Tuesday, February 8, 2011

South Africa’s tall drink of promise

While most of the US watched the Super Bowl over this past weekend, my attention alternated between Fed Cup and tennis in South Africa. Sure I tuned in to the Super Bowl from time to time. But despite Pittsburgh being a city that is close to my heart, I find that I have remained so ambivalent about the man now non-affectionately known as ‘Ben Rapistburger’, that I really did not mind it when the Packers sent them packing. No offense to any Steeler fans.

After the American women got spanked – with Oudin being forced to eat a bagel, ouch – I gave up on Fed Cup altogether and switched over to tennis in South Africa. That’s when I discovered the promise represented by the 6’ 8” tall Kevin Anderson.

To be honest, I was rooting for Somdev. Outside of the big guns (Federer, Nadal, Serena, Clijsters), I tend to support the underdog. In fact, if one of my faves is going to lose, I find that I mind it less when the loss is to an underdog who happens to be having a particularly good day. I think that it’s good for the big guns to sometimes get that kind of humbling wake-up call. Like Söderling in Australia. (I have a theory that he may have focused so much on his eventual meeting with Federer that he may have ignored some of the lesser players he would encounter along the way.) I like it when lower-ranked players take the piss out of those higher-ranked players who forget to pay them nuff respect.

So I favored Somdev, in part because he was the lower-ranked of the two in the finals. I also have fond memories of Somdev from his NCAA days when he played for the University of Virginia. I remember him seemingly coming out of nowhere, surrounded by a sea of white as he defeated John Isner at the finals in 2007, and then defended his title against Australia’s J. P. Smith the next year, with a 44-1 win streak that made history. Isner has since gone on to achieve much more. I don’t have a clue what became of Smith. And Somdev gave up on Sociology and decided to go pro. So when I saw that he had made it to his second ATP finals – Chennai being his first two years ago – I have to say that I hoped he would win.

And he certainly had his chances. With the top seeds all dropping like flies in the first round – almost as if they had only come to South Africa to grab some appearance money and run – I found myself having to re-align my expectations. Who was going to seize this opportunity? Would it be the talented lefty Frenchman with the Italian name (Mannarino) who probably produces the fastest racket head speed on the backhand of any player on the tour? Or would Dustin Brown get off his lazy drop-shotting ass and make an effort? (Ha!)

In the end it came down to the 25-year-old Indian and the 24-year-old South African, surrounded by scores of his compatriots rooting for him to win. Although I have to admit that the South African crowd was fair. They were fairer than I was at the US Open two years ago during Oudin’s dream run when I joined throngs of Americans to support her so vocally that her opponents didn’t stand a chance. Sure the South Africans raucously supported their guy, but there was much kindness for Somdev as well. And I have to tell you that as spoiled as I am living in the land of privilege, I really enjoyed watching those cheap cardboard signs with words that could easily be re-cycled for a cricket match: Ace! Pow! Score!

Somdev certainly had his chances. He won the first set without sweating too much. He seemed to be in a nice groove. In the second set he seemed to tighten up and Anderson started to dominate. Anderson then pulled it out in the third.

But Anderson sometimes tends to play squandering tennis. He has guts, which is great, but sometimes he gets sucked into playing long pointless baseline rallies. And then he would go for broke at the most inopportune times. When he nailed it, the crowd became ecstatic. But I don’t enjoy watching tennis tinged with desperation. I will also never understand why men with his gift of height, continue to plant themselves at the baseline. And surely at 6’ 8” he should be getting many more freebies on his serve?

That said, I am thrilled for South Africa that they have a man in the Top 40’s. I think that if he learns how to tighten up his game, Anderson will climb even higher. And there is nothing sweeter than winning in front of your homies, which is what Somdev came close to doing in Chennai two years ago. I hope Somdev brushes off this second loss and goes back to the drawing board. More than anything I think that he needs to learn to get out of his head and play tennis more instinctively. At times he seems to become too cerebral, too analytic, too tied up in knots of pointless cognition.

Finally, I was impressed with Anderson for generously dedicating $5,000. of his prize money to help save the rhinos. Classy guy. Classy moment. Awesome first title win.

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