MSG goes back in time as Roddick, Federer play nostalgic exhibition
Andy Roddick beat Roger Federer 7-5, 7-6 (7) at the BNP Paribas Showdown
"Obviously, I'm in Roger's head," joked Roddick, who is 2-21 against Federer
Maria Sharapova beat Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-3 despite Rory McIlroy's help
NEW YORK -- Andy Roddick is in the throes of a recession. He is now out of the top 30 in ATP rankings, and his 2012 match record stands at 4-4. His body continues to betray him. The unanswerable power he once packed? Like gut strings and argyle attire, it can sometimes feel a relic from a bygone era.
Still, Roddick has kept a sense of humor. Before Monday's BNP Paribas Showdown exhibition against Roger Federer at Madison Square Garden, both players sat alongside the other two participants -- we can't quite call them competitors -- Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, and took questions. Not long after the emcee ticked off Federer's résumé and various humanitarian endeavors, Roddick did one better. He referred to Federer as "the Dos Equis guy." He meant this guy, the Most Interesting Man in the World, a figure whose "blood smells like cologne," who "once had an awkward experience just to see how it feels," who is so interesting, "were he to pat you on the back, you'd put it on your résumé."
Deservedly, this got a good laugh. It also recalled a time when Federer won some of his most gushing plaudits from the men on the other side of the net. From, say, 2004-07 Federer was tennis' benevolent despot, whose subjects bowed before him, doing the Wayne World's we're-not-worthy genuflections. The ATP's unofficial motto during those years: "Too good, Roger." Consider Roddick, who's lost to Federer 21 of the 23 times they've played on Tour. After one of those defeats, he articulated what so many others felt. "I want to hate you, but you're too nice a guy."
We know, of course, what happened next: two challengers came along who were sufficiently deferential to King Roger, but weren't paralyzed with awe. Rafael Nadal and then Novak Djokovic created first a rivalry and then a tri-valry. Sometimes they beat Federer; sometimes they lost to him; but they always pushed him.
Ultimately, this was to everyone's benefit, not the least the fans who are treated to this current gilded age. But it also meant that tonight's match was imbued with a layer of nostalgia. This wasn't a Legends event; but seeing these two stalwarts, combined age approaching 60, both off their prime, it didn't feel altogether current either.
As it was, Federer's abundant gifts were on conspicuous display in what was alternatively a competitive tennis display, a glorified hitting session and a vaudeville show. (The YouTube clip of Roddick mimicking Nadal, rolled up sleeves and all, is coming soon.) But Roddick's power was also in evidence. He belted aces up the middle and out wide. He cracked forehands. When he missed, it wasn't for lack of aggression.
Departing from exhibition decorum that dictates the players split sets and then play for real in the third, Roddick prevailed 7-5, 7-6 (7). He was appropriately casual about the result.
"Obviously, I'm in Roger's head," he said afterward, his words, edged as they often are, in sarcasm. "He has no idea how to play me."
And that's the thing about exhibitions. They're fun. They're light. They showcase the best players. Often in markets hungry for more professional tennis. It's hard to imagine that many fans among the crowd of 18,079 didn't leave smiling. But ultimately, like spring training games and sparring sessions, exos don't offer much of a barometer. As the tennis caravan moves to Indian Wells, Federer arrives not on a losing streak but a two-tournament winning streak, fresh from beating Andy Murray in Dubai. Roddick is still 4-4 and off to a dismal start to 2012.
But winning always beats losing. And, as far as Roddick's concerned, there was some space for optimism tonight. He moved well. He appeared healthy. He hit some concussive shots. The record didn't budge -- he's still 2-21 against Federer. But he walked off the court a winner against the Most Interesting Man in the World. And he even got a pat on the back for it.
The SI.com tennis team made the trek over to MSG. Here are bits and pieces from the evening.
• There was a No. 1 player on the court at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, but it turned out to be an Irish golfer in a sweater and bluejeans. Late in the second set of Maria Sharapova's breezy 6-4, 6-3 victory over Caroline Wozniacki, the crowd was treated to an impromptu point between Sharapova and Rory McIlroy, the world's top-ranked golfer and the boyfriend of Wozniacki. Though he was aided by Sharapova playing a ball that was clearly long, McIlroy ended up with the point (watch it here), and his winning stroke produced the line of the night from Sharapova afterward: "He won more points than Caroline did," Sharapova said.
Wearing a turquoise dress and looking fit, Sharapova made quick work of Wozniacki in a match with few memorable points outside of McIlroy's. Ultimately, Sharapova bashed enough groundstrokes to overpower Wozniacki. The Dane also admitted after the match she was feeling some nerves -- she finished with 17 unforced errors and 10 winners. The two players were into the spirit of the exhibition and danced with a couple of patrons in the final set. After the match, Wozniacki said McIlroy wasn't too pleased about being forced to try a new sport in front of 18,079. "But at least he can say he played tennis at Madison Square Garden," Wozniacki said. "Not a lot of people can say that. And he won a point against Maria."
That hasn't been easy to do this year. Sharapova, the world No. 2, is 8-2 in 2012 and reached the finals of the Australian Open. After 67 weeks atop the WTA rankings, Wozniacki is now the fourth-ranked player in the world. She's off to a more sluggish start in 2012 at 7-4 including a quarterfinal loss at Australian Open.
Both players paid tribute to the Garden, which has a long history of iconic women's matches. The arena hosted the WTA year-end championships from 1977 to 2000, and banners honoring both Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova hang high above the arena. "I enjoyed it," Wozniacki said of the night. "It was a special experience and good fun."
-- Richard Deitsch
• In the second set of the night, Wozniacki took a young girl from the stands for a little dance-off on the court. Not to be outdone, Sharapova grabbed an elder gentleman from the front row for a quick swing dance. With Ben Stiller in the front row, it only made sense that this would escalate into a Zoolander style walk-off. Wozniacki brought boyfriend McIlroy down onto the court to dance but then handed him her racket and a couple tennis balls instead. "You have to hit it off a tee," the chair ump said. Not only did he play a point against Sharapova, he won it. One for one in his WTA debut, not bad, Rory.
-- C.W. Sesno
• Jeremy Lin has been the topic du jour in New York City for the last three weeks, so it wasn't surprising that the players were asked about the Knicks guard-turned-cultural icon. Roddick, in fact, showed a nice sense of timing by tweeting out that he was using Lin's locker for the night. Sharapova said when she was in New York for Fashion Week in February, she saw Lin on the covers of both the New York Post and New York Daily News. "To see a great up-and-coming athlete -- especially in New York, playing at Madison Square Garden -- it's exciting, and I'm sure it's a lot to write about," she said.
Outside of Roddick, a huge sports fan who co-hosts his own weekend sports-talk show on Fox Sports Radio, Federer seemed to have the best sense of Lin's impact. "I think it's quite an incredible story actually," Federer said. "I hope he can come to the exhibition. I think it would be great. I think this is why we all follow sports because of great stories like this; that all of a sudden someone breaks through that you didn't know or didn't expect. ... I love New York Knicks, and obviously having played in that arena as well has been amazing for me. I wish the team well and I thought what Lin has done has been great, so I hope to meet him when I come to New York."
Alas, Lin was tending to other matters. The Knicks play in Dallas on Tuesday night.
• Jerry Solomon, CEO of StarGames and, in many ways, the driving force behind the event, has discussed expanding this to a "Global Tennis Night." Stage exhibitions in, say, Melbourne, New York, Rio and Brussels and -- taking advantage of time differences -- having a string of televised events from all over the globe.
-- Jon Wertheim
• With Sharapova serving up 4-3, Wozniacki sent a return that appeared to be long but was called in. Sharapova put her hand up to challenge, but to no avail. MSG is not yet equipped with Hawk-Eye.
• The lack of Hawk-Eye isn't all that produced close calls. At 5-5 in the first set, Roddick lobbed over Federer, who chased it down to hit a tweener, which Roddick volleyed back. The fair man that he is, Federer then lobbed the next shot over Roddick to give him a chance at a tweener, which A-Rod sank into the net. Not seeing a ballgirl chasing the ball, Roddick playfully chucked his racket toward the net, which looked to be on track to hit her if not if not for a Matrix-like dodge.
• Here's Jenna Maroney's take on Tennis Night in America.
• Wozniacki was in New York -- where she owns an apartment -- last week. She zipped down to Florida to watch boyfriend Rory McIlroy hold off Tiger Woods to win the Honda Classic (and take over the No. 1 golf ranking in the process) and then flew back Sunday night. Returning the favor, he was on hand at Madison Square Garden.
• Ticket prices ranged from $50 a pop in the upper levels to $1,000 for courtside and luxury suites.
• New York tennis fans: keep an eye on Nets owner and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a passionate tennis fan who has designs of bringing events to the new arena in Brooklyn.