From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

When the red clay dust had finally cleared on Friday night, the semifinal matchups were hardly as glamorous as might have been expected. Leconte, building on his victory over Mancini, had become the story of the tournament locally, by beating Andres Gomez and Horst Skoff. He would play Thomas Muster in one semifinal, Muster having beaten Aguilera. Often when a player pulls a huge upset, he has trouble coming back the next day. True to that form Aguilera had been a shadow of himself after the Edberg victory. The other semifinal matched Sanchez against Andrei Chesnokov, the talented Soviet with the great deadpan sense of humor.

Chesnokov – Chezzy to everyone on tour – could easily have been a stand-up comic. His English was a good deal better than he liked to let on, although he would occasionally end long speeches in English by looking at his companion and saying, “You understand the language I am speaking?”
In any language, Chezzy was funny. But his postmatch interviews in English had become legendary. Chezzy understood English but was not fluent. When someone asked him a question in English he had to translate it to Russian in his head, grasp it, think of the answer in Russian, translate back to English in his head, and then answer. Often this brought on long pauses. He also had developd an instinctive habit of starting his answer to any question with the words “but no … yes.”

A year ago, he had announced that he was tired of turning 90 percent of his money over to the Soviet Tennis Federation. By year’s end, after some lenghty negotiations, Chesnokov had been given permission to keep his prize money, as long as he agreed to play Davis Cup and the Olympics for his country. It was similar to Natalia Zvereva‘s deal. That made him happy.
Chezzy was never very happy with his tennis, though. He was as fast as anyone in the game and, even though he rarely betrayed emotion on the court, an intense competitor. All week Chezzy had been playing down his chances. After he beat Jaime Yzaga in the third, 6-2 6-1, he said he was happy to be in the quarterfinals but didn’t expect to go any farther. When he then whipped Marc Rosset, the six-foot-six-inch Swiss who could easily pass for Harpo Marx, he said he really wasn’t playing well. Someone asked Chezzy how he would get ready for the semifinals. “But no … yes. I go to disco,” Chezzy answered. “Maybe I loosen up that way.”

About the only thing Chezzy loved better than going to a disco was talking about it. If he spent as much time in discos as he claimed, he never would have beaten anyone. On Saturday he beat Sanchez in a strange three-setter. Sanchez dominated the first set, Chezzy the second. When Chezzy went up 5-3 in the third, he looked to be in control. But as he had done against Becker, Sanchez came back, winning three straight games to go up 6-5. Chezzy held serve to force a tiebreak, then surprised Sanchez by playing attacking tennis throughout the tiebreak. He won it 7-2. Chezzy, like most Soviets, is an excellent chess player. He had outthought Sanchez at the end.
Chezzy, of course, said he had no chance in the final. Muster had hammered Leconte; Chezzy didn’t think he could beat him.

“Thomas is playing very, very well,” he said. “But also I think maybe I take him out tonight. Buy him a vodka at disco.”

Chezzy was nowhere near a disco that night. but he played the next day as if he had taken some kind of elixir. Muster dominated the first set, grunting and pounding away on a hot, sunny day made for him. Down 5-3, Chezzy went to the afterburners. He won four straight games to take the set in seventy excruciating minutes, then was flawless the last two sets and won, 7-5 6-3 6-3. When the two-hour-and-forty-minute match ended, Chezzy threw his arms into the air, exhausted and thrilled.

The awards ceremony in Monte Carlo is second only to Wimbledon’s in simplicity and dignity. A representative of the royal family, Prince Albert in recent years, comes on court to present the trophies. No speeches, no endless thanking of sponsors. When the trophy has been presented, the flag of the winner’s country is raised above the scoreboard and his anthem is played. During the Soviet anthem, one of the loveliest in the world, Chezzy stood at attention, not rigid or melodramatic, just respectful. He was clearly moved by the moment. He was not alone.

A few weeks after her pro debut, the Capriati mania keeps going on:

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the month of April all the indoor tournaments are over. The marking time after the Australian Open is finished. The game moves to the clay courts, and everyone begins looking ahead to the next Grand Slam, the French Open.

Clay has always been thought as the surface of Europeans and South Americans. The red clay of Roland Garros, in Paris, and the Foro Italico, in Rome, are part of the sport’s heritage, and players from the Continent and from South America do grow up on, and for the most part, do most of their playing stuff.

[…] Since the Open left Forest Hills for the hard courts of Flushing Meadow in 1978, there has been no great clay-court tournament in the United States. The US Clay Court Championships, once played in Indianapolis, died there in the mid 1980s when the courts were paved (to induce the men to play there before the US Open). The USTA still runs a US Clay Court Championships in May, but very few players ranked in the top one hundred ever show up.

The women still have Hilton Head, though. For the past eighteen years, they have played the Family Circle Cup at the Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head, South Carolina. It represents the opening of the clay-court season for the women and has the feel of a big tournament, though it still retains the charm of a small one. The stadium at the Sea Pines Racquet Club seats about five thousand people. It is surrounded by soaring South Carolina pines which give the place a feeling of isolation. The real world seems much farther away than just across a bridge that leads to the honky-tonk towns and paper mills of the South Carolina and Georgia marsh country.

The field for this tournament is always strong. The prize money is as high as a non-Grand Slam women’s tournament (other than the Lipton) can be: $500,000 meaning that, under Women’s Tennis association rules, at least one of the top two-, two of the top four-, and four of the top eight-ranked players must be entered. In 1990, Navratilova was there, Arantxa Sanchez was there, Zina Garrison was there, and so was Natalia Zvereva. But they were not the stars of this week.

Jennifer Capriati was at Hilton Head, courtesy of Gerry Smith’s string-pulling. The only people pulling harder for her to make it to the weekend than Smith were the ones from NBC. For them a Navratilova-Capriati final would be straight out of Fantasy Island. Not only would they have a classic princess-grand dame matchup, they would have it with the grand dame’s pal and the princess’ hero/mentor – Christine Marie Evert herself – making her network debut in the commentary booth.[…]

And so it was that The Queen came to Hilton Head with the network hoping that The Kid would come through. She did – with flying colors. Still unseeded because she didn’t yet have a ranking, Capriati had to play Sanchez in the third round. No problem: 6-1 6-1. In the quarters, Capriati struggled a little against Helen Kelesi, but roared back to win. Now NBC and Gerry Smith had part of their wish – Capriati had made it to Saturday’s telecast. She would play Zvereva in one semifinal. Navratilova would play a lanky young Czech named Regina Rajchrtova, a quarterfinal over Garrison.

Naturally, Capriati-Zvereva would be the Saturday TV match. To ensure that the court would be clear for The Princess when NBC came on the air at 2 pm, the other semifinal was scheduled for 11:30. This did not exactly please Navratilova. She didn’t relish the role of second fiddle, so she took her sweet time getting ready to go out and play. It was almost 11:50 before the match – which she won in a romp – actually began.

Navratilova may not have been thrilled with all the Capriati mania, but she understood it.

“She’s a fresh face, the new kid on the block, everybody loves her,” she said. “I understand that. It’s amazing how young she is, though. I had been on tour three years before she was born.”

Navratilova was in the final. And after she destroyed Zvereva, so was Capriati, who by now was joyiding though the whole thing. She had a crew fom HBO (which had reportedly paid the family well into six figures) dogging her for a documentary; she had a million questions on her friendship with Chris, and she had boys and men making eyes at her. When the HBO producer told her that a twenty-three-year-old had described her as “hot”, Capriati rolled her eyes and said, “Oh God, don’t tell my father.” She also confided to friends that she had dreamed about TV star Johnny Depp and had a serious crush on Stefan Edberg. The Kid was growing up fast.

But she still sounded like a kid when she talked. When someone asked her about giving Zvereva a crucial point – overruling a call that had gone in her favor – she shrugged. “I just wanted to be fair. The ball was good? I should still have done the other points good.”
As for playing Navratilova, well, that was really something.

“I mean, it shows I’m up there with the great players, I guess,” she said. “I mean, I always watched her play, and now I’ll be out there on the court with her. To be out there with her will be great, you know, she’s really a lege.”

Sunday was something straight out of a fairy tale: gorgeous and sunny, the little stadium sparkling, with the trees rustling in the spring breeze. Andy Mill admitted that the Capriati-Navratilova matchup made his wife a little nervous.

“I told Chrissie she shouldn’t try to sugarcoat the situation,” he said. “She and Martina are certainly friends, but she’s closer to Jennifer. One is a friend, the other is a protégée.”

[…]Evert turned thirty-five in December – three months and eight days before Capriati hit fourteen. Now she sat in the TV booth with Dick Enberg as Capriati raced on court two steps ahead of Navratilova – “I wanted to get my lucky chair,” she said – while Navratilova was nearly knocked over by the NBC cameraman pursuing the teenager. She was not amused.

That was Martina’s last bad moment of the day, though. She was still The Lege and played near-perfect tennis to beat The Kid 6-2 6-4 in seventy-five minutes. Capriati hardly seemed bothered by it all. During the awards ceremony she thanked just about everyone on the planet, and when Bud Collins, the master of ceremonies, started to pull the microphone back, thinking she was finished, Capriati grabbed it back. “Wait a minute, I’m not finished.”
Collins, who knows a star when he sees one, dutifully handed the mike over. Navratilova was thrilled to win – “God, it was nerve-wracking!” she said – and Capriati was thrilled to be Capriati. NBC got the highest rating it had ever gotten on the Family Circle Cup, and a higher rating than it would get on the Wimbledon final. Evert’s reviews weren’t great, but they weren’t bad. Gerry Smith couldn’t stop grinning. And why not?

The Kid had come through like … well … like a Lege.

Andre Agassi, 1990 Lipton Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

As always, the Lipton was full of strange matches on the men’s side. None was stranger than Ivan Lendl’s three-set loss to Emilio Sanchez in the fourth round. Sanchez was a good player, solid on hard courts although more comfortable on clay, but he never seemed to beat the big names. This time he did – even after blowing four match points in the third set and letting Lendl break. Down 4-5, Lendl went up 30-0, serving to even the match. Then he collapsed, losing the last four points.
The wind swirled around the stadium throughout the match and Lendl clearly was unhappy with that. Lendl doesn’t like anything that takes away from his precision. Gerry Armstrong, umpiring the match, knew Lendl was in trouble when he tossed the coin before the match began and the wind took it.

“Ivan had this look on his face,” Armstrong said, “that said, ‘I want out of here’.”

Lendl certainly didn’t tank. He is beyond the stage in his career where he does that. But when the match was over he made no bones about the fact he was delighted to get out of town.

“I’ve never liked playing in south Florida,” he said. “The only reason I’ve always played here is because it was in my adidas contract. I committed to play this year when I still thought I was going to be with adidas. I’m not with them anymore, so I probably won’t play here again in the future.”

Now he was gone from the Lipton and not at all sorry about it.

Boris Becker was gone too. He lost a round earlier than Lendl, in the third, to Jean-Philippe Fleurian 7-6 6-1. Becker’s mind just wasn’t on tennis. He was in the process of breaking up with his girlfriend of the previous two years, Karen Schultz, and still not all sure about what he wanted to do with his life. Play tennis? Party? Save the world? All of the above? None of the above?
Becker didn’t leave Miami after his loss. He stuck around to play the doubles, reaching the finals with partner Casio Motta, and to hang out with friends. After starting the year on the verge of wresting the No. 1 ranking from Lendl, Becker had now dropped behind Edberg into the No. 3 spot. If truth be told, he didn’t much care.

With Lendl and Becker gone, the Lipton became your basic Andre Agassi-fest. There was no doubt that Agassi was playing good tennis. He won three straight three-setters over Andres Gomez, Jim Courier, and Jay Berger (who reached the semis when Sampras had to default), and then beat Edberg in the final.
Edberg was there only because a line judge had botched a call on match point in his quarterfinal against Jakob Hlasek. Hlasek had hit a half volley winner just inside the line while ahead 6-5 in the final set tiebreak. The line judge called it wide. Hlasek lost the next two points, and Edberg made the final even though he wasn’t playing very good tennis.

Agassi rolled him in four sets, then acted as if he had won Wimbledon.

“I guess people can’t say I don’t win the big ones anymore, can they?” he crowed afterward.

Clearly, the kid had lost touch with reality. Even Butch Buchholz wouldn’t claim the Lipton was a big one. Bigger than a bread box, perhaps, bigger than Memphis or Sydney or Bologna. But not quite up there with the Slams.
After all, the Slams all knew where they were going to be held the following year. As the workers began tearing down the temporary stadium on Key Biscayne, Butch Buchholz had no idea where his tournament would be held in 1991.

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

With Capriati gone, the women’s field at Lipton lacked some sparkle. Evert was retired, Graf was still injured, and Navratilova wasn’t dragging her thirty-three-year-old knees onto a hard court until it was time to prepare for the US Open.

That left Gabriela Sabatini and Monica Seles as the only two name players in the field. Except that Sabatini didn’t last much longer that Capriati. She was swept out of the quartefinals by Conchita Martinez, an eighteen-year-old Spaniard who was still virtual unknown even though she had finished 1989 ranked seventh in the world.
Sabatini and Martinez had a number of things in common. Both were, as Navratilova put it, “huge”. Sabatini who had first attracted attention as a petite, dark-haired fourteen-year-old, had gown like the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors. She still had stunning face, but she also had shoulders that would have made most football linebackers envious. She was five feet ten and weighed at least 145 (although the player guide listed her at 130).
Her walk, which reminded some people of that of Jim Brown, the great running back, was best described by Ted Tinling as “a provocative lurch. Seeing her approach,” he added, “one might be well advised to feel a fair amount of apprehension.” Martinez was almost as big as Sabatini but with none of her beauty. Both were belters, backcourters who used their power to slug opponents into submission. Two months shy of twenty, Sabatini was already viewed by some as a has-been. Or never-was. She had never really lived up to the potential she had flashed in 1985, when she reached the French Open semifinals at age fifteen. Her latin beauty and a superb marketing job by ProServ had made her quite rich, but she had never won a Grand Slam title. Graf, her contemporary, had won nine -and had beaten her eighteen times in twenty-one matches. The word among the players was that Sabatini had the game to be a great player, but not the mind.

Sabatini was not very verbal. If she won a match she would invariably say,

“I am feeling good mentally and physically. I was fighting to win. I was concentrated.”

If she lost, just as invariably the speech would go like this:

“Physically I am okay, but mentally I am not. I was fighting, but I was not concentrated.”

Her concentrated line came up so often that the question on the tour, when Sabatini played, became “Is Gaby orange juice [concentrated today]?”
Almost evey player on tour speaks some English, but some are better than others. Becker is virtually fluent in English and Graf is almost as good. Every Swede since Bjorn Borg has spoken good English. Sabatini had never been comfortable speaking English. But, according to Spanish-speaking players and journalists, she wasn’t much more comfortable in Spanish.

“Sometimes when I see her on TV, back home, I feel sorry for her,” said Alberto Mancini, also Argentine. “She really doesn’t have very much to say.”

Against Martinez, Sabatini wasn’t orange juice. She lost in straight sets. That left the tournament in Seles’ hands.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Seles came into the Lipton with a 1990 record of 2-3. The sophomore-slump whispers had already started.
What people didn’t know was that Seles had been distracted by her mother’s health. During the tournament in Boca, Esther Seles had undergone a hysterectomy. Monica had never had to deal with a serious illness in her family and, by her own admission, was a wreck.

“I mean, I knew she would be okay and all, but it was major surgery and she was in the hospital,” she said. “I really couldn’t keep my mind on tennis.”

Seles lost to Laura Gildemeister at Boca but was able to slip away relatively unnoticed because of Capriati. Now, with her mother out of the hospital and back at courtside, Seles was starting to blast the ball again. At the Lipton, she whipped Judith Wiesner in the final.

“I’m just happy to feel comfortable on the court again,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who I beat. I’ll have plenty of chances to play Steffi and Martina. I don’t even know if I’m ready to beat them yet.”

Tim Mayotte, Lipton Open 1985

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Miami Open. Over the past three decades, the tournament has grown into one of the biggest tournaments of the season, but the beginnings were quite chaotic. Let’s have a look at the early days of the Miami Open (then called the Lipton Open):

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

The second meeting of the tennis world takes place each year on the site of a former garbage dump. The formal title of the tournament held where Floridians once dumped their trash is the Lipton International Players championship. To everyone in tennis it is just the Lipton.

The Lipton is the creation of Butch Buchholz, a former pro who, after his playing days, became executive director of the ATP. Buchholz had always dreamed of starting a tournament – modeled after the Grand Slams – that would be the players’ favorite tournament of the year.

“I felt, having been a player myself, that I could put together an event that the players would enjoy, want to take part in, and look forward to,”

said Buchholz, a friendly, outgoing man of fifty, whose younger brother Cliff also played professionally.

“Back in 1961, a year after I had turned pro, open tennis missed being passed in the ITF by five votes That meant, as it turned out, that we had to wait seven more years before we could play in the Grand Slams again. We used to sit on the buses, back in the sixties, and talk about the day we would run ou own tournament. I never forgot that.”

While he was with the ATP, Buchholz got the Men’s Tennis Council to agree to clear two weeks on the calendar if he could put together the sponsorship of the tournament. In all, it took him three years to put the pieces together. In order to hold the tournament in 1985, Buchholz had to have his site and sponsorship in place by March 1, 1984. He signed the final two contracts on February 29, 1984. “Thank God for leap year,” he said, laughing.

From the beginning, the tournament had excellent fields. It was sort of a mini-Grand Slam, with 128 player draws in singles, the men playing best-of-five sets But in spite of Philippe Chatrier‘s fears that Buchholz might attempt to usurp Australia’s role as the traditional fourth Grand Slam, Buchholz never saw it that way.

“I’d like us to be right below the Grand Slams,” he said. “We aren’t going to be a Grand Slam, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. The problem we have, the problem we’ve always had, is establishing a place to play this tournament, one that we’ll be in for the next fifty years. You can’t build tradition without that.”

In three years, the Lipton was played in three different Florida cities. Buchholz agreed to move it to Key Biscayne in 1987, because he decided that going to a place whee there was nothing that trying to be part of a resort. At the resorts where the tournament had been played – Delray Beach, Boca West – the residents had complained that the influx of players, fans, and tourists for two weeks a year was a hassle and a nuisance. Why not go, Buchholz reasoned, someplace where there were no residents to be hassled?

“I can remember driving across the bridge from Miami to Key Biscayne and looking at the dump that was there,” he said. “I thought, This is the place.”

Only it wasn’t that simple. While Buchholz was putting up a temporary stadium in 1987, environmentalists were objecting to his plans to build a permanent one. Where Buchholz saw a garbage dump, they saw park land. Where Buchholz saw the opportunity to build his tournament, they saw more unneeded development. And so, the battle was on.
Three years later, it was still on. On the first morning of the 1990 tournament, Buchholz sat at breakfast with an exasperated look on his face.

“It just won’t go away,” he said. “Right now, if I were a betting man I would say we won’t be here in two years, perhaps not even next year. We’re talking to other people very aggressively now about moving.”

Specifically, Buchholz was talking to Scottsdale, Arizona, about taking the tournament there. He really didn’t want to move, but felt he might have to.

“Until we get established somewhere and build a permanent stadium, we’re nothing more than just another tour stop with a lot of prize money. That isn’t what I want.”

The tournament had already undergone several changes amid all the site problems. The men had been complaining about playing best-of-five matches in the Florida heat. As a result, the draw for both men and women had been cut to ninety-six, meaning the top thirty-two players drew first-round byes. The only match in the tournament that would be best of five would be the final. All of that meant a lot less work for the men. Of course, as the work went down, the prize money had gone up.

The tournament had lost $726,000 in 1989, not bad considering all the site problems and growing pains any new event must experience. But with the economic recession becoming more and more of a factor in tennis, Buchholz was looking at more and more headaches. Fortunately, his title sponsor, Lipton, was locked into a thirty-year deal through the year 2018. […]

The Lipton has always had strong fields – even though it does not pay guarantees.

“I told the Lipton people right from the start that guarantees are a cancer,” Buchholz said. “We’re all getting to be like the baseball owners. We push salaries higher and higher and the players have less and less reason to perform. If we failed, we failed, but we weren’t going to pay guarantees.”

The players came anyway because of the unique nature of the tournament, because the prize money was high, and because of corporate tie-ins. The women got their big names through to the final: Chris Evert, for years a Lipton spokeswoman, played in the first five finals: Steffi Graf, an adidas client just as the Lipton was, won the tournament twice.

But strange things always seemed to happen to the men. Tim Mayotte was the first winner of the tournament, in 1985, his first tournament victory ever. His victim in the final? McEnroe? Connors? Lendl? Wilander? Edberg? Ty Scott Davis.

In 1986, Connors and Lendl met in one semifinal, but the match ended when Connors walked off the court after a raging argument with chair umpire Jeremy Shales. He was suspended from the tour for ten weeks. Lendl then lost the final to Miloslav Mecir in straight sets.

In 1989, Thomas Muster, a rising star, reached the final with a dramatic five-set victory over Yannick Noah. En route back to the hotel on the Key Biscayne causeway, Muster’s car was struck by a drunk driver. His knee was shattered. He needed major surgery and didn’t play tennis for almost six months. Needless to say, there was no men’s final.

Maybe the garbage dump was haunted. There were stories that it once was an Indian burial ground.