Sunday, February 16, 2014

Farewell, SAP Open -- thanks for the memories

Milos Raonic won the last three SAP Open titles, never
losing in the tournament. File photo by Paul Bauman
   Serious tennis fans in Northern California have been suffering withdrawal symptoms for the past week.
   The first ATP World Tour event of the year in North America traditionally has been held at this time in San Jose. But NorCal lost its tournament after 125 years, Memphis moved up one week to take its place, and Rio de Janeiro will debut next week.
   You don't have to be Nick Bollettieri to figure out the reason for the SAP Open's demise: no big gate attraction, especially an American. Andy Roddick was the closest thing it had to one, but he won only one Grand Slam title, and it came 11 years ago.
   Sure, Southern California natives Bob and Mike Bryan played in the SAP Open many times after starring up the road at Stanford. But doubles receives little television exposure, so even though the Bryans have won a record 15 Grand Slam men's titles together and are highly entertaining, they're not big draws.  
   The last five singles champions of the SAP Open were Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic (2009), Fernando Verdasco of Spain (2010) and Milos Raonic of Canada the last three years. All are fine players but not exactly household names.
   The SAP Open did not offer enough money or computer ranking points to induce any of the Big Four -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray (in his prime) -- to make the trek from Europe. Murray did play the SAP Open twice, winning it at 18 in 2006 and repeating the next year, but never returned.
   Juan Martin del Potro, who beat Federer for the 2009 U.S. Open title, reached the semifinals of the 2011 SAP Open in his only San Jose appearance but barely moved the attendance needle. The Argentine underwent surgery on his right (playing) wrist in 2010. 
   I covered the last nine SAP Opens (2005-11 for The Sacramento Bee and 2012-13 for this web site). Drama, controversy, color ... the tournament had it all. Except a lot of big names. Here is a fond look back:
Andy Roddick won the SAP Open in
2004, 2005 and 2008. File photo
by Paul Bauman
   Most dominant players -- The indoor conditions at HP Pavilion (now the SAP Center at San Jose) aided the pulverizing serves of the 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Raonic and of Roddick, the champion in 2004, 2005 and 2008. They did not have to contend with the sun or wind. Raonic went 13-0 in the SAP Open.
   Best finals -- Showing unusual mental toughness as a teenager, Murray edged Lleyton Hewitt 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (3) in 2006 and 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Ivo Karlovic 6-7 (3), 6-4, 7-6 (2) in 2007.
   Hewitt, the 2002 Wimbledon champion, was asked if Murray could threaten to win there someday.
   "Maybe someday," Hewitt replied. "It's hard to say at the moment. Wimbledon is a tad different from San Jose. He's definitely a great prospect for Great Britain. You see the expectations put on (Tim) Henman every June, and I'm sure Andy will see a lot of that, too."
   Murray, of course, ended Great Britain's drought at Wimbledon at 77 years by winning the title last summer.
   Worst final -- The top-seeded Roddick crushed unseeded Cyril Saulnier of France 6-0, 6-4 in 49 minutes in 2005. When asked if anything went wrong that day, Roddick quipped, "I wasn't getting cell-phone service in the arena this morning."
   Biggest upset -- Murray, unknown at the time, stunned top seed and two-time defending champion  Roddick 7-5, 7-5 in the 2006 semifinals. It was Murray's first victory over a top-10 player in four tries.
   "I have so much respect for somebody like Andy Roddick," Murray said afterward. "He's won a Grand Slam. He's been No. 1 in the world. He's achieved so much. It's just great for me to be on the same court as somebody like him. To actually win against him is amazing."
   Oldest doubles champ -- John McEnroe, 47, won the title with Jonas Bjorkman in 2006.
   Biggest disappointment -- The Bryan brothers, who have won just about every doubles title in tennis, never hoisted the trophy in San Jose.
   Most anticipated debut -- Donald Young was going to be the next American superstar when he played his first ATP World Tour match at 15 years old in San Jose in 2005 (losing to U.S. veteran Robby Ginepri 6-2, 6-2). It hasn't worked out that way.
   Best PR move -- Stepanek came onto the court for the 2008 and 2009 finals wearing a Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks jersey over his tennis outfit. The SAP Center is the home of the NHL Sharks.
   Worst dancer -- After beating Stepanek in the 2008 final, Roddick tried to top his opponent's trademark worm dance, in which Stepanek flops on the court and gyrates on his stomach. Roddick kicked his right leg high across his other leg and gave an awkward fist pump.
   "All I'm asked about, all I hear is the worm," Roddick said. "I had to find seomthing as cheesy or cheesier. It's tough."
   Most candid player -- Mardy Fish ripped Stepanek after losing 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the 2009 final. With Fish leading 6-3, 2-3 (on serve), Stepanek received treatment on his left leg.
   "I didn't think he was injured at all," Fish later conceded. "If you took a tally of how many times he has called for the trainer (in his career), it would be pretty high.
   "He looked fine. I'd be shocked if he didn't call a timeout when I was up a set. It's par for the course and viewed as unsportsmanlike by everybody on the tour."
   And, yes, Stepanek did the worm dance after winning.   
   Worst fan -- Raonic's serve is difficult enough to return without some nitwit in the crowd yelling at the same time. On match point. That's what happened to Verdasco in the 2011 final. Distracted, he  netted a forehand return to seal Raonic's 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5) victory. 
   Most injury-prone -- Gael Monfils of France played in the SAP Open twice and defaulted or withdrew both times. Seeded second in 2011, the right-hander (with a two-handed backhand) defaulted his semifinal against Raonic with an inflamed left wrist. Seeded first the following year, Monfils received a first-round bye. The night before he was scheduled to play his second-round match, he pulled out with knee inflammation. 
   Best first name -- For five straight years (2004-08), a player named Andy (Roddick or Murray) won the singles title. Make it six straight if you count Andre Agassi in 2003.
   Nicest guy -- Tournament director Bill Rapp was first class all the way. Not only did he make everyone feel important, he seemed sincere.  

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