Although Monday’s World Tennis Day festivities in Madison Square Garden are merely an exhibition, the matchups in the BNP Paribas Showdown are fraught with meaning when it comes to the short- and/or long-term status of the competitors.
In the main-event singles, ATP No. 2 Novak Djokovic will meet his pal in No. 6 Andy Murray. The doubles will be a battle of the brothers: John and Patrick McEnroe will bump up against Mike and Bob Bryan, the Grand Slam doubles record-holders (15 major titles). They also, in the eyes of many, are the greatest doubles team of all time -- eclipsing, among others, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming.
John McEnroe does not like to be eclipsed. But more on that later.
Everyone knows this exhibition is mainly a chance for tennis nuts to get together to celebrate and feel good about tennis. And though this World Tennis Day concept may not be quite ready to challenge Super Bowl Sunday or the day they run the Kentucky Derby in terms of single-day public interest, it is beginning to develop some legs -- thanks partly to the number of nations where tennis is a popular spectator (and participant) sport, and the way the various national federations affiliated with the ITF can whip up interest in this kind of thing.
"Hit-and-giggle" tennis is all well and good, but it just so happens that both Djokovic and Murray could use a little more hit and little less giggle these days. This doesn’t mean the two junior members of tennis’ Big Four (the other two are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal) will go at each other hammer and tong, but at this stage you could say both men could use a win -- any win.
Djokovic, so recently the dominant No. 1, hasn’t won a tournament yet this year, and the two big U.S. hard-court Masters 1000 events are just around the corner. You have to flip back through lots of calendars to find the last year he found himself in that fix. (It was 2006, so early in his career that it was no fix at all.)
Granted, Djokovic has played just two tournaments this year, the Australian Open and Dubai. With scheduling like that, you’d better do a lot of winning. But Djokovic is 6-2 and coming off what must be a sobering and perhaps demoralizing semifinal loss to Roger Federer in Dubai. Among other things, the loss enabled Federer to keep Djokovic at bay in the head-to-head rivalry. The Swiss icon still leads it, 17-15.
Murray isn’t much better off. He’s just 9-3 in three tournaments (Rotterdam, Australian Open, Dubai), and only one of those losses was to a peer. Federer took him out in the quarterfinals Down Under. His other losses were to talented but flawed Marin Cilic and, last week in Dubai, to solid but unspectacular Florian Mayer.
Down to No. 6 on the ATP computer now, Murray had pronounced himself fit and glad to be playing pain free again following minor back surgery last fall. The best rationalization of his struggles is that he still lacks match toughness. Unfortunately, he’s suggested otherwise, and that puts him in the same boat with Djokovic, and that vessel is leaking.
Happily, the doubles pairing also is intriguing -- mainly because John McEnroe has been complaining recently about the state of doubles. In a thinly veiled criticism of the Bryans' success and claim to honors as the best doubles team in history, the older McEnroe brother said:
“I don’t know what doubles is bringing to the table. The doubles are the slow guys who aren’t quick enough to play singles. Would it be better off, no disrespect, but would it be better off if there was no doubles at all and we invest all the money we save elsewhere so that some other guys who never really got into a good position in the sport end up playing more in singles?”
Ouch. I have a feeling that "no disrespect" qualifier fell on deaf ears in the Bryan camp, so I'm expecting those point-blank volleys hit right at an opponent's body traveling with a lot zip, and perhaps leaving a mark.