Day one of any tennis tournament can be overwhelming. But multiply that by 3 and add two 128-player draw for both the WTA and ATP and you have yourself a full-blown tennis party at this year’s Sony Ericsson Open held in Key Biscayne, Florida.
Although the women’s first round just began today and the men’s will begin tomorrow, there was still plenty of tennis around the grounds for fans to enjoy. From matches, to intense player practices, to fun off-court promotions, there was something in store for every age. The temperature was steady and warm, but the sun made it feel balmier than the 80 degrees that it registered.
Walking the grounds during the first couple of days of a tournament as large as this, you may be surprised to find the atmosphere calm, but therein lies the beauty. In order to see the elite practice, it’s best to come at the very beginning when there aren’t as many restrictions around the site and you have easy access to players.
Having never been to Crandon Park before while the Sony Ericsson Open was in session, the nature and palm trees nearly persuaded me into a vacation attitude. But I had work to do. I entered the media center and situated myself with my laptop, camera, chargers, schedule and personal flatscreen tv — all just steps away from stadium court. As I looked out over the stadium, top Serb Novak Djokovic was basking in the mid-day sun as he practiced against Xavier Malisse. Djokovic’s morning session took a more serious tone while his afternoon session near dusk was more light-hearted in order to please the fans that had converged to watch – which were numerous!
Also spotted were Maria Sharapova working on baseline shots extensively, and countless shirtless men sweating and playing to their hearts’ content on the practice courts. Needless to say, there were also many matches in progress, but the interest by fans was spread evenly between the practice sessions and the matches.
Highlights of the day
Venus Williams: In what turned out to be an emotional day on the WTA tour with the return of both Venus and Alisa (below), the former is back on court and practicing! Need I say more? Well, yes, actually. As wonderful and courageous as she has been, her Sjogren’s is something she will need to manage for the rest of her life. As good as she looks, she was visibly frustrated during her practice session, consistently hitting balls at wrong angles and sending them flying into neighboring courts. One thing is for sure though: she knows when to be fierce on court and when to smile once the work is done.
Alisa Kleybanova: In what has become the story of the day, Kleybanova came back after 10 months of being off the tour due to treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma and basically rocked the tennis world off its axis. If you want to talk about a fighter and a strong woman, just use her as the example. She fought off world #64 Johanna Larsson in three mighty sets and afterward couldn’t stop smiling and hugging friends and coaches, and chatting up fans. If you ever needed a feel-good story in tennis, there you have it.
Milos Raonic and Jurgen Melzer: The Canadian in person looks even larger than his 6’5” frame would have you believe. The towering “Missile” is mostly legs though, as his normal-sized Lacoste shorts constantly ride up on his long legs. His left knee though is still alarmingly taped up. This is the same knee that was feared to be a serious injury which forced him to pull out of the Davis Cup. However, I hope the tape job is just precautionary. Melzer, on the other hand, looked great and invoked the same strategy in the practice set as he had used to beat Raonic in Memphis: pull Raonic to the net wide as quickly as possible and pass him into the open court with Raonic on the wrong foot to recover. Worked like a charm.
Bernard Tomic: Where do I begin? Here we have a 19-year-old boy who gets speeding tickets yet has no problem being the only player of a group to stop, bend over to a young fan and sign autographs. One who is constantly bombarded by the media as having a rude or offensive demeanor, yet none of this was seen today. Instead, the focus of why Tomic might be viewed the way he is should fall on his father John (Ivica) who is originally from Croatia. Having myself been born there, I’ve stayed fluent with the language and so had the privilege of watching Tomic’s afternoon practice session on a side court and actually understanding what was being said. And boy, did it not disappoint. John hounded his son nearly the entire time from the chair on court – yelling, pointing, talking, or simply swearing in Croatian at his son’s inabilities. It was quite honestly disturbing and somewhat saddening. Tomic is one of the brightest youngsters on the tour, but to see the background he comes from makes me question how far he will really go before he cracks emotionally. Take away: get yourself a non-relative coach, Bernard.
Sloane Stephens: The young American continues to prove her place in the upper echelons of tennis as today she defeated former top-30 player Sania Mirza in two easy sets, 6-2, 6-4. At the conclusion of the match, fans busted out in a fun rendition of “Happy Birthday!” in honor of Stephens turning nineteen today. She instantly got shy and covered her immensely smiling face. A few minutes later she joked, “Why didn’t you bring me any gifts?!” Touche, Stephens.
Practice Courts C & D: Another personal highlight of mine was these two practice courts. To me, there was no better tennis for your buck than watching the practice sessions that took place there. At any one time, four ATP players and two WTA players would take the court and hit at the same time. Whether it was Marcos Baghdatis and Ivo Karlovic on the same side or Ryan Harrison and Viktor Troicki during another hour, these courts were not short on talent – or laughs! Don’t believe me? Check out the great candid shots of Baghdatis below!
Shirtless Men: Last, but definitely not least, the hot weather tends to bring out shirtless male players. Namely, Janko Tipsarevic, Gilles Simon and Philipp Kohlschreiber. I can’t complain.