Monday, February 22, 2010

Tennised Out?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 22, 2010 at 11:35 AM

Maria Sharapova
  • Maria Sharapova
The empty seats at the finals of the men's and women's professional tennis tournaments at the Racquet Club last weekend are evidence of the perils of serving sports fans a ten-day feast. I'm not sure what tournament my journalistic colleague Geoff Calkins was watching when he described it today as a smash.

The tennis itself was good — not bad and not great. There were a decent number of top pros. Maria Sharapova won the Cellular South Cup without losing a set all week and losing only three games in the finals. Sam Querrey beat his friend John Isner in the Regions Morgan Keegan Championship and teamed with Isner to win the doubles.

The remodeled Racquet Club looks great, and the staff did an excellent job of taking care of players and fans. There are few if any pro tournaments where you can get so close to the courts so often.

And in an odd way, that may be a problem. The qualifying matches started last Friday and featured matches that were closer, more hard fought, and of equal if not higher quality than the main draw. Fans are catching on. What were once throwaway freebies are now well-attended events for less than half the price of a regular ticket. The best match I saw all week featured a qualifier who hit winners between his legs, behind his back, and at the end of rallies of 20 or more strokes.

Querrey and Isner are big servers who hit lots of aces. You've seen one ace, you've seen 'em all unless it's a big point. The day of the shotmakers who combined touch and angles with power is going going gone. The closest and best-attended match of the tournament featuring headliners came mid-week when Andy Roddick beat James Blake in three sets. After that, everything was dessert, served three times a day. By Sunday's televised finals, the empty blocks of seats were painfully obvious.

Sharapova was simply too good for the rest of the field. Her style is all business with a lot more ice than charm, and her deliberate serve (bounce ball, bounce ball, fix hair, stare, bounce ball, toss, scream, etc.) can be aggravating to opponents and fans. The stadium was at best two thirds full for her final match which had to compete with Tiger basketball the same day.

Ten days of tennis in a basketball town is a lot even for hardcores. This event has been in Memphis for more than three decades. Combining men's and women's tournaments has brought in stars like Sharapova and Venus Williams but also brought competition to an event that already had its hands full.

We will see if it's around for another decade.

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