brad loves to talk, so working in TV is a natural fit. His vocabulary is not big – he used the same word about 10 times in the span of 2 minutes when describing where each US Open favorite “fell” in the draw, but it got the job done in one take. Since he’s always coming up with nicknames for players, I’ll follow suit and dub him “One-Take Brad.”
THE TOWER OF POWER: DUAN YINGYING
On the men’s tour, the outrageously tall fire-bombers are household names: Ivo Karlovic, John Isner, Milos Raonic. Today I met Milos’ WTA equivalent, Duan Yingying of China, who stands close to 6’2” and who does not feel the need to put any spin on either her first or second serve.
To be 100% accurate, I didn’t meet her just today. In 2008, I was walking by the outside courts at the national tennis training center in Tianjin, China, when I came across a group of female players being drilled by a coach. They were doing a simple basket-fed groundstroke exercise, where the coach feeds one shot to the forehand corner and another to the backhand corner. Most of the girls were having little trouble with the drill, except the one who stood a solid head taller than the next biggest girl of the group: Duan Yingying. The balls she hit in were flat 80mph missiles which painted the lines, but every second shot she would either spray 10 feet long, or not get to at all(remember, this was a basket-fed drill). I remember looking on for a few minutes before walking away in sheer horror.
She must have worked excessively hard in the following 4 years to get to the top 200 in the world. The movement was still suspect at-best, but at least it was now suspect at a world-class level, instead of at a local level. She breezed through her first-round qualies match and lost 2-6 2-6 against veteran Kristen Flipkens, who exposed her weakness with a steady diet of backhand slices and angled forehands. Still, Duan is only 22, and could have a couple of major upsets in her before the end of her career.
SWEATY BRYDAN KLEINKlein serving in the second set when his racquet slipped out of his hand and tomahawked straight into the court in front of him. His question to the umpire while walking to his bag to grab a new stick: “Was the serve in?”
WATCHING TENNIS WITH BABY FED
Out on court 13, Dmitry Tursunov was playing against journeyman Laurent Rochette from France. Out of the blue, Grigor Dmitrov appeared. Sucking on a lollipop, with a towel over his neck and seemingly without a care in the world, he came to watch his good friend Tursunov attempt to join him in the main draw. Only a couple of spectators recognized him. After a few autographs and a short conversation with a Bulgarian-speaking fan, he received no attention from the crowd.
“Do you know who you’re playing first-round yet?” I asked
“Benoit Paire” He answered
“Might be an interesting match,”
“It might…” He smiled. He’s probably thinking a straight-set victory.
“I heard he likes to screw around on the court.”
“Always,” another wry smile from Grigor.
RAGE GUY: MARC GICQUEL
Earlier, I was talking about how Michael Berrer (who is 32) acts like a professional on the court. On the other side of the spectrum, you have Marc Gicquel. The 35 year old with an elegant forehand is perhaps best known for getting struck in the balls by a 129MPH Benjamin Becker serve at Halle in 2007. I can tell you that there were no long-term effects on his vocal chords after incident.
Sitting courtside, it was hard to tell whether his face was bright red due to sunburn, or because of his state of constant rage. His three-set loss against Yang Tsung-Hua of Taiwan was one continual tirade against the chair umpire. He chucked his Head Radical against the ground a couple of times, though they were more WTA-style short-hops rather than racquet-ending smashes in the styles of Safin or Tursunov. His physio Stephane Huet said that he needs to be angry at something to play his best. It worked for a while, but Gicquel faded down the stretch and lost by a break in the third set.
DREDDY PLAYS TENNIS LIKE HE JUST DON’T CARE
Dustin Brown (@Dreddytennis) is a pretty fun guy to watch. He makes Dolgopolov looks like David Ferrer in comparison, because of how lackadaisical he seems when playing the game. A few examples:
- He served-and-volleyed on every single point of his first service game. A typical point: a 125MPH bomb down the T and an easy drop volley winner after taking a few hops toward the net.
- At 15-0 during his first return game against American Tim Smyczek, Brown pushed the ball cross court a couple of times and was drawn wide by a well-placed forehand by the American. Instead of conservatively pushing the ball back cross-court (like he had been doing the whole point), Brown instead leaned back and whipped a down the line forehand using only his upper body. Out by inches.
Dreddy had the crowd ooo-ing and ahh-ing for the next hour or so, and was by far the more entertaining player I saw on the day.
In case you cared about the final score, he lost 4 and 4.
FINE DINING WITH OLDFRENCHCOACHAs a rule, Frenchmen love good food, especially good bread. Therefore, it must be horrifying for Christian (current coach of Catalina Castano and consultant to the Chinese Tennis Association; former advisor to Henin, Pierce and other WTA stars) to be eating cheap American white bread with pre-packaged tuna salad and a bag of salt and vinegar chips. He seems to be having enjoying it, though.
POST SCRIPTUM: MICHELLE LARCHER DE BRITO
(In case you read the first part of Half Volleys that I posted yesterday)
I was watching a match on Court 12 while de Brito played a few courts away. After a while, the high-pitched screams stopped. A few minutes later, de Brito ran by our court, once again in tears. She disappeared behind a tall bush. Then I heard the unmistakable “clack clack” of racquets being broken. Tough.
About the Author: Jack Han is a business lecturer, entrepreneur, 4.5 level player and occasional tennis writer living in Montreal, Canada. Check out his personal blog at bcomconfidential.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KSplayersClub or on Instagram @SoireeCulturelle