Legg Mason Monday
Mid-summer brings another U.S. Open Series, which for the male pros means six weeks of hard-court competition often in extremes of heat and humidity. At the Legg Mason Classic, now in progress here in Washington, D.C., most play is scheduled after sundown.
The Legg Mason is one of eleven 500-Series events on the ATP calendar. A strong entry field is supposedly encouraged, as each top pro must include two 500-Series results in his year-end point total. The field here was weakened by the recent withdrawals of Andy Roddick and Bernard Tomic, the Australian-grown teenager who starred this year at Wimbledon. Scheduled to perform are Americans Mardy Fish -- recent winner at Atlanta and runner-up in Los Angeles -- and teenager Ryan Harrison, just arrived from reaching the semis at Los Angeles. Gael Monfils heads a fine European contingent that includes Melzer, Verdasco, and Baghdatis. Last year's champion here, Nalbandian, holds the #8 seed. None of the current world Top Six entered, however, probably reflecting that the mandatory 1,000-Series events in Canada and Cincinnati will directly follow Legg Mason.
But if the singles entry list seems less than glittering, the doubles assuredly sparkles. The 16-pair doubles draw shows six of the top eight pairs from the current ATP ranking list, including the top three pairs -- the brothers Bryan, Mirnyi-Nestor, and the Europeans Llodra and Zimonjic. It is a doubles field worthy of a Slam or a year-end final.
The opening match on this, the first full day of main-draw play, provided a dramatic match-up -- a clash of two European stars, closely ranked, both ready and willing to join in an old-style, net-attacking contest. Radek Stepanek from the outset was determined to attack the backhand of his opponent, Phillip Petzschner, Radek regularly forcing his way to net behind his own powerful backhand two-hander. Phillip's replies were generally soft slices, so that the German star quickly learned that his best tactic was to get to net ahead of Stepanek. It worked often enough behind some nifty volleying of his own to preserve Phillip's own serving games, even as Phillip began to find his own forcing serve and forehand. The first set was Phillip's, won in a tiebreaker where Radek's serving skills temporarily vanished. Set Two was also close, as Phillip's sliced backhand gained in depth and bite. There was one point were both server and serve-returner charged directly to net, producing a delightful close-in exchange of a kind nowadays rare. The only service break of the set came when Radek again stepped up his net-attacking, having backed away in weathering Phillip's mid-match surge. His opponent now having equalized the score and playing relentlessly well, Phillip in the third set tried to step up his game, ripping away for the lines. But the result was many quick points for Radek, who showed little mercy in closing out.
In his post-match meeting with the press, Stepanek talked pleasantly and in correct English flavored with an eastern European accent. He generally confirmed the above analysis of the play, and said that prior to his next match he needed to practice getting his serve into court when intending to follow it directly to net. Another writer asked whether Radek's wife, the former star Nicole Vaidisova, might decide to return to the game. Radek said he's encouraged her to do so, but he thought a come-back was unlikely.
In the second match on Stadium Court, left-handed American Donald Young, 22, defeated New Zealand's Artem Sitak in the latter's first main-draw appearance on the tour. Artem showed a forcing backhand two-hander that I'd yearn for, but otherwise there was little doubt as to the outcome. Donald out-moved and out-steadied his opponent throughout.
By now, nearby showers had cooled the air considerably from earlier levels in the mid-nineties, improving the comfort of fans and players. Next on court was James Blake, now 31, facing Tatsuma Ito, 23. The Japanese player produced surprising power in serving and stroking for his short stature, serving into the 120's. With both men playing mainly from back court, the verdict in both sets went unstressfully to the American.
Tomorrow's card looks appealing, featuring the debut here of Ryan Harrison and an appearance by rising South African Kevin Anderson. Familiar stars John Isner, defending champion Nalbandian, and Tommy Haas are also scheduled.