I headed over to the William HG Fitzgerald Tennis Center off 16th and Kennedy today to catch some early round action at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. Knowing the best stuff at pro tennis tournaments in the first few rounds is more often found on the side courts than the stadium court, I camped out and watched South African Rick De Voest challenge Uruguay's Pablo Cuevas in a qualifying match.
For those not familiar with the sport, tournaments allow a number of unheralded players to fight their way into the tournament by advancing through, in effect, a pre-tournament. The qualifiers are like boxing matches minus the senseless violence: opponents attack each other with all the strength, stamina and wits they have, hoping to just make into the main draw and have a chance to earn a paycheck ... and get squashed by top players. (Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Mardy Fish and Tommy Haas, among others, begin play in the next two days.) Want to see athletes pour their guts out? Watch qualifiers.
The 132-ranked Cuevas looked at first glance like he was going to be too much for De Voest, currently sitting at No. 151 in the world. He quickly put De Voest on the defensive with a display of flashy shots and a set of wheels that made it appear there was no ball he could not reach. Yet De Voest, who has scrapped his way into a total of eight regular tournament matches (with a 3-5 record once he gets there), refused to go away. He may have looked more like a neighbor you run into at your your local hardware store than a professional athlete, but he maintained his calm in a match whose sponsor should have been Pepto-Bismol.
The match was perfectly even in the first set tie-breaker, when fans leaned forward waiting to see what microscopic difference was going to separate the two players.
Unfortunately, a terrible call by the chair umpire (the head guy in charge of a match) turned the tide -- the chair over-ruling a line judge's call that a De Voest serve was out -- giving the South African an ace and a key point. Chair umpires are generally like Democratic presidential candidates -- people extremely reluctant to get involved and take a stand. (I at least give the Republicans credit: They may almost always be wrong, but they pick sides.)
To be clear, the serve was out. Way out. So far out that Cuevas didn't bother playing the ball. Yet the ump made the over-rule, Cuevas fell incredulous and became rattled. Umpires make mistakes, too, but it's rare to see an umpire inject himself without being asked, and even more rare to do the injecting when his decision is so off base you wonder what he was looking at. The mark of a good player, though, is one who can overcome obstacles in a match. Good players or teams make plays, I used to say in my coaching days, while losers make excuses.
The bad call in a tie-breaker, however, was a virtual death knell for the first set. There simply is no margin for error in a tie-breaker, and to suffer such a horrible call in that situation is indeed a monumental obstacle to overcome.
Cuevas couldn't recover in the tie-break but came out fighting the second. Calmly, steadily, though, De Voest etched out the tiniest of leads. But Cuevas still managed to earn a few chances to draw even. Four of them, in fact ... four break points on his opponent's serve. When you get to walk up to the teller at the break serve bank four times in one game, you've got to come away with cash on one of them. Cuevas, however, buried one potential winner in the net, over hit another wide, and got out-played on the other two. Opportunity vanquished, the match ended with De Voest walking away with a 7-6, 6-4 victory.
For De Voest, the win by a whisker means he lives on and has a chance to land a temp job for perhaps a day or two -- or as all qualifying players dream -- another week. Cuevas, on the other hand, will slink back to his hotel likely cursing the umpire who he'll perceive as his excuse for losing the match. If any of his friends filmed the contest, though, he'll see he had his chances to make plays. His chance to be the one who earns a living this week.