By Andy J. Gordon
The men’s professional tennis tournament hosted by UCLA each summer may not get the world’s greatest talent or the biggest crowds, but it is the only chance for fans to see world class tennis in the LA area. In spite of the less than stellar field, the fans that chose to check things out during the week of July 25-31, 2011 were rewarded with some great matches at the intimate venue. The good weather, beautiful setting, and fierce competition made the 2011 Farmers Classic Tennis Open a success.
The event has been played in LA for over eighty years so there is definitely some history, but unlike past draws that featured top ranked champions like McEnroe, Chang, Lendl, Sampras, and Courier, this year’s field barely scratched the 2011 top 20. America’s top ranked player, Mardy Fish, ranked 9th in the world at the start of the tournament, came in as the number one seed. Other challengers included second seed, Juan Martin Del Potro (Argentina,) third seed Marcos Baghdatis (Cyprus,) and fourth seed Thomaz Bellucci (Brazil.) The surprise of the tournament was the fine play of Ernests Gulbis, a talented Latvian player who never seems to convert his exceptional skills into big wins. At UCLA, the unseeded Gulbis seemed to get better with each win, particularly during the hard hitting quarterfinal night match against Del Potro. Gulbis was more consistent than Del Potro as both launched scorching ground strokes. Gulbis also served better on his way to a dominant 62, 64 victory. He then overpowered the tricky Alex Bogomolov Jr. in the semifinals.
While Gulbis was surprising many on his way to the finals, Fish was expected to get there based on his fine performances over the last year. Fish had worked extremely hard on his fitness and seemed to be taking his career more seriously, which paid off with some big wins. At UCLA, he took care of business with straight set wins over Giles Muller and Igor Kunitsyn on his way to a semifinal showdown with up and coming American Ryan Harrison. The two had just played in the semis of the Atlanta ATP event the previous week with Fish winning convincingly. Harrison must have learned something from their earlier meeting because he gave Fish all he could handle in a hard fought, hard hitting match. The three set thriller ended with Fish squeaking out a win after a crowd pleasing third set tie-breaker.
The final showdown on Sunday afternoon featured a close, high level battle. Both Fish and Gulbis were bombing big serves and blasting ground strokes.
Fish barely won the opening set 75, but Gulbis rallied to win the next two 64, 64 to win his second career title in an exhausting two hours and 43 minutes.
“Today means a lot to me. It’s my second title,” Gulbis said. “It gives me a huge boost in confidence. Mardy is No. 9 in the world and today I played a good match.”
The 29 year-old Fish is having a successful hard court season with his second consecutive appearance in a final after defeating John Isner in Atlanta the previous week. He has six career titles.
“I’ve played a lot of matches the past month and half, so he came in a little bit fresher than me. I think that played a part,” Fish said. “But credit to him. He played well when he needed to. He got those two breaks early [in the third set], clearly which was big. I almost got him in the end… it wasn’t to be.”
On the doubles side, the team of Xavier Malisse (Belgium) and former UCLA player, Mark Knowles (Bahamas) won the title in a very close match over Somdev Devvarman (India) and Treat Conrad Huey (Philippines) 76 (3) 76 (10). Knowles earned his 54th career doubles title and it was the first time that he and Malisse played together on the ATP tour.
The 2011 Farmers Classic Tennis Open at UCLA may be a small event on the year round international tennis circuit, but it is a well run, enjoyable week for fans of all ages. Event organizers made sure that everyone had a good time and in addition to the fine play on the courts, there were other activities through the week to keep people interested. With special promotions like kids day, fashion day, USTA membership appreciation day, and racket/book donations in exchange for tickets, there were many options for fans. The decision to make most of the stadium seating general admission was something that worked well, and pleased many fans. The Farmers Classic benefits the grassroots programs of the Southern California Tennis Association. The SCTA brings tennis to the community by providing no-cost equipment and instruction to underserved children, equipment and curriculum to more than 250 schools in 35 districts that are facing budget cuts. The 86th annual Farmers Classic, presented by Mercedes-Benz, will be held July 23-29, 2012 at the LA Tennis Center on the campus of UCLA. For information, go to: www.farmersclassic.com/
Photos courtesy of David Burrows