By Jane Voigt
July 31, 2013 (Washington D. C.) — The rubber hit the courts today in Washington with a marquee chock-full of big tennis names.
On tap were Americans John Isner, Mardy Fish and the new kids on the block, Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock. The French legion were front and center, too. Michael Llodra, Julien Benneteau, and Gilles Simon. And, soon-to-be a legend in his own time, Tommy Haas, would see if he could stack up against yet another America up-and-comer Tim Smyczek. One after the other they took to their assigned courts.
John Isner did his thing, winning in two tiebreak sets over Alex Kuznetsov — another American qualifier.
No wonder Isner has the best tiebreak record on tour. He plays them all the time because no one can break his serve with any consistency. And, it seems, he can’t break an opponent’s serve with any consistency. At least today that was the case. He won in two tiebreak sets.
Scattered around the William R. Fitzgerald Tennis Center were lesser known players, seeking the same goal — the next round.
On side court 1, Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic and the No. 17 seed Michael Llodra of France promised fans something outside the nine dots, outside the repetitive baseline bashing game that has all but devoured the sport, the way a giant sea creature might gobble up schools of fish.
As Stepanek and Llodra warmed up their games a couple keen fans noticed that Llodra was, or might have been, injured. Kinesio Tape ran up his left playing arm like a tiger’s stripe. He’d strike a ball, shake out his arm, and wince. This wasn’t a good sign of future success. “Bad misses,” said a fan. “He’s not on.”
The expectations of watching Llodra, a serve and volley expert, and Stepanek, a solid all-around player with a variety of talent in his court bag, sank fast.
In the first set Llodra missed what would have been routine shots for a player of his caliber. He missed volleys, easy volleys. Meanwhile, Stepanek’s movement, sung to the tune of ardent anticipation, ramped up his confidence. He pocketed the first set.
In the second, fans got a tiny glimpse of Llodra’s brilliance when he broke in the first game. He should have continued to show off. He is a stronger player, a better player. His game is crisp, when on, more powerful, when on. But that one break was the last positive tick on his score card. He turned off whatever mojo had ignited his engines and folded.
Scoreline: 62 61, Stepanek. The 2011 D. C. Champion has been on tour 17 years. His ball may not travel with the pace top-10 players generate. But his consistency and athleticism were good enough today to move on to another day.
As fans trooped out, they looked eager to get on to the next match. They made a beeline to Mardy Fish’s court.
Citi Open is Fish’s second tournament since April. Heart problems, anxiety related after-effects, and thyroid issues had sidelined him. But today the American seemed at home in the nation’s capital.
He took out a struggling Julien Benneteau, Llodra’s countryman, 62 75.
The fast hard courts of the Rock Creek Park facility suited Fish, and his game. The crowds liked his game, too, and warmly applauded the 31-year-old. ‘Go Fish,’ they yelled.
Fish is a familiar face in D. C. This is his eighth appearance. Before last year he had not gone beyond the 3rd round. In 2012, he made the semifinal and lost to Tommy Haas. Perhaps his better-that-average performance portends success for the Los Angeles man. Lots of fans would like to think so.