Thursday, January 22, 2009
Geriatric Santoro still has some magic
By Ravi Ubha Special to ESPN.com
Each day at the Australian Open, ESPN.com is tracking the game's brightest stars, providing an inside look at their matches, practices and routines.Wednesday Jan. 22
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Among practice venues, Court 20 is tucked neatly in the shadow of Hisense Arena, parallel to tram and railroad tracks that shuttle fans to and from. Call it somewhat obscure. (Let's just say you wouldn't go there if you didn't have to.)
Fittingly, Spanish journeymen Oscar Hernandez and Albert Montanes share space with Yves Allegro -- who certainly would be an unknown, if not for his ties to some guy named Federer. The fourth member of the entourage, Fabrice Santoro, is much more prolific.
Fabrice Santoro bids to become the oldest man to win three matches at the Australian Open since 43-year-old Ken Rosewall in 1977.
The night before, for the umpteenth time (35th to be exact), Santoro was featured in a five-set affair. Because he recently turned 36 and will bid adieu to the tour at the end of the year, the achievement shouldn't be minimized. Santoro and another diminutive, breathtaking shot-maker, German Philipp Kohlschreiber, produced nearly 150 winners compared to only a century of unforced errors. In the end, Santoro, with the usually hardened press corps vocally backing him in the media center, won 6-3 in the fifth.
Santoro stretches his back, and soon a blond catches the eye of Hernandez, who is a lean, classic counterpuncher. It's hard to tell whether Hernandez glances out of temporary attraction or curiosity. Accompanying the woman's revealing attire was an all-encompassing, thick black hat, a little over the top on a day when temperatures soared to nearly 95 degrees.
Another onlooker asks Santoro, leaving the court, to sign his hat -- this one was of the summer variety -- and Allegro, ever the joker, utters with a grin, "Why are you asking a 35-year-old guy to sign?" Santoro, facing his current doubles partner, smiles broadly.
Will he be smiling for Friday's third-round match, where Andy Roddick awaits?
Trudging back to the air-conditioned complex that houses the player lounge, Santoro says he's a bit tired and the back hurts a tad. Reliving the drama and excitement of the second round seems to make him forget any ailments.
"You know, I enjoy playing tennis, and on the big courts, it's fun for me," said Santoro, appearing in his 42nd straight Grand Slam dating back to 1998. "And because the fans are there, it helps me to keep fighting and keep going."
Roddick paid tribute to Santoro following his own struggle, a four-set dual with enormously talented but wobbly Belgian Xavier Malisse, saying he probably had the best set of hands around. Roddick hasn't been troubled by Santoro in the past, though, leading their head-to-heads 3-1 and emerging easily in straight sets in the opening round of last year's U.S. Open.
"He beat me quite easily in New York, but I hope it will be different tomorrow," Santoro said. "First of all, I want to recover. I want to feel good and once again give my best on the court."
Silver-haired Italian fox Davide Sanguinetti, a poor man's Santoro, was asked if Santoro's longevity surprised him. Sanguinetti, himself 36, quit the game last year following major knee troubles and now works with fellow 30-something Vincent Spadea.
"No," he said. "He's a great athlete, he enjoys the competition, and he drives everyone crazy with his game."
Amer Delic stared into space for hours after losing in qualifying to awkward German Florian Mayer last week, wondering what went wrong. Waiting to get drug-tested, he had little better to do. Delic fell 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-0 and thus thought he'd have suitable time to explore Melbourne's many delights, sans much tennis, in the next week.
Then he was lucky -- or more specifically, a lucky loser, one of those guys who sneaks into the main draw when a poor chap withdraws. Never before had that happened to Delic, and there would have been ample opportunity since the 26-year-old struggles to enter top-tier tournaments automatically.
"It was so awkward and really weird," said Delic, a former standout at the University of Illinois. "Thankfully, it's real. No one has to pinch me, because it's real."
He's making the most of it, reaching the third round at a major for the first time to join fellow Americans Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and James Blake on the second week's eve. His reward for a second straight five-set win -- the latter in which he came back from two sets down -- is another all-Balkan battle against defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia. Born in Bosnia, Delic fled to the U.S. when he was 14 and lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
More Star Watch
Wondering what the big-name are up to? Ravi Ubha scopes the grounds at Melbourne Park daily, providing behind-the-scenes reports and inside information. See more Star Watch here.
When it was put to Delic, a gentle giant at 6-foot-5, that he might have more chance against Djokovic on an outside court, he chuckled.
Bosnian fans raucously backed the world No. 127 against California's Taylor Dent and Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu on Courts 10 and 13, respectively. Dent's father, former Aussie pro Phil Dent, publicly complained, and Mathieu, Wednesday's victim, joked that the spectators were vodka-infused. Serbians flooded to Court 13 after watching Janko Tipsarevic lose to Marin Cilic, increasing the noise and lack of etiquette.
Delic's tilt with Djokovic is second up on Rod Laver Arena. Djokovic understandably always features on a big court, and security shouldn't be an issue.
"I know Taylor's dad complained, but I hear other players saying, 'You have great fans.' I mean, they could hear them five courts down. How can you not be motivated to play in those conditions? Tomorrow, it's a great opportunity to be playing in one of the biggest stages in world tennis. I definitely wouldn't trade that in."
The bad news for Tommy Haas is that he faces world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the third round. The good news, or at least according to the German veteran, is that it's not on clay.
Haas, whose serious shoulder injuries have robbed him of possible Grand Slam glory in the past, crunched Italian Flavio Cipolla 6-1, 6-2, 6-1 in 1½ hours to set up a fourth meeting with the Spaniard.
"I think sometimes he needs a little bit of time to find his range," Haas said. "I think it takes time for him to get confidence early on in the year. Look forward to playing him now. I wouldn't want to play him in the third round of the French Open."
There's some reason to think Haas, 30, can give Nadal a tough time. Even though he's winless in three tries, all were taut hard-court matches. In their most recent rendezvous, in the third round of the Masters Series Cincinnati, Nadal edged Haas 6-4, 7-6 (0). Haas also enjoys the Australian Open, having thrice reached the semifinals, the only three semifinal appearances in his Grand Slam career.
"Going to be the first big opponent, I think," said Nadal, no slight intended to Christophe Rochus and Roko Karanusic, his first two foes.
Armed with a fluid all-court game, the former world No. 2 vowed to attack when given the opportunity.
"He's always had the answer on the bigger points," said Haas, based in Florida. "I'm looking forward again to maybe getting on Rod Laver Arena, which makes it worthwhile coming down all this way. Playing against the No. 1 is always something special."
The right shoulder, incidentally, is "fine." Translated, that means it's as good as it can be following multiple surgeries, the latest transpiring in November 2007.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.