I'm new to the board this week and I really appreciate the quick response to my questions as well as the obvious wealth of knowledge about the men's tennis tour here so I thought I would take a stab at making my own small contribution with a post about the one tournament I have been attending for a long, long time -- and that is the tournament here in DC in Rock Creek Park that is coming up next week. Obviously as has been mentioned here, the DC tournament has taken a huge hit this year in the form of a double whammy in that we lose out on quality because it's up against the Olympics but also in quantity because of the reduction from a 48 to a 32 draw (when just a few years ago it was a 56 draw). While all this is sad news indeed, I'm still looking forward to supporting the tournament in person next week and would like to share some remembrances of days gone past.
The DC tournament started here in 1969 (one year after Open tennis) and it was the first pro tournament held in a public park facility at a time when most were in exclusive private clubs. I was a young student living in DC in the summer of 1971 when I decided to take the plunge and attend my first pro tennis tournament in person. It was a sweltering hot day in Rock Creek Park and the cost of admission for the first round that day was $4. For that, I got to see on center court, the great Rod Laver, followed by two more Aussie greats, Roy Emerson (the all-time Grand slam king before Pete Sampras) and the great John Newcombe, who had just claimed his third Wimbledon drown. The fourth feature match pitted Stan Smith (who had lost to Newcombe in the Wimbledon final) against a young teenage local prospect named Harold Solomon who went onto much success on the Har-Tru surface at the DC tournament. As a newbie, I didn't realize until later you could also go to the side courts (where I spent most of my time at tournaments these days), so I missed out on Ken Rosewall and Arthur Ashe, who were relegated to the side courts that day. (The '71 tournament had a great 64-player draw that was probably the best ever seen in DC because it was both a Grand Prix and WCT points-scoring event, kind of like the Tennis Masters Series events we see today.) It was an experience I have never forgotten, and I certainly got my money's worth that day more so than any time since.
A couple of years later I actually bought a ticket in advance to go see the final here in DC. It was a rematch of the 1968 US Open final between Arthur Ashe and the speedy Dutchman, Tom Okker. As in 1968, Ashe prevailed. I recall the post-match interview where he said he "was just keeping the ball in play." I thought, sure, if you define hitting shots with laser-like accuracy to within one inch of the baseline or the sideline as keeping the ball in play, because that is just how precise Arthur was that Sunday afternoon.
As years went by, I developed new favorites who I was able to see up close at the DC venue on both practice courts and early round matches. One was Guillermo Vilas, who attracted crowds with his magnetic personality, huge topspin groundstrokes and hippie-like lifestyle and attitude -- and it was a great touch this year when they had Vilas present the trophies to his two countrymen at Roland Garros. I really identified with Vilas because he was about the same age as me and (at the time) we both wrote poetry.
As Vilas' star faded, I kind of lost interest and cut back on my trips to the tournament here until one year I heard that my new favorite, Stefan Edberg, had accepted a Wild Card to play the DC event. Until then, I had only seen Edberg on TV and made it a point to see him in person. I even bought an early round ticket on a day Edberg wasn't playing. But then there was a big crowd around the practice court, and I remember standing there with my nose against the fence as he played a very intense practice set with the defending DC champion, Amos Mansdorf of Israel. I could not believe the reflexes and the ease of his volleys; the tennis on that practice court was as scintillating as anything I saw in any of the matches I watched that day, matches I have long since forgotten. I even went later in the week to see Edberg play a night match, but I was up in the upper deck and the excitement was not the same. I think I liked Edberg so much because of how he controlled his emotions on the court (something I had some problems with) and also becuase he had the greatest backhand volley ever, that being one shot I just never could manage to execute.
Then the next big memory for me was 1996, another Olympic year, but that time (unlike now) the tournament did not conflict and several big names were there. Since I had a bit more money than in '71 I decided to splurge for a $40 box seat for a night match between top-seeded Andre Agassi and the up-and-coming Patrick Rafter. Patrick was rapidly becoming my new favorite, replacing Edberg, and he solidified his position with me as well as winning over many new fans with his play that night. The first set was hard fought; Agassi got off to a hot start but you could tell Rafter was not going to give up. Andre took the set by 7-5, but Patrick got an early break and soon it was 3-love the second set. Then came the announcement over the loud-speaker, an announcement we fans had all been waiting for. The local bagel shop was offering a half dozen free bagels for a ticket stub if any of the matches had a 6-0 set. So at the 3-0 changeover, and again at the 5-0 changeover, me and several others of us, being the polite tennis enthusiasts that we are, began chanting "bagel, bagel" and I'm sure the players and Andre's coach, Brad Gilbert, could hear it. Sure enough, we got our wish, and it was great to treat my best friends and colleagues at work that morning to an unexpected surprise in the form of a free bagel. Oh, and while Andre played a little better in the third set, Patrick Rafter was not to be denied and I like to think that that match, which was his first win over Agassi, put him over the hump in terms of giving him the confidence to become a Grand Slam champion and potential future Hall of Famer alongide the many Aussie greats of the past, not to mention his brief shining glory of 2 weeks at the #1 ATP ranking. Patrick remained a personal favorite right up until his premature retirement the year he narrowly lost that great Wimbledon final to Ivanisevic.
Another memory -- from the same stadium but not the DC tournament -- was the most expensive single ticket I've ever bought -- this was the 1997 Davis Cup tie between US and Australia, featuring Sampras, Rafter, and Chang , the top 3 ranked players at the time, plus Mark Philippoussis. I guess this is the only time I can remember a line-up comparable to that first time when I spent $4 in 1971, but this time it was about 35 times as expensive!!!!
My most recent memory is from just a couple of years ago, as nowdays I'm always looking for that exciting match on the side-courts between two up-and-coming young players. That year one of the lower seeds playing there was an exciting young Chilean, Fernando Gonzalez, who had the most explosive shot-out-of-a-cannon forehand I have ever seen (I'm sure this is partly due to the modern-day rackets) and who always seemed to have this big grin while playing (well, maybe he was just out of breath from pounding that big forehand). It looked for awhile like he was going to blow his lower-ranked, unseeded opponent off the court that day but his opponent was a quick, steady determined baseline player who kept getting the ball back and so Fernando began to make errors, eventually losing a very tight match. So from that day on I began to follow Fernando's opponent as well -- his name is Guillermo Coria and I guess by now everyone knows who he is.
And, just so anyone reading this thinks I only focus on the big name players, I've enjoyed watching lesser known but enjoyable players at the DC tournament like Gianluca Pozzi, with his great touch, from a bygone era (I remember seeing Pozzi bounce a ball off his head while waiting to serve,and was delighted to see him still playing a bit this year at 38 or 39); Lars Burgsmuller (who has a really big game for someone with such a small frame); the Haitian, Ronald Agenor, who could really pound the groundies; Chuck Adams; Mark Knowles (whose problem with cramping really hurt his career); Shuzo Matsuoka (whose injury in the match vs Korda at the US Open actually caused a change in the rules); and what's really scary, I remember seeing Taylor Dent's dad, Phil Dent, with a big forehand, playing the DC tournament back when he was in his prime.
Sorry for the length of this post, but I've been to tournaments all over the US and Canada through the years (US Open, Key Biscayne, Cincinnati, Toronto, Montreal, Newport, New Haven, Stratton Mountain, WCT finals in Dallas, the old US clay courts championships in Indpls., and another long-gone favorite because of the great admission price--free--Schnectady, NY) but DC is the one I keep going back to every year. I hope for some more memories from this yeat's event and, of course, what I really hope for is that in the future the DC tournament will return to some of its past lustre with a better spot on the tennis calendar.
I encourage anyone else with similar thoughts about the DC tournament or other tournaments or tennis memories to make similar posts -- I for one would enjoy reading them.