Tuesday, August 27, 2013

MAXIMO: A Cinderella Story

At this point in America, tennis reaches the average American sports fan via the exploits of four people, Nadal, Federer and the Williams sisters (and Venus is barely hanging on to this level). Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova are occasional draws and the height (and serve) of John Isner is gaining steam. But for the most part, it takes star power to reach the average American public more interested in Duck callers than tennis ballers. That is unfortunate, because on Court 13 today the type of moment that sports fans love took place. An underdog, with the look of a mid-level comic book character, dug down deep and came through for the win of his life. Unfortunately for the sport of tennis, only me and a few hundred of my friends were there to see it.

A David vs Goliath matchup

Maximo Gonzalez defeated #14 seed Jerzy Janowicz in a match as entertaining as any we will see this week. We will see better tennis, closer matches and possibly heightened drama...but just for sheer enjoyment and smiles on the faces in the stands, nothing is going to top the unveiling in New York of dear Maximo. Take a second and realize what a huge underdog poor Maximo was going into this match. Janowicz's game is taylor-made for the US Open. His powerful serve and intimidating forehand made him a darkhorse choice in the easy David Ferrer quarter of the bracket. Those who do US Open bracket pools (sad sorts) had him penciled as a potential shocker into the last weekend and I heard one international reporter yesterday say that this "this will be the tournament that Jerzy becomes a worldwide name."

On the brink of becoming a worldwide name

Not so fast. Maximo had something to say first. Maximo Gonzalez is not only a world-class name seemingly created by a WWE script writer (can't you see Maximo coming to the ring...the spunky underdog with high-flying moves and a chant of MAXIMO! while engaging in mischievous, yet humorous behavior), but on this day, he also had a tennis game to match. There was absolutely no reason to think Maximo could even stay on the same court as Jerzy (in fact one unnamed Top 20 player saw that Jerzy lost to Maximo and said to any within earshot...what is a Maximo Gonzalez?). He came into the tournament ranked #247 in the world, having played in exactly ZERO ATP Tour matches this season. His sole tennis on the international level was in the Challenger series, and the only surface he had bothered to take on was clay. He came to the US Open qualifiers on a flyer and beat three people ranked higher than he just to get to this position. If ever there was a match that looked to be forgettable, this was it (as showcased by the placement of the #14 seed in the tournament on Court 13).

Our hero sensing the moment

But that my friends, is why they play the game. Backed by a group of self-described "New York trash talkers who love the underdog," Maximo played the match of his life. With each returned serve and sliced backhand at his opponent's toes, Maximo got the crowd behind him (which in New York means against the other guy, leading to my favorite taunt so far of the tournament, "Hey Jerzy, this is New York tennis baby and making guys like Maxi win is what we do!!!!") and slowly caused the big man with the bad back to wilt. Janowicz, clearly in pain, but still moving fairly well, fell apart in the second and third set, slamming his racket, pounding the backstop of the court, yelling at the sky, throwing his hat to the ground for the final four games and complaining to the umpires so often that even one of his supporters yelled, "okay that's enough!" (at which point he did shake his head as if to agree). It was such a poor effort that a member of the Jancowiz entourage (and yes, in tennis everyone has an entourage), got so frustrated that she walked out of the arena, looking at the taunting New Yorkers in the process saying, "you suck and so does this place!"

Trash talking came from this group...you can guess which ones

But as the screamers suggested, this is New York and this is what they do here. New York crowns temporary heroes that burn bright for a few days...guys like Maximo. It would be difficult to have found anyone in the draw this week with less of a chance to make news in the tournament's first days than a clay court specialist from the Challenger Tour who hadn't played in a Grand Slam since 2009. But enter Maximo, "The Outer Courts" new chosen underdog and a crowd favorite on the smallest scale. The rest of the American sporting world may never learn of his majestic qualities (unless he can win a couple of other matches), but if given the chance, I know they would love him.With a possible matchup set up in Round 2 with "The Outer Courts" arch-enemy (one Jack Sock), a titanic struggle on Thursday between unadulterated joy and perpetual annoyance could await. But for now, we celebrate Maximo, the hero of Day Two so far and proof that in tennis anything, except possibly a seat for Drew and me outside of the media cafeteria, is possible.

Maximo celebrates the big win