Purple courts, but no purple patch for Federer

The Crandon Park Tennis Center was a self-contained tennis village for the two-week extravaganza, the Sony Ericsson Open. You couldn't move an inch without bumping into souvenir and sports shops, eateries and hospitality centres. Nandita Sridhar narrates her experience.

The 2007 Sony Ericsson Open was a tournament of firsts. It was the first time that Novak Djokovic won a Masters crown, the first time a qualifier (Guillermo Canas) made it to the final of the event, and the first time in months that Roger Federer walked into a pre-tournament press conference, with the people there acknowledging that he was human after all.

Possibly the only planned and scheduled first in the tournament, was its projection as the `Glam Slam', besides making the experience enjoyable even for the non-hardcore tennis viewer.

The Crandon Park Tennis Center was a self-contained tennis village for the two-week extravaganza. You couldn't move an inch without bumping into souvenir and sports shops, eateries and hospitality centres. The worthwhile attractions, besides the centre court, were the outside courts. Being at a match at the Grandstand or any outside court made it a lot more of an intimate player-watching experience. Unlike the grandeur and the enormity of the Stadium (Centre Court), those lucky enough to get good seats in the other courts could witness, up-close, for instance, the theatrics of a Marat Safin-Feliciano Lopez encounter. But for those who sought a more colossal and gladiatorial experience, the Stadium (Centre Court) was the place to be.

The press conference room, located in a no-autograph-no-photograph zone near the players' area, had its stream of celebrity visitors throughout. As expected, Roger Federer's pre-tournament press conference was well-attended. Federer is used to sameness. He's answered them all. Same questions on how greatness felt, same questions on what records meant and same questions on where he stood amongst the all-time greats. But this time, the sameness was oxymoronically different. There was a nascent sameness to the questions, which started with his loss at Indian Wells. Same questions on Canas, and if the loss had as much of a seismic impact on him, as on the rest of men's tennis. The man was unfazed as always, but might have it tougher answering questions at Monte Carlo, after a second successive loss to Canas. If anything, the sameness in the questions might be bulked up, owing to the surface — clay.

The sportswear-monster bag look of modern tennis players makes it hard to normalise the way they're seen. In that context, the annual WTA all-access hour, where the top-8 seeds of the tournament interacted with the media, brought an interesting angle to the perceived personalities of the girls. Maria Sharapova, not surprisingly the most sought after, was relaxed and up for a chat. For a 19-year-old in the spotlight, with two Slams and massive endorsement amounts riding on her, Sharapova seemed a reasonably mature and level-headed person. It must be all the philosophy. "Tennis is just a game," she said on her bread-and-butter sport. Possibly the only time she chose to do her age some justice, was when she was asked about the equal prize money decision. Larry Scott, CEO, WTA, almost didn't get through to his then world number one player, when we wished to convey the good news on equal prize money. "He called when I was shopping, and I don't answer calls when I shop. I answered after that, and told him it'd better be worth it," she laughed. Tennis star or not, every girl needs her shopping.

Forget the torsion required for a cross-court forehand winner. Most girls practise that straight out of their diapers (14-year-old Michelle Larcher de Brito entered the main draw. An almost scary testament of the lowering ages in WTA main draws). But how they get the movement just right, so young, on the red carpet, perfectly meeting the demands of lensmen, is surprising. But nevertheless, it's interesting. This writer entered the players' party hoping to see the guard-let-down side of the players. What gets lost in the sardines-tin schedule and post-match PCs, is that most of them are teenagers. The `older' brigade like Federer (who didn't show up) and the Williams sisters (who made fleeting appearances) have been there and done that, but for the younger crop, the party was the perfect social event. Most of them were relaxed and having fun, like teenagers would in a night club.

With all the pre-tournament activities having been through their course, the big matches demanded all the attention. After James Blake was knocked out early, Andy Roddick was the only American male with title chances. The crowds were backing him, but were right behind the world number one, Federer, whose aura was undiminished, despite the Indian Wells loss.

Watching Federer live is different. Even when not at his best, the three-dimensional impact — the top-spin, the movement, and his choice of shots (notably the backhand slice) — becomes all the more apparent when viewing it with respect to what his opponent does, and how his opponent deals with his shots. Against Sam Querrey in the second round, his timing was far from its usual sweetness. But he managed to pull out a win, something, which he couldn't do against Canas.

Djokovic, on the other hand, is very `UnFedererlike' in his not-as-elegant-but-effective style. While his trunk rotation makes it a miracle as to how he gets himself back in position, he is deceptively powerful, with a good kick-serve, drop-volley, and inside-out forehand. His attitude has made the difference this season. Against Canas he dumped slam-bang tennis, but neither did he play into the Argentinean's hands by indulging in baseline boredom.

Possibly the only non-first in the tournament of firsts, was Serena Williams winning a tournament after being down two match points. She summons resources to roar out of trouble, not for any over-complicated reason, but simply because she hates losing.

The American did everything right, and almost said everything right, till she chose to support the idea of pink courts (the courts were changed to purple this year). Most players were initially hesitant about the colour, but Federer was the eternal optimist. "As long as it's not pink, it's fine."

Sponsorspeak

"In a few years from now, India and China will have the biggest tennis tournaments in the world," said Dee Dutta, Global Head of Marketing and Corporate Vice-President, Sony Ericsson. Speaking to Sportstar at the Sony Ericsson Open, he added that promoting and helping tennis grow at the grassroots would be an important part of the company's agenda in India.

The WTA Tour sponsor is also looking at proposals for big tournaments, aiming at four Indian cities — Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore. "We will submit a proposal by the end of the year. Tennis is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, and people want to see some world class action," he said. "As far as tournaments in India go, we are looking at one major tournament at the beginning of each year."

Two of the biggest challenges for them when they took over as women's tennis's sponsor were campaigning for equal prize money and making the sport accessible to more people.

"We were very supportive of what the WTA was doing in campaigning for equal prize money for the women, and took a decision not to invest in any tournament that paid the women lesser than the men," he said. As part of the initiative towards making the sport's appeal more widespread, tournaments such as the Sony Ericsson Open were projected as a mix of quality tennis, and the entertainment and glamour that the sport is associated with. Most importantly, access to tennis facilities would go a long way in increasing its reach.

"Even a Tennis Center like this (Crandon Pak) is open to the public throughout the year, to encourage public participation at different levels. This is something that we are pushing at very hard. We want kids to be able to play in the rural areas also. Two bats and a ball is all they need, and they can make their own game. That's what we are looking at. Tennis really needs to get out of it (the elite sport perception). Besides opening up the facilities to the public, improving the fan experience would also make it more appealing to different people," said Dutta.

"One way of doing that would be by updating the scores (real-time), which is being done, providing more details about a particular point, the ball trajectory, how it spun etc, which would broaden the understanding that people have of the game."