March 2, 2009

Where the Stars Come Out to Play

It's been almost nine years since the women's year-end championships have been played in Madison Square Garden, but tonight four of the sport's top athletes met in the great arena on 34th Street in New York for Tennis Night in America.

BNP Paribas sponsored the showdown between the winners of the last four majors, Serena and Venus Williams and Ana Ivanovic, and the player that ended last year with the #1 ranking, Jelena Jankovic. The winner would receive the vaunted Billie Jean King Cup as well as $400K in prize money -- more than Venus won in Dubai last month.

The semifinals were one-set, no-ad matches and pitted Venus against Jelena and Serena against Ana -- obviously the intent was to give the New York crowd an all-Williams final.

And that's exactly what we got.

Jelena, who actually holds a winning record over Venus, held her own for most of the match, even tried to engage the crowd and joke about challenges with the chair umpire -- but ultimately she was unspectacular and fell 4-6 in the end. And Ana, despite a handful of break chances, could not convert and eventually was defeated 3-6.

The final, played with traditional scoring in a best-of-three set format, was one we've seen a dozen times before -- actually nineteen times. And, somewhat surprisingly, Venus held a 10-9 record against her sister, most recently winning in Dubai a week and a half ago. Arguably, the Williams have had the most successful years on tour, with the younger sister winning her fourth Australian Open and the elder claiming two titles in the last two weeks.

You knew they'd be playing as though a Grand Slam title were on the line.

The match started off somewhat sloppily -- both women sliced a few backhands and shanked a few volleys as they tried to get a handle on the court. It wasn't until halfway through the first set, after trading breaks, that either hit their stride. After a twenty-four point ninth game -- and the disappearance of a line umpire -- Serena finally took the early lead, 6-4. She won the second set, 6-3.

The tournament was certainly entertaining, an exhibition in every sense, but the event was as much a celebration of the venue, the city and female athletes as it was of the score. MSG hasn't been a regular on the tour since 2000 and with this event, after last year's Roger Federer-Pete Sampras match, it could be making a case for a return to the circuit. And by bringing the sport's top athletes to such a central location in Manhattan, it not only raises the players' profile, but that of tennis.

And, for me, it's finally a home court I can finally cheer for!

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