I drove down to the Home Depot Center to take in the first day of Davis Cup play between Croatia and the U.S. Wow, I haven’t seen that much red, white and blue since I saw Jimi Hendrix play the Star Spangled Banner on the fourth of July at the Atlanta Music Festival in, I believe, 1970. I remember because each time the fireworks exploded my friend Allen, who had a recurring dream of Jeff Beck walking out of the ocean, fell down then stood up just in time to fall back down again when the next bunch of red, white and blue fireworks exploded.
It was a relatively sedate, sparse crowd despite the party atmosphere. There was a band, there were performers on stilts, acrobats and clowns and you could get the American flag painted on your face if you liked.
Andre Agassi played Ivan Ljubicic in the first match. Both players started off poorly and were making a lot of unforced errors. Ljubicic hit creampuffs and Agassi floated them back and over the baseline. Maybe it was the snare drum and the clappers. Or maybe it was the band’s rendition of “Jesus is Just Alright With Me.”
Ljubicic broke Agassi in the second game. Agassi broke back to get to 3-4 then immediately lost his serve and Ljubicic served out to win the first set 6-3.
Agassi started to heat up in the second set but it still took him three game points and a total of thirteen points to win the first game. Agassi was trying to find a way to break up Ljubicic’s rhythm. He hit short and long and threw in some drop shots. It worked for a while. He went up 5-2 in the set. But then he reverted to pounding Ljubicic’s backhand relentlessly.
Ljubicic is no stiff. You can’t just pound away at him. He’s been in four finals already this year and I can see why. He’s a big guy with a lot of different strokes and a very intelligent game. This might be another legacy of Roger Federer. Maybe we’ve gone beyond “pound the ball into submission” tennis and we’re heading into “pound the ball when necessary” but have a full court intelligent game that makes it hard for your opponent to adjust to. Even when that opponent is as tactically savvy as Agassi.
Ljubicic’s kick serve was killing Agassi. It bounced up high and curled into Agassi’s body and took away Agassi’s usually superior return game. Ljubicic won the next three games and forced a tiebreaker. Agassi lost the tiebreaker 0-7 with two unforced errors and a forced error while Ljubicic hit two winners – one after a serve and volley on the second serve – and two aces.
Ljubicic broke Agassi in the sixth game in the second set to go up 4-2 after a bad line call that woke everyone up. Ljubicic sensed the moment and started attacking. He switched to hitting the ball hard instead of looping it. He won his next two service games and ended with two aces to win the set and the match, 6-3, 7-6 (0), 6-3.
It looked like Patrick McEnroe was being outcoached by Croatia’s coach, Niki Pilic. Ljubicic was mixing up his strategy from game to game while Agassi was trying to find anything to stay in the match. Davis Cup is the only event on the men’s tour that allows the coach to be on the court during the match but it’s not the player’s coach sitting there, it’s the Davis Cup Captain. It would make more sense if the player’s regular coach could be with him on the court, in this case Agassi’s coach, Darren Cahill. But it turns out that Cahill was sitting in the players’ box and McEnroe was running back and forth getting advice from him.
Andy Roddick played Mario Ancic in the second match. I left after Roddick went up 3-1 in the third set. It was getting cold and Ancic had started to yell at himself so I knew it was all over. Roddick went on the win the match 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. Roddick plays the “pound the ball into submission” version of tennis. He throws in slice backhands and now has a slice backhand down the line, but mainly he slams the ball deep and into the corners whenever possible. That might be insufficient in today’s game of tennis. He might be able to win another slam and he might temporarily get back to the number one ranking, but he also might not have enough game to stay there.
Maybe we’ve gone beyond “pound the ball into submission” tennis and we’re heading into “pound the ball when necessary” but have a full court intelligent game that makes it hard for your opponent to adjust to.
Later that evening I went to see the Mutaytor (“mutaytion because evolution takes too long”) at The Key Club. I felt like I’d been airlifted into the middle of Burning Man Festival. On stage there was huge group of performers: firethrowers, drummers, an angel performing a hula hoop mating dance, aliens with flashing blue and yellow lights, an acrobat hoisted into the air by counterweight. A big guy at the end of a rope ran up a tall ladder then jumped off thereby lifting the acrobatic flyer high in the air. All performed to a killer beat with electronic music and looping visuals.
The guy standing next to me wore an empty turquoise iMac computer on his head. Underneath it he wore a black hood and cloak. He looked out of the computer where the screen should have been.
I felt like I was back amongst my people.