John Isner lost his first match in straight sets and scratched from the doubles, pleading an injury. But he's in the draw today for the start of another ATP tournament in Delray Beach, Florida. In fact, he is top seed, and was interviewed yesterday by the local newspaper.
Tommy Haas forfeited his singles match, pleading injury. Haas is also in the draw in Delray Beach, where he is second seed.
Xavier Malisse and Marinko Matosevic retired (the formal tennis word for "quit") in the middle of their Memphis matches, but they are also still in the draw at Delray Beach. Nothing like a little Florida sunshine.
Mardy Fish and Fernando Verdasco were billed as main attractions in Memphis but never played a match. At least they have the decency to not be playing somewhere else this week. Verdasco was listed last week as playing in Acapulco this week but is not in the draw this morning.
Isner's not playing in doubles was a minor sin. He and his partner were replaced in the draw. So from a fan's perspective, no harm no foul. The damage is to his credibility, especially in light of his quick exit in singles. Haas, a three-time former Memphis champion, deserved better than the 11 p.m. starting time he faced before pulling out. That was an unfortunate result of earlier matches on the stadium court running long and starting late. But the show must go on, even if it had been midnight. That's the definition of professional. Malisse and Matosevic didn't sell any tickets on their name recognition, but the fans who bought tickets for those sessions did not get their money's worth. Of the two injuries, Matosevic's was the more convincing because it came after the first set of his semifinal match and he stood to earn $291,800 if he had won the tournament (which, by the way, was won by Kei Nishikori, who beat Feliciano Lopez in the finals).
Attendance was down this year. Blaming the weather, as some reporters did, is ridiculous. It rained a couple of nights last week, but this is an indoor event. The weather was perfect Saturday and Sunday.
The ATP's attempt to market this tournament as a "500 level" event rather than "250 level" event is not worth the trouble of explaining what that means. A tournament a week earlier in San Jose (which is apparently moving to Memphis next year) is a 250 event, as is Delray Beach. The fields are essentially the same at all three tournaments.
What makes Memphis stand out is the prize money — $1,212,750 versus $455,775 in Delray Beach, where first prize is $75,000. What in the world is Memphis paying so much for? If the tournament comes back, it won't offer that kind of money. And, apparently, that won't make much difference. The Big Four — Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray — aren't coming. And the pros behind them seem to be motivated by appearance money, convenience, scheduling, television exposure, and their own willingness to play through minor "injuries" as they are by prize money and rankings.
John Isner, Tommy Haas, Mardy Fish, and Fernando Verdasco are among the missing this weekend. Fish pulled out before the tournament started, Verdasco came to Memphis long enough to pose for a few pre-tournament pictures, Isner bailed out of the doubles after losing in straight sets in singles in the first round, and Haas, a former champion, pulled out Thursday night before his second-round singles match, which would not have started until nearly 11 p.m. The field was touted as "the very best in history." On paper, maybe it was. Having "11 of the top 30 men in the world" doesn't mean much if half of them don't play or lose in the early rounds.
Also gone are former runner-up Milos Raonic and 2010 champion Sam Querrey, high seeds who lost on the court. Raonic looked unbeatable at times against young Jack Sock, serving four aces or near aces in one game, before hitting a double fault and three easy forehands into the net in his next service game and eventually losing in three sets. Sock, sliding along the baseline like Novak Djokovic and tearing the soles of his shoes apart in the process, came back Thursday night to beat his doubles partner James Blake, who looked at times like the Great American Tennis Hope he was ten years ago. Also living up to their billing were brothers Mike and Bob Bryan, who crushed Haas and his partner 6-1, 6-1 in the opening round and played music in the Racquet Club Pub the next night.
But a doubles team, even one as consistently good as the Bryans, can't carry an ATP tennis tournament in Memphis in February in a stadium with 4,000 seats and two side courts. Neither can the women's tournament, which is sponsorless this year and features semifinal match-ups that leave even hard-core fans scratching their heads even as they marvel at the caliber of play. Recognizable names are what sells, and, unfortunately, this tournament has been jinxed much too often. First prize for the men is $291,800, and for the women $40,000. If top-seed Marin Cilic is upset, as he nearly was this week when he faced several match points, the finals could be a "who's that?" event.
I was watching the University of Memphis men's team practice this week at The Racquet Club with Coach Paul Goebel. I told him his players looked about as good as the pros did 25 years ago, and he agreed. The big servers hit 130 miles an hour, and some of them hit their ground strokes just as hard. I asked if he had any doubles specialists, and he said, no, not yet, but he's looking for one. And he mentioned the name Stephen Huss, who I had never heard of. But Huss's record is nothing short of amazing.
An Aussie, he went to Auburn before turning pro. In 2005, he and his partner Wesley Moodie won the Gentlemen's Doubles at Wimbledon, beating Bob and Mike Bryan in the finals. Huss had to play his way into the main doubles draw and was the first qualifier ever to win the championship. He and Moodie were not one-match wonders; they beat five seeded teams. What's just as surprising is that he also played the qualifying tournament in singles at Tunica National, a Challenger-level event in Mississippi for players trying to break into the ATP Tour. And he did not even make the main draw.
That's how different doubles and singles are in this era.
The Bryans, who have won 13 Grand Slam doubles championships, will be playing in Memphis next week. Huss, who has won one Slam, is coaching tennis at Virginia Tech. What a story he has to tell, and what an inspiration he is to doubles specialists everywhere.