The Greatest Road Trip in Sports Hits California

The U.S. Open Series has begun and the first four weeks will be heaven for California tennis fans.

Last night as I was leaving the Countrywide Classic here in Los Angeles, I went into the underground parking garage and got lost looking for my car. I turned the corner to a lower level and found a group of students playing Taiko drums against one wall of the garage. They were drumming so quietly you barely noticed them but the vibration was enough to set off a few car alarms. As the drummers beat harder, more car alarms joined in and the space escalated into a crescendo of horns and beeps and whoops. If you didn’t know what was happening, you might have thought a battalion of police cars was speeding through the garage.

The drummers slowly brought the volume down and the cars all went back to their former quiet selves. It was a fitting symphonic prelude to the U.S. Open Series, a string of tennis tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open that bills itself as The Greatest Road Trip in Sports.

Tennis is the most global of sports these days but for a few months each summer, it stops off in the United States for the summer hard court season. And for the first four weeks, most of the tournaments are in California.

The Countrywide Classic is a men’s event and it’s probably the only tournament that takes place on a college campus, in this case UCLA. Yesterday you could have walked over to the soccer fields and watched the Chelsea soccer team from England’s Premier League practice for it’s upcoming match with David Beckham’s new team, the Los Angeles Galaxy.

This used to be a prestigious tennis tournament with past champions such as Bill Tilden, Rod Laver and Pete Sampras and it stills draws players like James Blake and Fernando Gonzalez, but it’s been pushed aside by the required Masters Events in Cincinnati and Montreal.

In keeping with our California theme, I went to this afternoon’s match between Southern California native Sam Querrey and Mardy Fish. Fish won the battle of the second serves. His kick serve managed to befuddle the 6’6″ Querrey and he came to the net almost every time Querrey hit a second serve. Fish won the match in straight sets, 7-5, 6-4.

This was Querrey’s seventh straight loss and it left him discouraged enough to talk about going down to the challenger level to regain his confidence. Fish won the match but he ended up sounding discouraged for a different reason.

I’d read a rumor in Tennis News that Fish had separated from his coach Todd Martin so I asked him if he was still working with Martin. He said he was not and I asked him if he’d talk about that. He was a bit testy and said, with a bit of attitude, “What would you like me to talk about?” A sign that this might an uncomfortable subject for him.

Usually it’s the player who fires the coach when his results are not good enough and Fish had just lost six straight matches – eight if you count Dusseldorf though that doesn’t count in the rankings. But this time it was the coach’s decision to move on. This is how Fish put it:

He [Martin] had spoken a lot about the mental side of the game and put a lot of emphasis on that. I think he really felt like he wasn’t putting a dent into me on the mental side of the game. I really felt like, the weeks that we were together, I got a ton better. And, you know, it was more of his choice, than it was mine.

It’s really an extraordinary thing for a player to say that his coach wasn’t make any progress with him and had dropped him. Most players would have said it was a joint decision and would probably have said their coach decided he didn’t want to travel so much. Fish tried to do that:

You know, maybe he didn’t want to travel as much any more with the two young ones and a young wife and, uh, I enjoyed every week and he treated me great.

But you can see that he doesn’t sound convinced. It makes me appreciate him much more and not just because I’m in the media. If he’s that honest with himself, he’s much more likely to make any necessary changes to his game.

I’ll be here the rest of the week and I’ll see what else I can unearth but meanwhile, here’s the rest of the California itinerary.

If you live in northern California, go to Stanford next week – the town, not the university though they’re next to each other – and check out the Bank of the West Classic. Kim Clijsters is the defending champion but now that she’s pregnant and newly married and retired, she’s not likely to repeat.

If you do go, say hello to my co-writer, Pat Davis, who will be covering the matches. Hopefully her sense of humor won’t get her into too much trouble. Just kidding, Pat.

The week after that I’ll be at the Acura Classic in Carlsbad north of San Diego. This event takes place at the beautiful La Costa Resort and Spa which is just a few minutes walk from the Pacific Ocean. As soon as I get there, I’m heading for the Spa half of the hotel to get a Rice-Bran body wrap, a Reveal Peel, and a cup of Bamboo-Ginger Green Tea. Look me up too if I’m not too blissed out to respond.

Maria Sharapova is the defending champion and she’ll be here along with Justine Henin and Serena Williams. Eight of the top ten players have committed to play the tournament which has to be the first time that’s happened since this was a Virginia Slims event. That is if they all turn up.

The last tournament in the California swing is the East West Bank Classic in Carson just south of Los Angeles. This event takes place in the fourth week of the U.S. Open Series at the Home Depot Center. Maria and Serena will be here too and If you wander around, you might see David Beckham practicing for that soccer match I mentioned above.

Now, if we could only get a Roger FedererRafael Nadal exhibition and convince the Minnesota Timberwolves to trade Kevin Garnett to the Los Angeles Lakers, California would be in true sports heaven.

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See also:
Interview with a Modest James Blake
ATP Fantasy Tennis: Do You Pick Nadal or Not?