06 March, 2012
How I Learned To Stop Thinking And Love The Exo
I'm a natural born cynic. My parents may claim that my first word was "dada," but knowing me, I'm pretty sure it was "really?" said with all the petulant disdain a 1-year old (or a disinterested Serena Williams) could muster. Such has always been my feeling on exhibition tennis, or "hit-and-giggles" as they're often known. A little bit of disdain, a fair bit of disbelief and ultimately expecting to leave feeling as if I'd wasted my time. I've always been the guy who would prefer to watch Jack Sock play Marc Gicquel on Court 17 at the US Open than two stars in a whistle-stop somewhere the tours fear to tread.
It was with this attitude that I walked into Madison Square Garden for the fifth BNP Paribas Showdown pitting Maria Sharapova versus Caroline Wozniacki and Andy Roddick against Roger Federer. It's hard not to feel a bit put off by the idea of exhibitions. Some fans (and sportswriters) rail against non-charity exos as thinly veiled cash grabs in a time when many of the tours' stars feel the actual sanctioned seasons are too long. People supposedly "in the know" estimate and publicize that a player like Federer is supposed to have made a $1 million appearance fee just for showing up, doing a bit of press and feigning interest. All while, the fact that the exos never affect a player's ranking nor have the prestige of a major or even a mid-level tournament, the sense of narrative, of import, that gives "real" tournaments an element of gravitas is sorely missing.
So why bother?
The fact is, I had fun.
Maria Sharapova came out like a houseafire bashing the ball off both sides past Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 6-4. Oft dubbed an "ice princess" by the press (and many fans), Sharapova proved herself an exceptional, engaging exhibition player. First of all, you got the feeling watching her that while she played it light in interactions with the crowd and Wozniacki, when the ball was in play, she was zoned in. Sharapova played like she always has, like winning was the most important thing in the world. She even wanted the crowd to judge her late match dance off with Wozniacki. Second, Sharapova (and to a lesser extent Wozniacki) showed a lot of personality on the Garden floor. Moonballing, chastising a fan who proposed marriage to the already betrothed Siberian siren, and yes, engaging in a changeover dance off with her rival. Sharapova did lose an interesting point, one that started with an underhand serve by Rory McIlroy, the Woz's golfer boyfriend. As Sharapova floated the shot of the rally wide, McIlroy exhorted the crowd while Sharapova laughed and Wozniacki clapped along. She would even joke in the post-match interview that Rory "won more points than [Wozniacki] did," a quote that a comically flustered Wozniacki would call "not nice." Maybe she learned a few things from her visit to Chelsea Handler. Maybe the World No. 2 is a closet comedienne. Who'da thunk it?
Roger Federer showed why he's spent nearly a decade in the ATP top five and got a TON of love from the Madison Square Garden crowd, in his 7-5, 7-6 (7) loss to American Andy Roddick. Federer brought his usual array of highlight reel crowd pleasers, including a tweener and a few smash returns, but he threw in just enough chopped returns and shanks to turn the decision for Roddick. If it seemed a foregone conclusion that Roddick would win the matchup, maybe it was, but it made the proceedings no less entertaining. The crowd got to witness Federer's preternaturally smooth game where he plays best, on an indoor hardcourt, while once again seeing their longtime American standard bearer give a workmanlike effort. One thing I noted was that even though Federer was playing an American in the country's (if not the world's) most famous arena, fan support felt about 75/25 for the Swiss. That's not a slight to Roddick, but it is praise to the longtime World No. 1. Madison Square Garden has always been a place that salutes all time greats even if they're putting our hometown heroes to the stake (witness the reactions to Michael Jordan or now Kobe Bryant in the Garden); Federer certainly is in that pantheon of stars. At one point Roddick joked that he was "so sick of [Federer]," you had to suspect there was a twinge of truth to the crack, but Roddick delivered it like a pro and moved on, focusing again on the tennis aspect of the show.
Do I find it suspicious that the schedule ended at 10:59PM, that neither Wozniacki nor Federer could take advantage of an early second set lead or that the American Roddick beat Federer (given his 2-19 record in head-to-head sanctioned matches)? A little more than extremely.
Did I mind when I left the arena? Nah, I was entertained. Sometimes, that has to be enough.