By Vito Ellison
(March 8, 2016) NEW YORK, NY – The match-functional braid was traded for a sleek shoulder-length ‘do, the intense self-flagellation for ingratiating smiles. Yes, the groundies still stung at times; yes, the serve was still fluid, but as Serena Williams took to the court with Caroline Wozniacki last night in midtown Manhattan, the mood was not combative, it was celebratory.
The ninth edition of the BNP Paribas Showdown at Madison Square Garden segued into the night’s headliners, Williams and Wozniacki, after a stirring opening act delivered by the matchup between World No. 4 Stan Wawrinka and superstar showman Gael Monfils.
Everyone wore their loyalty on their sleeves throughout the evening. The 2-time major champion, Wawrinka, was greeted with polite applause when he entered the arena in a Henrik Lundqvist jersey, before Monfils entered to full-on cheers in the Knicks’ home whites.
Determined to draw more of the crowd to his side, Wawrinka came out firing, engaging Monfils in high-octane exchanges headlined by his renowned one-handed backhand including a winner to take the first break in the match. Monfils, though, would not be denied. At times, he let his (not so) inner clown prince get the best of him, including an attempted header where a put-away forehand into the open court would’ve sufficed, before securing a 7-6 (6) first set.
The rest of the match played out like a competitive friendly between the two Swiss residents (the Frenchman, Monfils, maintains a residence in the country), with Wawrinka setting Monfils up for a couple attempts at show-stoppers that, to the dismay of the Garden crowd, didn’t materialize. Late in the second set, Williams joined Wawrinka while Wozniacki teamed with Monfils for some light-hearted mixed doubles during which Serena jokingly chastised the Swiss that her sister, Venus, would’ve gotten to a shot that he missed. Before Monfils ultimately dealt Wawrinka the 7-6 (6), 6-3 loss, Wawrinka tried to convince Chris Evert to join them on court, but the 18-time major winner was a few steps ahead of him, demurring and holding up her glass of wine.
Where previous editions maintained the facade of full-on competition, this year’s BNP Showdown felt more like a “Night with Serena and Friends.” The first time we saw the 21-time major champion last night she was pitching in on background vocals with a kids’ choir. Then there was the mixed doubles jaunt in a figure-hugging bodysuit that recalled Serena’s late Puma era, before the main event, a “showdown” between the two BFFs and WTA No. 1s.
After decades of watching the younger of the Sisters Sledgehammer sometimes play in front of often ambivalent crowds, it was heartwarming on this March evening to see the lovefest between Williams and the crowd. While Wozniacki could count a couple of fans in the near-capacity MSG crowd, the vast majority were here to watch–and celebrate Serena who won the match 7-5, 6-4. She was at turns, gracious, giving tips to a young player during a mid-match interview and gritty, leaving Wozniacki lunging after winners during play.
Amid the smiles and light-hearted attitudes of the participants, there lurked the feeling that the celebration was still a bit muted. There was the lingering feeling that the powers that be, and Serena herself, when signing the contract months ago, might have expected this night would celebrate, not only Serena and her Sportsperson of the Year title, but a Calendar Slam and perhaps an Open-era majors record. None of that mattered though, not for this crowd, not for this night, not for Serena either.