U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships
James Blake melts down, washboard abs flash & Fish parties: River Oaks tennisjoys
We make plans and the tennis gods laugh.
That's why the first lesson I learned at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in the River Oaks Country Club is what to do when you aren't watching some of the world's best tennis players.
Because even though 3 p.m. sounds like a reasonable time to show up to the second main court match of the day, in reality it's just late enough to see former top player James Blake have a total meltdown in the second set against Pablo Cuevas, ending the match in a 7-5, 6-1 flash — and knocking Blake out of the tournament.
Plan B is always to check out the game at the auxiliary court, which in this case was between relative unknowns Kei Nishikori and Igor Andreev.
The nice thing about the second court is that the bleachers are literally inches from the court and you can see every detail of play: How one player seems to swing his forehand at speeds faster than light, how the other seems to play a mental game by acting unfazed by the pace of the game, how a shirt flies up during backhands to expose a glimpse of washboard abs.
But eventually Nishikori's calm focus wins out over Andreev's passion and power (and abs) and it's time for Plan C. There's always a stop at the Beck's Prime tent on the golf fairway — it's a quieter spot for a burger and the nicest glass of wine you can drink out of a plastic cup. But the real scene is at the pool, where the Bryan Bros Band is playing Beatles classics and other crowd-friendly tunes in front of the sunglasses-defying yellow carpet.
Finally 6 p.m. rolls around and it's time for the day's highlight game between No. 1 seed — the 11th-ranked player in the world — Mardy Fish, and Spaniard Albert Ramos.
Considering this is one of the few sports where, walking, moving and even talking during the match is frowned upon, this is a highly social scene. It's just punctuated by whispering, texting and bursts of raucousness as soon as a game is won. It's either a case of forbidden fruit or an unwritten law that the closer the action is, the easier it is to ignore it.
Despite the temptations of the crowd, Fish and Ramos play a tight match, full of long rallies, beautiful drop shots and the occasional ace. The players were well matched in style, but the underdog Ramos seemed like he too would flame out early when he dropped the first set 6-3 and trailed 5-1 in the second. Instead, he fought back and made a real go at it, helped by some Fish unforced errors.
But in the end it was Fish, the highest-ranked American in the world, who was able to convert the final deuce into a match point win.
This of course is when everyone gets to Plan D: Party the night away. Hey, it may be the Men's Clay Court Championship, but it's also River Oaks.