The Spanish Armada

Biscayne Bay is quiet as our bus crosses the Rickenbacker Causeway. A breeze ripples across the bay’s aquamarine surface, filling the sails of windsurfers and weekend mariners. A few miles down the road, inside Crandon Park, the Spanish Armada has come to port.

At the start of the Sony Ericsson Open, Spain had 11 singles players in the main draw, more than any country except the United States. On my second day at the tournament, bathed in Miami’s late-winter sunshine, I wander around the docks.

Verdasco d. Becker, 6-3, 6-4

When I take my seat in Stadium Court, Verdasco is up a set, 5-1 in the second. It seems I got here just in time to leave. But Becker holds serve, then breaks. Verdasco starts to look shaky as he nears the finish line. At 5-2, he hits a forehand that catches the netcord and pops up. Becker comes in. He has about nine different options. Unlike rec players, Becker doesn’t turn the chance to think into an occasion for panic. He hits a perfect topspin lob. It arcs over Verdasco’s outstretched racket, and drops just inside the baseline. Becker’s serve. Becker holds easily, finishing the game with a 130-mile-an-hour ace down the T. He doesn’t look big, or especially powerful, at least from the upper reaches of the stadium, but he can bring the heat. 5-4.

Verdasco regroups. At 15-15, he serves at Becker’s body, handcuffing him. Becker muffs the return, 30-15. Verdasco hits a kick-serve that catches the sideline and pulls Becker off the court. He hits the backhand return wide. One point later, Verdasco advances to the third round, where he’ll face compatriot, Feliciano Lopez.

Ferrer d. Isner, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2

I think most of us are here to marvel at the 6-foot-9 Isner’s serve. What we get instead is an object lesson in the perils of net play, at least when practiced without an outstanding volley.

Isner is hitting respectable approach shots, deep to the corners, with plenty of pace. But Ferrer is too fast and too solid off the ground. To win at net, Isner needs to put away the first volley. More often than not, however, Ferrer tracks it down and rips passing shots that skid off the sidelines. When he can’t sneak the ball past Isner’s enormous wingspan, he fires it back low, with plenty of topspin. Isner is forced to volley up, no pace, no way to put the ball beyond the speedy Ferrer’s reach. Ferrer takes the first set, 6-3.

Isner seems a little out of sorts. Maybe the heat is getting to him. He tries to end rallies with panicked-looking shots—a tentative backhand slice, a flailing squash-shot forehand. At 1-2, on his serve, Isner hits a so-so volley. Ferrer rips a forehand pass, which catches the netcord and is deflected wide. It’s a lucky break for Isner. More important, it seems to rejuvenate him. He holds, then breaks.

Isner is playing with more energy. His serve, monstrous even at its worst, has more pace and action. His kick-serve is landing a little shorter in the box, but it’s kicking absurdly high. Ferrer looks like an acrobat, leaping to his left, and barely catching the ball at full stretch. Isner takes the second set, 6-3.

In the third set, Ferrer’s superior speed, groundstrokes, and fitness reassert themselves. He breaks Isner in the third game, and takes the set—and match—6-3, 3-6, 6-2.

Isner tries to fight Ferrer off the ground. Yikes!

Isner tries to fight Ferrer off the ground. Yikes!

Murray d. Monaco, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

I leave the Spanish fleet to watch Juan Monaco, who is sailing under the flag of one-time Spanish colony Argentina, and  Great Britain’s Andy Murray. The Murray match is, in some sense, the counterpoint to Isner’s lesson in the perils of net play. Murray’s volleys are much better, and his quickness and footwork help him capitalize on just about any face-off in the forecourt.

In the second set, Monaco hits a competent drop volley. Murray comes in, and waits just a second longer than seems possible to hit it. I almost fall out of my chair, my spectator’s rhythm disrupted by Murray’s legerdemain. Monaco is forced to commit. He gets the direction right, moving to cut off the ad court, but Murray bamboozles him with depth. Monaco reaches behind him, off-balance, and hits a weak ball into the net.

Murray takes the second set. The crowd is behind Monaco, singing, “ole, ole, ole, ole . . . Pico, Pico.” “Pico” must be Monaco’s nickname. But Murray is too much for Monaco, even with the crowd’s support.

Murray gives us one more display of artistry at net. Monaco drop-shots him. Murray does the same, but Monaco has plenty of time, and plenty of court. Again, Murray seems to stop time on his side of the net, forcing Monaco to reveal his intention. Murray scampers backwards, crouched low. He catches Monaco’s volley, and directs it down the line behind him. Maybe that’s all Isner has to do. Murray takes the set and match, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2.

The Flagship

In the night session’s marquee match-up, the Spanish Armada’s flagship, Rafael Nadal, will add to the Spanish fleet’s conquests, beating Teimuraz Gabashvili 6-2, 6-2. But things will get tougher from here.

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