I had the privilege last week of covering the oldest tournament on the men's Tour. The Bay Area's first venture into a tennis exhibition was back in 1889, when a bunch of top amateurs gathered at the Old Del Monte Lodge on the Monterey Peninsula for what was known as the Pacific Coast Championships.
This event has known many venues, from the storied Berkeley Tennis Club to San Francisco's drafty Cow Palace, and the list of past winners is luminous: Don Budge, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, to name a few.
Now based at San Jose's HP Pavilion, the tournament has become the province of Milos Raonic's booming serves. He won his second straight SAP title on Sunday with a 7-6 (3), 6-2 victory over Denis Istomin. The real hook for Bay Area fans, though, was the large American contingent.
Here's how the tournament unfolded for the most intriguing U.S. names, with only John Isner and Mardy Fish among the missing:
Andy Roddick: Cranky, injured and out of shape -- maladies to which he willingly admitted -- Roddick's strong suit was his valor. He had every reason to skip the event, due to the hamstring injury that took him out of the Australian Open, and then he turned an ankle during his opening match against Denis Kudla.
He was nowhere close to the vintage Roddick as he tried to gut his way through a quarterfinal loss to Istomin, and his temperamental behavior was hardly becoming. It's hard to blame Roddick, though. He knows he no longer has a shot at the world No. 1 ranking, and a second major seems well beyond his reach. To be so badly hampered by injuries, at this stage of his life, is a bit too much to take.
Sam Querrey: Was he even in the tournament? He should have handled Istomin, the pride of Uzbekistan, but took a three-set loss in the first round. While Isner's stock is soaring, Querrey remains wildly unpredictable. Given that a lot of insiders would like to grab Querrey by the shoulders and shake some life into him ("Show some fire, man!"), it's interesting that he's hired Brad Gilbert as a part-time coach. Gilbert is a guy who pours raw enthusiasm into every minute of the day, and he's about to start working with his polar opposite.
Robby Ginepri: You just can't keep this guy down. In the wake of the 2010 biking accident that threatened to end his career, Ginepri isn't included in the biographical section of the ATP media guide. Yet there he was, blasting away against Ryan Harrison in a highly entertaining second-round match. It seemed he'd taken a ton of momentum into the third-set tiebreaker, but Harrison blew him away in a 7-0 blitz, and the match was abruptly over.
Donald Young: How could he have crashed back to earth so soon? He finished 2011 with the No. 39 ranking and a memorable performance at the U.S. Open, then inexplicably broke off relations with the USTA and announced that he was once again being coached by his mother, Ilona. This is an interminable, back-and-forth struggle that irritates the USTA development people and doesn't seem to help Young in the slightest.
Here's his year so far: First-round loss to Alejandro Falla at Auckland. Needed five sets to beat 248th-ranked Peter Gojowczyk at the Australian Open, then lost to another qualifier, Lukas Lako. Blown out of San Jose by Michael Russell, the 33-year-old American, in the first round.
Jack Sock and Denis Kudla: The two were joined in a tournament storyline because they're both 19, both have major aspirations, and they have a super-charged rivalry in progress. They've been playing each other since the 12-and-under level, Sock won their showdown in the 2010 U.S. Open juniors final, and Kudla knocked Sock out of the Australian Open wild-card playoff in December.
Sock captivated many fans on the tournament's opening night, when he showed off his whip-like forehand and pure athleticism in the doubles exhibition featuring John McEnroe. People didn't know much about Kudla, who was born in the Ukraine and relocated to Virginia with his family when he was a year old, but he won some admirers in a 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3 first-round victory.
Ryan Harrison: I wasn't the first to wonder if the kid has grown over the past year or two. Once said to be limited by his size, the 19-year-old Harrison is a solid 6-foot-1 and plays tall, saying he'd prefer to stay at this height "so I don't lose any of my movement."
The Harrison-Raonic semifinal proved to be the tournament's showcase match. These guys have a history, as well, dating to a junior tournament in Mexico when Harrison was 14. Both were angry competitors as they moved up through the ranks, capable of some high-powered temper displays, and they had a significant encounter at last year's Indian Wells tournament. With a spot against Roger Federer on the line, Harrison prevailed in a three-set thriller. "There were a lot of elements that made it a very interesting and dramatic match," Harrison recalled. "I remember every single point. It's going to be emotional out there [against Raonic in San Jose]."
As it turned out, "emotional" wasn't the proper word. For one thing, both players have mellowed -- for the better -- in their on-court demeanor. More to the point, Harrison couldn't build any sustained energy. In a 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss, there were too many Raonic serves whizzing past him.
For those assessing Harrison's future, the first set was highly promising. He's developed his own penetrating serve, a looming threat for anyone he plays. His groundstrokes are solid, as well as his all-court movement. As Davis Cup captain Jim Courier noted during Harrison's stint with the team in Switzerland, he just needs some time.
"Ryan is still in the process of organizing his game," Courier told Tennis.com. "It's all still very raw, but that's a good thing. He did a lot of hard work in the offseason, and that set him up for the next few stages. It's not going to take him that long to put it together, but he's still in transformation. His first serve is a bomb, and his second serve is excellent -- it really jumps up there.
"His forehand is a big shot, and he defends well -- if anything, he defends a little too much because he has that natural athletic ability. He definitely has the body, the lungs, the speed to compete at the highest level. Now it's about making choices, which can be a little tricky for a guy like him because he really sees the court as a player, he's not just a hitter."
Refreshingly forthright in his San Jose interviews, Harrison expressed his resentment of gamesmanship, something that has become all too prevalent on both Tours.
"There are younger kids at academies like Bollettieri's that are taught to do things that mess with their opponents," he said. "The guy I was playing today [Dimitar Kutrovsky] was trying to dance around during my second serve. I've never been one to do anything, from bathroom breaks to grunting to trying to affect someone's service motion. Anything I've ever done is to try to control my side of the court.
"That's how I was brought up," Harrison said. "My dad never taught me to take bathroom breaks like you see other coaches doing, trying to disrupt someone's rhythm. I've always had the approach that my game is better than yours, and I don't need to disrupt yours because I'm going to do what I can do and that's going to be good enough."