By Randy Walker
NEWPORT, R.I. – In a newspaper article from the Newport Daily News posted in the media room at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, ITHOF CEO Mark Stenning is quoted about the field of players competing this week in the 2010 Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships.
“I think it’s the strongest, most interesting draw we’ve had in a long time,” Stenning is quoted as saying in a large out-quote prominently displayed on the paper’s front page.
The beauty of the field in the only professional grass-court tennis tournament in the United States is the interesting and quirky storylines of the competitors. The event is the lowest-level ATP World Tour event (250 level) and features only $442,500 in prize money, with its highest-ranked competitor ranked No. 19 in the world. However, the 2010 player field is filled with some fascinating characters of professional tennis who have – or about to have – their Andy Warhol-allotted 15 minutes of fame if not more. The lawns of Newport are historic – the modern day U.S. Open was played here from its first tournament in 1881 until 1914 – and the tournament is played in a charming garden-party type atmosphere that is worth the price of admission itself. Like any good cocktail party, great stories abound and competing players have plenty of tales, anecdotes – and in some cases legends – that will more than fill conversations and entertain. A let’s not forget the intrigue of watching the almost lost art of grass court tennis.
Some of the 2010 storylines are as follows…
Mardy Fish was the surprise Olympic silver medalist at the 2004 Olympic Games. He was the top seed in Newport last year, but after Andy Roddick lost his epic 16-14 in the fifth set Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, Roddick was unable to play Davis Cup for the United States against Croatia and Fish was summoned to Europe to answer the call of the U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. By virtue of Fish’s withdrawal, Rajeev Ram of the United States entered the 2009 Newport field as a “lucky loser” (having lost in the qualifying rounds of the tournament) and went on to have the week of his career and win his first ATP World Tour singles title. If you watch Ram play tennis, you will swear you are watching Pete Sampras as the former Univ. of Illinois standout’s game was patterned after the seven-time Wimbledon champion. It is almost eerie watching Ram hit serves, forehands and backhands that are almost a dead imitation of Pistol Pete.
If Wimbledon is the premier grass court tournament in the world, then the pre-Wimbledon event at Queen’s Club should be considered No. 2 grass event. Sam Querrey, the top seed this week in Newport, won the Queen’s title this year defeating Fish in the final. Querrey will look to end the “Casino Curse” at the Newport Casino this week as the tournament’s top seed has never won in Newport in the 35 years of the event. Last fall, Querrey fell through a glass-top table and suffered a gruesome three-inch cut on his right arm, coming millimeters away from severing a nerve that would likely have ended his career. He still has a photo of the injury on his cell phone. If you see Sam, do yourself a favor and don’t ask to see the photo.
Alejandro Falla and Santiago Giraldo are members of the Colombian Davis Cup team that is going to give the United States a heap of trouble in September in Bogota in the Davis Cup Play-off Round. Falla also made headlines at Wimbledon serving for a first-round upset of six-time champion and No. 1 seed Roger Federer at Wimbledon, before falling in five sets after leading two-sets-to-love. It likely would have been considered the greatest upset in the history of the sport.
Nicolas Mahut of France was a singles finalist in Newport back in 2008, but returns to the International Tennis Hall of Fame as a much bigger celebrity following is record-breaking 11 hour, 5 minute marathon 70-68 first-round loss to John Isner at Wimbledon. Mahut presented the shirt and a shoe he played in during the historic match to the Hall of Fame’s museum on Saturday upon arriving in Newport.
Ryan Harrison is one the bright hopes of American tennis. The 18-year-old, who had an impressive 6-1, 6-2 win over Slovak Davis Cupper Karol Beck on Monday, was one of the youngest players to ever win a match on the ATP World Tour when he beat Pablo Cuevas in the first round of the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in 2008. Other 15-year-olds to win ATP World Tour matches in their careers include Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet.
The Rochus brothers from Belgium – Christophe and Olivier – are two of the shortest players to ever play on the ATP World Tour (they stand at 5’7” and 5’6” respectively) Christophe is the answer to the quirky trivia question; who was the first player Roger Federer ever beat at Wimbledon? (Federer beat him in the first round at Wimbledon in 2001 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.) Three years earlier in 1998, Federer won his first Wimbledon title – the junior doubles title – partnering with Olivier.
Chris Guccione is a hard-serving lefty from Australia who once belted 50 aces in a best-of-three set qualifying round match at Wimbledon in 2005. Consider that Roger Federer hit 50 aces in the 2009 Wimbledon final against Andy Roddick that he won 16-14 in the fifth set.
Ilija Bozoljac of Serbia is flashy player from Serbia who nearly extended Roger Federer to five sets in the second round of Wimbledon this year. His match did not receive much air-time in the United States as it was played at the same time as the historic Isner-Mahut match, but Bozoljac hits with such tremendous ferocity that if he can find consistency, look for him to post some strong results very soon. He is my sleeper to play the weekend in Newport.
Sergei Bubka of Ukraine, the son of the famous Olympic Soviet pole vaulter by the same the name, qualified for the main draw of the tournament Monday defeating Simon Stadler of Germany 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(2) and will make his ATP World Tour debut Tuesday against Guccione. Here’s a great article on Bubka from the ATP World Tour website: http://www.atpworldtour.com/News/Tennis/2010/07/27/Newport-Monday-Bubka-Qualifies.aspx
Dustin Brown is a rarity in the world of professional tennis as he is one of few professional athletes who hail from Jamaica. Brown, who sports the Bob Marley-esque dreadlock hairstyle that is a symbol of his country, won his first-round match on Monday defeating Bjorn Phau of Germany 7-6(3), 6-7(7), 6-4.
Kevin Kim has played what is believed to be a record 213 career Challenger-level tennis tournament (equivalent to AAA professional baseball). The 31-year-old has been playing professional tennis for 12 years and has earned over $1.5 million in career prize money. Charlie Bricker profiled Kevin earlier this year in this article: http://www.worldtennismagazine.com/archives/1823
Taylor Dent, a champion in Newport in 2002, is fresh off hitting a 148 mph serve at Wimbledon, the fastest ever recorded delivery in the history of the most famous tournament in the world. Dent, however, was upset in the tournament opening round on Monday, falling to Japan’s No. 1 player Go Soeda 6-4 3-6 6-4.
Read more about the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships and the International Tennis Hall of Fame at www.TennisFame.com
Randy Walker is a communications and marketing specialist, writer, tennis historian and the managing partner of New Chapter Media – www.NewChapterMedia.com. He was a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Tennis Association’s marketing and communications division where he worked as the press officer for 22 U.S. Davis Cup ties, three Olympic tennis teams and was an integral part of USTA media services team for 14 US Opens. He is the author of the book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY (www.TennisHistoryBook.com).