by Alex Ashe

Triumph & torment at the 2013 Winston-Salem Open

Gael Monfils is hurting.

It’s an all too familiar story for the 26-year-old Frenchman: Since ascending the world rankings two years ago, reaching as high as the No. 7 player in the world, Monfils’ career has been plagued by injuries, causing him to fall as low as 119 back in May. A knee injury caused him to withdraw from the 2012 Winston-Salem Open and today, on the penultimate day of the 2013 edition, just four days before he’s scheduled to compete in the US Open, his hip is starting to go, he reveals to the media.

On top of all that, he won today, and is now slated to compete in tomorrow’s finals.

I ask him if he ever feels conflicted in a situation like this, when he makes a deep run in the tournament directly before a Grand Slam.

“In my situation, I need to get my running back,” Monfils said. “I will try to be ready for the slam, but you have to take care of the business before.

“It’s tougher, but I will make it,” he reassures me, smiling.

I’m cautiously optimistic. . . . Although I’d consider myself a sports nut and a fairly savvy, if casual, tennis fan, I’ve never been to a professional event prior to this week. I don’t quite know what to expect, especially considering how the bigger names start dropping like flies before I can even arrive on the scene for Wednesday’s third round.

In its third year as an ATP Tour event, the Winston-Salem Open serves as the final tune-up for players before heading to the US Open in New York City. It’s geared

more towards struggling players whose games need further preparation before the final Grand Slam event of the season.

The big story this year is the withdrawal of Greensboro’s John Isner, the top American player, and two-time defending champion of this event. Additionally, the man Isner defeated in last year’s final, Tomas Berdych, the No. 5 player in the world, withdrew as well.

Italian Andreas Seppi , the highest seeded player at the tournament’s start was upset in Tuesday’s second round by American qualifier Steve Johnson.

These developments weakened the field dramatically, but they make room for a new champion and face of the tournament to emerge.

. . .

I couldn’t have asked for a better match for my initiation into live pro tennis.

I arrive at Centre Court at the beginning of the third set of Wednesday’s opening match, a noon tilt between the 11-seed, Finland’s Jarkko Niemenen and the 6-seeded American Sam Querrey.

The second-best American tennis player, Querrey seems like an obvious candidate to fill Isner’s role of tournament darling. Standing at 6-foot-6, Querrey is four inches shorter than Isner, but he’s still a giant in tennis terms. They both use their height to generate a dominant service game, the best asset of both players. And as expected, the fans stand firmly in the American’s corner.

“Come on, Sam!,” at least a dozen fans yell out before one game. Querrey shows his appreciation for the support by smashing three consecutive aces on his way to tying up the third set.

He would later acknowledge the Winston-Salem crowd’s patriotism in the post-match press conference.

“The crowd here is awesome,” Querrey said. “They’re really pro-America.”

The problem for guys who rely heavily on their serve is that they have to play on the returning end half of the time, and often struggle. That’s the case in the third set, which sees both players win their service games with ease, trading blows like prizefighters. The stalemate eventually boils into a final-set tiebreak, the zenith of potential dramatic scenarios in a tennis match.

Early into the tiebreak, though, the aggressive Finn scores a few break points to go up 6-3, giving himself a triple match point. Incredibly, the American maneuvers himself off the ledge, winning the next three points. He’s visibly wilting in the intense humidity, though, clutching his hips for leverage at every free moment in between points. Leading 11-10, Querrey steps up and blasts one more serve past Niemenen, finally ending the spectacular, seesawing battle in which he escaped five match points and hit 19 aces to his opponent’s six.

When I overhear the phrase “match of the tournament” uttered four times on my way from Centre Court to the media room, I know I’ve arrived just in time.

. . . As I suspected, a tennis event shares a lot of similarities with a golf event, but with the Wyndham Championship still fresh in my memory, I was able to recognize some contrasts too. As in golf, attending a tennis tournament is rooted in a protocol of staying still and silent, creating a red light/green light dynamic, as well as a shared, if unspoken, sense of tension among the crowd. In both sports, the moment after a quality or deciding shot is a fan’s one guaranteed window of acceptable catharsis. But fans in both sports still often look to stretch that window.

In golf, although not so much at the Wyndham, thankfully, you’ll hear guys do this by yelling, “Get in the hole!” or even, “Mashed potatoes!” after a tee shot. Tennis fans instead gravitate to any bit of spontaneous levity they can, whether it’s a player’s mannerisms, a particular line judge’s coarse shout of “Out!” or a ballboy sidestepping an ace as if it were a snake rising out of the grass.

A tennis tournament is much more fan-friendly, as it turns out. Days after walking Sedgefield Country Club multiple times, it’s a joy to bounce between the three neighboring hardcourts. After the matches, kids swarm the players for autographs and players often stroll the grounds alongside the general public.

Eleven-year-old Paul Kelso traveled from Asheville to attend his first pro event. Kelso, who both plays and follows the game, is surprised most by what he witnessed off the court.

“I didn’t expect the players to just be walking around with everyone,” Kelso says. “They’re just normal people like everybody else.”

I’d wager that watching a match at one of the side courts is as intimate of an experience one can have at a top-level professional sporting event. As I’m sitting on the Court 2 bleachers waiting for the next match to start, I turn around to check out the match 30 feet away on Court 3 between two Russian players, Dmitry Tursunov and Alex Bogomolov Jr. At the end of a point, I notice Bogomolov quibble with the umpire.

“That was a make-up call, right?,” the Russian asks cynically. I’m able to follow the entire exchange, and I’m sitting at a different court.. . .

You don’t get a true sense of the ball’s spin until you see it up close and in person. This applies most to watching Alexandr Dolgopolov, a 24-year-old unorthodox livewire who plays a variety of styles, but always puts a ton of action on the ball by violently slashing at it like a samurai. He’s awfully demonstrative too, and during his match with Argentine Juan Monaco, he shows a spectrum of emotions. After one of his many first set unforced errors, the diminutive Ukrainian looks toward the sky and gestures with his arms, as if he’s internally lecturing himself. He loses the opening set, but plays much better in the next one, inspired by either his frustration or the stream of alt-rock hits from the between-match playlist at Centre Court that, as a result, soundtracks the entire set.

In the third set, when Monaco calls for time to replace a right flat tire, Dolgopolov walks over to talk to his opponent. He gives the crowd a big smile as he walks back to his spot, perhaps suggesting Monaco had purposefully used the two-minute stoppage to slow his momentum. Whatever the case, Dolgopolov’s momentum isn’t affected one bit, as he wins five consecutive games in the third set to advance to the quarterfinals of this event for the third year in a row.

In the nightcap, I get my first chance to watch Monfils, who squares off against Tommy Robredo , the 4-seed Spaniard.

“Is everyone jacked for some tennis?!,” the PA announcer asks the crowd, as I spend the next minute imagining those words being uttered at Wimbledon. Monfils’ is a joy to watch. His agility and footwork allow him to reach just about any ball, regardless of his court position.

Even when he gets to a seemingly unreachable shot and can’t return it within the lines, fans will applaud his effort.

It becomes pretty clear that they gravitate to Monfils for both his ability to entertain, not only through his exhilarating play, but also with his antics between points. He’s apt to chew himself out in French one minute and joke around with a ballkid the next.

Kernersville resident Maria Moerk, who has attended all three Winston-Salem Opens, says she enjoys watching every player, but especially the Parisian.

“I think Monfils is the tournament favorite because of his personality and dynamic presence,” Moerk said.

By comparison, there’s a lot less panache to Robredo’s game. More than anything, he’s a resilient competitor, which he shows by winning the second set after Monfils took the first set tiebreak. The 31-year-old Robredo eventually unravels, though. He mishits a return almost into the grandstand, causing him to lose an imperative service game and fall behind 2-5. On his way to the sideline, he grabs a ball from his pocket, and furiously slams it into the side wall with his racket. The crowd begins to boo, and it seems that any remaining impartial spectators have now been swayed to Monfils’ side.

As Monfils prepares to serve for the match, the crowd begins one of its signature mis-timed rally clap, again starting it a few seconds too late. While others have reacted to this with annoyance or reluctance, Monfils stops his routine, faces the grandstand and extends his arms to his sides as if he’s showering in the adoration. Feeding off his appreciation, the fans begin clapping and roaring with a renewed exuberance. The Parisian proceeds to win every point of the game, ensuring his spot in the quarterfinals and sending the crowd home on a high.

. . .

When you enter and exit the gates at the Winston-Salem Open, you encounter rows of volunteers handing out every different piece of swag imaginable, including paper fans, key chains, magazines, T-shirts, hand sanitizer and even Wake Forest women’s soccer tickets. Now, some of this stuff is useful and a nice bonus, but when the stream of fans moves slowly, you’re practically bombarded and it becomes a little overwhelming. Some of the swag merchants start sounding like broken robots. “Visor? Visor?

Visor? Visor?,” a volunteer repeats to two people at most. I certainly have no desire to own this piece of cardboard that apparently folds into a visor, but mindlessly take one just to make it stop.

The large banner that dresses a fence of the facility’s main gate depicts several players, including Sam Querrey. The problem? They’ve spelt his name as Querry on both the banner and a decal that lies on the concrete path to centre court. What’s worse is that it’s not a last-minute error. The banner actually appears to be reused from last year’s tournament, since it also features Andy Roddick, who retired from the sport exactly one year ago.

. . .

Starting with Thursday’s quarterfinals, the remainder of the matches occur exclusively at Centre Court. While I’m excited for the stakes to raise, I already miss Wednesday’s scattered chaos of opposing matches on various courts. You walk around, check your schedule and choose your destination. It’s reminiscent of a music festival in a way, and I haven’t gotten enough of it yet. Additionally, three of the four quarterfinal matches are rather rote, straight-set contests. I still have a great time, but I feel bittersweet, as the tournament is zooming by.

Friday’s semifinals, on the other hand, are thoroughly fascinating, setting the table for Saturday’s final. The first clash, between Monfils and Dolgopolov is a dream match between two entertaining, skillful and similar players. It’s a bit of surprise that Dolgopolov dominates early on, taking a 4-0 lead in the first set.

There’s more to the story, though. In the third game, Monfils tweaks a muscle near his left hip, and when he receives treatment for the ailment in the form of an injury timeout, he looks about done. Miraculously, though, not only does he continue playing, he starts playing well. He does what he does best: Stay alive in points by returning every shot that comes his way, and waiting for his opponent to make errors, which Dolgopolov does repeatedly for the rest of the match. Monfils somehow wins the match in straight sets, after it appeared he was on the brink of bowing out of the tournament altogether.

At night Querrey faces Austrian Jurgen Melzer , the tourney’s 9-seed. Melzer, 32, hired a new coach, Galo Blanco, just three weeks ago, and is already playing some of his best tennis in years. He looks nearly unbeatable early on, taking the first set with ease. But with the crowd’s undying support, Querrey battles back to take the second. Early in the third set though, with the match up for grabs, an intense gust arrives, blowing an umbrella cover onto centre court, eliciting shrieks from the crowd and momentarily stopping the match. Ominous, dark clouds begin approaching the facility, and at the next break, a plethora of fans scurry for the exit, certain that, at any second, the sky will open. It never does, though, and play goes on. After this bump in the road, Querrey’s momentum has seemingly passed, and Melzer continues his sharp play and eventually triumphs.

. . .

Unfortunately, Saturday’s final between Monfils, the fan favorite, and Melzer, the hot player, never lives up to its potential. Monfils shows occasional flashes of brilliance, but his hip injury is still hampering him, and Melzer, who remains on his A-game, takes an early lead and never looks back. After hitting a serve into the net midway into the second set, Monfils pauses, bending over in pain. He keeps playing, but at a distinctively ineffective level, now groaning in agony with every strike. It becomes a bit unnerving to watch the Parisian struggle to remain in the match.

At the end of the game, Monfils requests his second injury timeout in as many days. But today, when the umpire calls for the match to resume, Monfils, is unable to continue. He slowly rises from the sideline, and walks over to shake Melzer’s hand and retire from the tournament.

After the match, I ask Monfils if the fan support delayed his decision to bow out.

“As you saw in the final, I could not serve at 100 percent,” Monfils said. “I was like, ‘I cannot let them down, so I need to show up on the court and try to do the best I can.”’