The 2012 Powershare Series Tennis Championships kicked off in the city of Surprise, AZ (about 10 miles west of Phoenix) the weekend of October 12-13 with four main draw men's players that featured John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Michael Chang (who replaced Jimmy Connors) and Todd Martin. Prior to the main draw action of October 13, Courier squared off with McEnroe in an exhibition match that John won. As it turned out, the current Davis Cup captain used that match as good preparation for the one that really counted in the Surprise final after he had dispatched Todd Martin 7-6 (5) and McEnroe defeated Chang 6-2. As was the case last year, the prize money will be determined at the end of the 12-tournament season that has stops here, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, Tampa, Atlanta, San Jose (California), Las Vegas, Denver & Anaheim. At the end of the year, the first place winner nets $500,000 with the runner-up pocketing $350,000 and the third-place finisher getting what's left ($150,000). At each particular tournament, the titlist nets 400 points while the runner-up at a given event earns 200 points while the 3rd and 4th place finishers get 100 points each. No money is awarded to anyone until the 12-tournament series has ended.
With a combined career prize-winning total of close to $161 Million between all of the Powershare Series participants, a strong argument can be made that they are not playing for the money. Obviously, if a player doesn't finish in the top 3 at the end of the season, they get no prize money whatsoever. However, the players have all earned multiple millions in their playing days so most of them are playing because it was the sport they grew up loving and it gives them a chance to continue their bragging rights when they defeat one of their rivals. The fact that U.S. pro tennis fans get another chance to see some of the "greatest generation" of American players competing again is an added bonus. It is hard to believe that it has been nearly 10 years since an American male has won a grand slam singles event (Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open). Of course, that is nothing compared to the long-suffering British tennis fans who had to wait more than 70 years for one of their own to win another grand slam singles crown -- Andy Murray did just that a couple of months ago in New York. However, it is relatively safe to say that it might take that long for the U.S. to produce so many good players at the same time (i.e., within the same generation) who can push each other to achieve greatness as did members of this particular generation with the likes of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang.
While the players are all over the age of 30, don't think for a moment that any of them have mellowed to the extent that all they want to do is just go out and have some fun, at the expense of playing to win. I got an up close and personal look at the competitive fires from both Courier and McEnroe when both players started getting more than a little irritated with the line calling (or lack thereof). From my vantage point two rows behind the south baseline, I had to agree with their protests as the linesmen (and women) missed a few calls where balls landed behind the service line or out wide in the doubles alley. One of the reasons for the missed calls was the placement of one of the cameras. Courier quickly noticed the problem and had it moved. I'm not sure whose brilliant idea it was to place one of the cameras in the doubles alley (behind the baseline) but whoever did that obviously has not played much tennis.
While the camera posed no problems to the players, it was an obstacle for the linesmen. They actually had to run around it in order to see where a given ball landed. Given the speed at which these guys can still play, you can imagine the inevitable results. McEnroe only lost his cool on one occasion while Courier lost his three separate times. Jim started out being incredulous that an out call was not made on the first occasion, then became visibly irritated on the second instance and finally approached the chair umpire quite upset when it happened the third time. He exclaimed to the chair that "You realize I would not have stopped playing if the ball was not clearly out!" All of Courier's missed calls happened on the south baseline whereas Mac's call was on the north baseline. McEnroe added a little bit of dramatic flourish on his outburst as he immediately yelled at the chair umpire: "Tell me what match you are watching!" at which point the crowd started laughing. I could not hear the chair's response, but whatever he said, the call was not going to be reversed which clearly irritated McEnroe.
You'll never see the Hawkeye system with instant replay at an event like this because of the cost involved, but it might help to bring more experienced linesmen to an event such as this. For instance, perhaps using regular ATP Tour chair umpires and linesmen might be the way to go rather than using what appeared to be local linesmen and women along with the chair umpire. That's not to say that the people making the calls did not do the best that they could or that they were not qualified. Rather, I'm simply suggesting that using full time traveling tennis officials who are used to working with the speed of current tennis professionals might improve the calling of the lines such that bad calls might be minimized. But that is simply my opinion and is labeled as such.
On another occasion, McEnroe started yelling at himself as he was slow to cover a deep cross-court volley that Courier hit. The ball landed just inside the baseline (and was correctly called in). He said "It's not whether you win or lose!" followed a few seconds later by "You snooze, you LOSE!" and the crowd loved that display of emotion. To his credit, McEnroe complimented several of Courier's shots with "nice shot" and "well played" though I would not opine that this reflects any sort of a mellowing attitude on the former Davis Cup captain's part. Being demonstrative is just part of his on-court persona. He has admitted previously that more often than not, the outburst of emotion he frequently displays is meant as much for entertainment purposes as it is for competitive angst and frustration from missed calls. Some of the player displays were clearly intended to be humorous. Upon missing a crushed cross-court forehand from Courier, Todd Martin lamented that he had no chance to get it (even if he had the speed of Michael Chang) "You realize that some of us no longer do this for a living," he exclaimed, followed with a "great shot" comment reflecting his great sense of sportsmanship.
Courier does not have the reputation for on-court explosions but wrote about the incident in his player blog (see http://www.powersharesseries.com/33000-feet-above-the-usa) "We traded holds up until 5-6 in the 8 game pro-set final with neither of us having a break point on the other. At 5-6 I got into some trouble as John pressed the attack button on his returns and hit some great shots to get to break point. We got into a baseline exchange, which is usually in my favor, and John missed a shot long on the baseline which I hit back in the court casually and waited for the out call which never came. John won the point to go up 7-5 and I lost my mind on the chair umpire (Look for that part when this airs on FSN and Tennis Channel later this year). The rational part of me understands that once a call has been decided it won't be changed. The smartest thing to do (in that case) is (to) move on immediately and forget (about) it but the competitive part of me doesn't always allow the rational fellow a say in the matter. It took a good 60 seconds for Mr. Rational to get a word in with Mr. Competitive but he finally got involved and the match continued, with John now serving for the match. I needed to do something I hadn't been able to do yet, break the crafty lefty's serve. I dug in, tried to forget the bad call (internal thought at that moment; "be mature, man... you're 42 years old!!) and managed to grind out a break of serve." After that, things went to the tiebreaker which Jim won with surprising ease at 7-1.
In the first semifinal, Courier narrowly beat Todd Martin in another tiebreaker, 7-6 (5). The quality of play in that match was nothing short of outstanding. However, it took a few games for the players to get comfortable with the court as well as the altitude as Courier explained in his blog. "Surprise, AZ is about 30 minutes from downtown Phoenix and it rests at nearly 1,500 feet of altitude. With that altitude comes a tennis ball which moves quicker through the air than at sea level," Jim explained. "The court in Surprise is a fast hard court, which makes the conditions pretty speedy overall. I had the challenge of facing the big serving and bigger returning Todd Martin in the first semifinal. This was the first tournament of the year for us and we were both a little unsure going into the match which meant that neither of us wanted to serve first," Courier continued. "Rarely am I at all concerned about a coin toss but I really wanted to receive serve first so I could ease into the match without the pressure of holding my serve right away. So of course that meant that Todd would win the toss, elect to receive serve and send my blood pressure spiking. So, against my will, I start the match serving and go down quickly love-40 with an unforced error and two double faults. Not good," Jim opined. "The ball was flying on me and I couldn't get my second serve to drop down in the thin air. Somehow I managed to make some first serves, claw my way back to deuce and eventually hold serve. I then drew first blood with a break of Todd's serve in game two and raced to a 3-0 lead before Todd settled in and started to get his teeth into the match," Courier said. "One-set matches can change quickly and sure enough when I served for the match at 5-3 I got "tight" and Todd broke back (just between us we can call it what it was, a "choke"). We each held serve from there to go to a tiebreaker. I had settled down after losing serve and managed to deliver a solid performance in the breaker and win it 7-5 to earn my spot in the final," Courier concluded.
The weekend also featured a mixed doubles exhibition match that paired Tracy Austin with Courier and Martina Navratilova with McEnroe. According to Martina, this was the first time she had actually been paired up with John in mixed doubles play, so it was a lot of fun teaming with him rather than facing him across the net from her. Not that doing so again would have been an obstacle for her, of course. Navratilova has overcome so many obstacles in her professional as well as personal life that she has literally become an inspiration to millions of people all over the world; not just those who are familiar with her tennis resume. I had the opportunity to sit down with her in Surprise and our conversation will be the subject of an upcoming Across The Net feature in the following months. She defected from what was then known as Czechoslovakia after the 1975 U.S. Open at the age of 18, not knowing if she would ever see her family again. Quite understandably, she was reluctant to discuss all the drama surrounding her decision all these years later. Of course, the fact that it occurred so long ago and so much has happened since then might have also contributed to her desire to leave past things in the past. But for those who might be too young to remember the Cold War, Martina defected near the height of that non-military conflict when the former Soviet Union exercised a great deal of control over its' neighboring countries. She has recently triumphed over breast cancer and has become a spokesperson for the AARP (American Association of Retired People). Her tennis accolades render comparisons with nearly every other female tennis player not named Steffi Graff nearly meaningless. Consider her 59 total grand slam titles (18 singles, 31 doubles and 10 mixed doubles), 167 career singles titles, 177 doubles titles, 332 total weeks as the top-ranked singles player in the world and 237 weeks as the top-ranked doubles player in the world and I have just begun to list her most significant tennis accomplishments. I was able to talk to her at length on a number of topics and that will be the subject of an across the net feature in an upcoming month.
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