Oh, Canada! (How I could have seen Andy, Rafa, and Novak for Free)

The Montreal skyline and Jacques Cartier Bridge seen from my hotel in Longueuil.

The Montreal skyline and Jacques Cartier Bridge seen from my hotel in Longueuil.

Nadal and Verdasco warming up for doubles.

Nadal and Verdasco warming up for doubles.

I didn’t take a lot of time to lick my wounds over the loss to Whitey and Laura. A couple of hours after the match concluded I was heading north in my trusty CR-V to a Rogers Cup doubleheader:  the men’s pro tournament in Montreal on Monday and the women’s in Toronto on Wednesday.    I had always wanted to see the Rogers Cup (formerly the Canadian Open) and this year I took the plunge, in part because Chris McCallum and I had been unable to get US Open tickets for the super-popular Labor Day weekend matches, rendering a repeat of last year’s “Super Saturday” adventure impossible.

Rogers Cup tickets aren’t nearly as hard to come by as Open tickets. In odd-numbered years, the men play in Montreal and the women in Toronto, while the reverse is true in even-numbered years; you can order for either event (or in my case both of them) at www.rogerscup.com.  And while the Open is the pros’ ultimate end-of-summer destination, Rogers Cup is one of the most important warm-up tournaments, so both the men’s and women’s fields are generally strong.

Montreal is only about 5 ½ hours’ drive from my home, assuming the border crossing is reasonably smooth: from my tournament in New London, it was actually closer than New York City, and with far less traffic until the last few miles. After a long weekend of tennis, and with a full day of spectating to come, I resisted the allure of Montreal’s many diversions and went straight to sleep in my room at the Hotel Sandman in Longueuil, just across the St. Lawrence from the big city.

The next morning I took the subway to the tournament site at Jarry Park, where the Expos (now the Washington Nationals) had played baseball in the days before the Olympic Stadium was built. The subway system’s slogan is something to the effect of “every station a work of art”, but many of those works of art appeared to have spent a few decades in storage, so run-down and uninviting had they become.  Still, the subway was safe and got me where I needed to go, so it would be churlish to complain too much.  Despite the condition of some of the stations, the subway is a good option for people traveling to the tennis- where on-site parking is limited- and made better by the offer of a free “aller-retour”, or round trip, subway ticket to any traveler with a Rogers Cup ticket for that day (I wasn’t eligible for this deal because my ticket had been printed off the internet rather than delivered by mail).

Unfortunately the fan-friendliness of the match scheduling did not equal that of the transportation network. Play did not begin until 12:30 pm, and only two matches were scheduled on the stadium court during the day session; US Open day sessions always include three matches on Ashe Stadium, even though men’s matches there are best-of-five sets. It was the first day of the tournament and the top seeds had all received opening-round byes, so the stadium court matchups were also less than compelling: Gilles Simon vs. Andreas Seppi and Tommy Robredo vs. Feliciano Lopez.  All four Europeans are solid players, but none is particularly popular Stateside.  That’s typically the profile of guys sent to play their second- or third-round US Open matches on the Grandstand court, my preferred viewing area, and as a result I had seen all but Seppi in person.  Simon and Robredo are workmanlike, counterpunching baseliners, but neither would come to the net even to pick up a ball (they don’t have to, since the pro events all have ballkids).  And while Lopez has a big lefty serve and a nice net-rushing game, his backhand is another story.  I have a sneaking suspicion that if Feliciano Lopez and I were sent to a tennis court to exchange nothing but topspin backhands, I would win a disconcertingly high percentage of the rallies.  And while I can find any number of ways to waste sixty dollars, watching someone play tennis with a backhand like mine hasn’t yet become one of them.

Luckily I had better options. Far better options.  On one of the handful of outer courts, in fact, the schedule read as follows: a singles match between two lesser lights and then Andy Murray, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic in separate doubles matches. Needless to say, I got there in a hurry.  Court 9 was at the outer edge of the tennis complex and had a few rows of bleachers on each sideline and a much larger bleacher section beyond the far baseline.  The ushers, who didn’t seem especially demanding otherwise, must have closed off access to the baseline bleachers, because absolutely no one was sitting there.  So I took a seat in the top row of one of the side bleachers, somewhere in the vicinity of the net post, and the tennis began.  The singles match featured Sam Querrey, a hard-serving American, against Martin Klizan, a left-handed Eastern European baseliner.  Querrey controlled the match with big serves and forehands and was rarely threatened en route to a 6-3, 6-3 win.  Even in this relatively uninspiring match, the error pattern of the pros stood out distinctly from that of us hackers.  Recreational players miss some shots wide, some long, and far too many into the net, but almost all of the pros’ unforced errors are long.  They will never hit a simple rally ball into the net and just give away a point.  They also know that a short ball at that level is a near-certain winner for their opponent, so if they’re going to miss, they miss long.  I’ll try to remember that the next time I play singles, if there is a next time.

By the end of the Querrey match, I noticed that the baseline bleachers appeared to be filling up from somewhere beyond the perimeter of the stadium, although they remained more than half-empty. Meanwhile the ushers were still preventing those sitting in other areas of the court from going back there, sometimes in the face of loud objections from the fans thus turned away.  This eventually drew the attention of the couple next to me, a deeply tanned older man with a pronounced Brooklyn accent and his wife.  They seemed to know more about the situation than I did, which wasn’t difficult, since I knew nothing at all, and my “What’s going on?” query only served to aggravate them further.

“That’s free seating,” said Brooklyn. “Can you believe it?”

“It’s for people who don’t have tickets,” explained Mrs. Brooklyn “so they can come in from the park and watch.”

I was pretty sure that would never happen at the US Open, or for that matter at any professional sporting event in my home country.

“So let me get this straight,” I said, “we paid $60 for our tickets and we can’t sit in those bleachers, but someone can just walk in from the park and sit there for free?”

Brooklyn nodded disgustedly: “I guess that’s socialism for you!”

“Well, it’s not quite like you described it,” Mrs. Brooklyn, who seemed to be much more sanguine than her husband, said to me. “We can leave the stadium and go into the bleachers from the park too, if we want to.”

Gotcha.

Given that the perimeter of the tennis complex bore an eerie resemblance to the Maine coastline, I estimated that that would require about a ten-minute walk, and then I’d have to get back in afterward. It wasn’t an enticing prospect. So I stayed put and silently plotted a much less costly approach to seeing next year’s early-round action.

Seating issues aside, Court 9 was a perfect spot to spend a day, as it featured three top guys playing doubles. You almost never see that at a Grand Slam event because the best-of-five singles matches are so draining. Andy Murray was up first and had wisely elected to team with the accomplished Indian veteran Leander Paes, who has gained some weight in recent years but still sports laser-sharp reflexes and finely-honed doubles instincts. Murray in person is much bigger and stronger than he looks on TV, where he often comes across as slump-shouldered and mopey. If he had grown up in this country, Andy might have been a strong safety or a right fielder, given his size and the speed and grace with which he moves around the tennis court.  And I’ll give him credit: although he didn’t look especially comfortable at the net, he gamely serve-and-volleyed throughout the match.  His return game, of course, is one of the best in the world, and the doubles format, which is now no-ad at regular tour events, accentuated that strength by allowing him to return all of the critical deuce points.  Murray’s dynamite returns and the cleverness of Paes’s net play proved decisive in a 6-3, 6-1 rout of two big hitters, Kevin Anderson and Jeremy Chardy.  The Frenchman went the entire match without holding serve and hit a number of double faults at key moments.  It was hard to tell if he was tanking or just a terrible doubles player, but let’s put it this way: he must have gotten his serve straightened out in a hurry, because he went on to the semifinals of the singles competition…

Next up was one of the world’s most popular players, Rafa Nadal, teamed with countryman Fernando Verdasco against two huge servers, Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic and American Jack Sock. While Murray had been bigger than I expected, Rafa was actually smaller, or at least slimmer, than his televised alter ego. A more cynical observer might wonder if he’s simply not taking PED’s anymore.  Regardless, he was tall and slim and put an amazing amount of torque on his forehand, which he whips across his body with incredible speed and ferocity.  It must be said that the guy is also ridiculously good looking and exudes charisma, even from a distance. If he has that kind of effect on a straight male like me, it doesn’t take much to imagine how women react.  The red-haired lady a couple of rows in front of me, who you can see in my otherwise blurry picture below, never took her eyes -or her iPhone- off him for the entire match.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because of the amazing amount of torque on his forehand, either.

Nadal's superfan (in green dress) savors his doubles win!

Nadal’s superfan (in green dress) savors his doubles win!

What most impressed me about Nadal, though, was that he gave a full effort in a situation where not all of his professional colleagues (including, perhaps, one Jeremy Chardy) would have done the same, and a full effort from Nadal is something to behold. If your eyes were only on him- like my neighbor’s, for instance, but without any awareness of the opponents or the setting-  you might have thought it was a Wimbledon singles final instead of a first-round doubles match at a warm-up tournament.   He and Verdasco played with energy and enthusiasm and they worked very, very hard to chase down the heavy shots of their taller, stronger opponents.  They may not have gone to the net much, and I don’t think they ever serve-and-volleyed, but in the end their consistency and will got the better of their opponents’ power in a 10-6 supertiebreaker win.  Nadal and Verdasco went on to win another round and then push the Bryan brothers to a 10-8 supertiebreaker before coming up just short.  I don’t think they played that one in front of the non-paying spectators on court 9.

The last match of the superstar tripleheader pitted Djokovic and fellow Serbian Janko Tipsarevic against Andreas Seppi and Victor Troicki, but by then I had found myself unable to resist nature’s call. The difficult thing about watching matches on the outer courts is that most of the time you can’t leave your seat without losing it.  On a lucky day you might have a friend or seatmate- most often a very large or otherwise intimidating friend or seatmate- who can hold your place until you get back from the bathroom or the concession stand, but saving seats is against the rules at most tournaments now and therefore unlikely to succeed for long.  Once, many years ago, I actually fitted an uncapped Gatorade squeeze bottle to my inner thigh underneath some baggy cargo shorts so I could keep my spot directly behind the baseline of the US Open Grandstand court throughout a full day’s play.  Thankfully it worked as planned and I neither soaked myself nor caused nearby patrons to call the police.  Not wanting to push my luck, I hadn’t repeated that stunt since, and so I left the stands to do my business knowing that I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to get back in.  I didn’t even try.  Instead I grabbed a bite to eat, watched the fast-serve booth for a while with absolutely no desire to take part (it would have quickly become the slow-serve booth) and then hit the road for Toronto, another five and a half hour drive, this time to the southwest.  Thank God for rest-area Tim Horton’s!

Because I have USTA and North Shore stuff I want to get to, I’ll go much more quickly through the Toronto phase of my trip. The tennis stadium there is at York University, slightly north of the city center, and the traffic is a bear (an extension to the subway is supposed to get up there within the next couple of years, but it’s been delayed several times already, so don’t hold your breath).  Play starts an hour earlier than in Montreal, the stadium court has three day-session matches, and there was no free seating anywhere that I could see.  I stayed in the stadium for all three matches, the best of which featured an upset of my favorite female player, Caroline Wozniacki, by Belinda Bencic, a young Swiss player coached by Martina Hingis’s mother.  Bencic went on to win the tournament, beating Serena Williams in the process, and though the American world number one returned the favor at the US Open, there’s no doubt Belinda has a bright future.  Murray beat Djokovic in the Montreal final, so in the course of six matches I got to see both Rogers Cup champions in action, which I’ll probably never be able to say again!

Women's action at the Aviva Centre in Toronto.

Women’s action at the Aviva Centre in Toronto.

Here are a few things that might help if you’re thinking about visiting one of the Canadian events for the first time:

-Remember your passport! It’s been a few years since you could cross the border with just a driver’s license.  Trust me, you don’t want to give the Canadian border guards a reason to be any meaner than they already are.  If you don’t have a current passport, plan ahead, because it can take a few weeks to get one, though an expedited process is available if money isn’t an issue.

-Get Canadian currency.   Just because they use “dollars” in Canada doesn’t mean their dollars are equal to our own.  The exchange rate is better if you get your money changed before you leave home, but you can visit an ATM once you’re up there if necessary.  Some places in Montreal and Toronto, including lots of tournament restaurants and souvenir shops, post signs announcing that visitors have the option of paying the Canadian price straight-up in American money.  It may be convenient, but it’s a terrible deal for us Yanks.  If I had done that I would have lost thirty cents on every dollar.

-This might seem too obvious to mention, and maybe it is, but remember that Canadian speed limits are in kilometers (.6 of a mile, for the metrically challenged).  So when you see that “100” on the road sign and start to air it out, as I did my first time driving there, think twice.   Socialism may be great when you want to watch a tennis match without paying, but it’s a lot less pleasant when you’re the one being taxed- or fined.

-If you’re going to the Montreal event, expect tournament personnel to address you in French when you’re shopping, ordering food or just trying to find your seat. I speak French, so it wasn’t a big deal, but I expect it might be a little intimidating for those who don’t.  It’s ok, though:  just smile and speak English back to them, and they’ll most likely reply in kind.  Almost everyone in Montreal is bilingual and Canadians are, in the aggregate, exceptionally friendly and helpful people (warning: this tactic doesn’t work nearly as well in outlying areas of Quebec province, where many of the natives either can’t or won’t speak English).

I’ll see you in the Court 9 free seating at next year’s Rogers Cup, eh?

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