Marissa Lackey is covering the Bank of the West Classic for Global Village Tennis News this week. Also follow her commentary as she takes over our twitter account @GVTennisNews during the matches.
Day 1 Impressions:
(With apologies to Allen Iverson)Â Iâ€™m not talking about the game.Â Iâ€™m talking aboutâ€¦ practice.
Practice sessions, are often overlooked by the casual fan but they provide some of the best opportunities to observe the players relaxed and in their natural habitat. First there was Elena Dementieva, going through a workmanlike practice session as her fiancÃ© casually looked on.Â A few courts over, Ana Ivanovic was in good spirits, smiling, cracking jokes, and engaging in a bit of good-natured trash talking with her coach, Heinz Gunhardt.Â At one point, Ana was practicing her returns, an exercise that was complicated by Heinzâ€™s inability to get a serve over the net (leading Heinz to joke that he was serving like Sabatini).Â Then there was the slightly awkward moment that came when Dinara Safina entered the practice court area and began stretching, leading Dominika Cibulkova and her new coach, Zeljko Krajan (Dinaraâ€™s ex), set up shop on a court farther away.
If Iâ€™m a WTA player, Bank of the West is a tournament Iâ€™d want to play.
Whatâ€™s not to like about this tournament? Warm, sunny weather, impossibly blue skies, a gorgeous campus, an intimate feel, and a low-key atmosphere free of the omnipresent crush of media and fans that are a feature of some other tournaments.Â As I watched Wickmayer, Azarenka, and Hantuchova smiling and laughing as they warmed up on the track, I couldnâ€™t help but wonder if, for all the supposed glamour of their profession, the players ever have quiet moments where they look around at the beautiful campus surroundings, catch a hint of eucalyptus in the air, and think â€œWhat if?â€
Donâ€™t call it a comebackâ€¦ yet.
The eveningâ€™s first-round matches featured Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina, two players attempting comebacks of sorts.
The first match of the evening session, a matchup between Ana Ivanovic and Alisa Kleybanova wonâ€™t be making any year-end â€œbest ofâ€ lists. Although there were some flashes of the 2008 Ivanovic serve and forehand, what stood out for me was her improved defense. Having seen Alisa hit Ana off the court in their previous matches and Anaâ€™s struggles to return flat balls in practice, I would not have been surprised to see anotherÂ bloodbath (Judging by the resigned sighs from the crowd when Kleybanova started off the match with a break of serve, I was not alone).Â The difference this time was Anaâ€™s defense;Â Kleybanova shots that would have been winners in previous matches came back, often with interest and Kleybanova, caught out of position, was missingâ€¦ by yards.Â Anaâ€™s trademark wee fist pumps of fury and â€œAjde!â€s were abundant (I abandoned my attempt to keep a tally after realizing that the large numbers would require me to reacquaint myself with scientific notation), this time they seemed to be backed up by actual self-belief.
In her upbeat and thoughtful post-match press conference, I was most struck by Anaâ€™s new found confidence in her fitness.Â Ana noted with some pride that sheâ€™d been working with a new fitness trainer since Wimbledon and that the confidence in her fitness had enabled her to play more patiently, without feeling pressure to end points quickly. As Ana joked about her bulging arm muscles, I halfway expected her to flex a bicep, Andy Murray style, or challenge one of us to an arm-wrestling contest.
Ivanovicâ€™s good mood took me back to a moment from her practice session earlier in the day. Iâ€™d overheard a man sitting behind me explaining to his young son that Ivanovic used to be the No. 1 ranked player in the world. The sonâ€™s response, â€œSo sheâ€™s not No. 1 anymore?â€Â was met with a few stifled snorts and resigned sighs from those around me. Tonight, Ana was far from her best, but there were encouraging flashes â€“ just enough to show that little kid (and remind the rest of us) how she got to No. 1.
After Ivanovicâ€™s media conference, I reluctantly left the warm confines of the media center to watch what remained of the eveningâ€™s second match featuring Dinara Safina and Kimiko Date Krumm. Much of the crowd had cleared out after the Ivanovic/Kleybanova match but the diehards who remained were treated to an entertaining match. The crowd was also more engaged in this match, with fans calling out words of encouragement for both players.
The moment in the match that stands out for me was the last point of the second set tiebreak. After seeing Dinaraâ€™s serve desertÂ her as she made a mess of the tiebreak, Kimiko, leading 6-0, calmly stepped up to the service line and fired an ace to take the set, almost as if saying, â€œPay attention, youngâ€™un.Â This is how itâ€™s done.â€ That point (and tiebreak), while not particularly dramatic orÂ high quality, summed up the remainder of the match for me: Dinara made tennis look (and sound!) difficult; Kimiko, with a combination of variety, footwork and smarts, made it look gloriously easy.
Marissa Lackey has been following tennis for 20 years, fanatically for about five.Â She’s lived in California for about 9 years.Â She’s a native (although she prefers to use the term “recovering”) Texan.