Qureshi-Bopanna, Battistone bring intrigue to the outer courts

Publish date:

The late days of a Grand Slam tournament are, of course, money time. They tell us who will be pro tennis' next trendsetter or conversation-starter, who will matter in the long run, who will be remembered as great. The late days are when one-namers -- all those Rogers and Rafas and Marias and Kims -- are created, when the faces hawking next year's rackets and outfits first come into focus, when the sport most seems like a tiny club of special beings. The late days are for royalty. They're what history remembers.

But anyone who's been to a Grand Slam knows: The early days show you the hunger and the strangeness. They reveal a sport that, year-round for its traveling band of thousands, feels often desperate, goofy and as relatable as a job at 7-Eleven. Wild cards, lucky losers, qualifiers -- an army of the obscure -- walk hallways with the game's elite. Outside courts hold as much drama, and usually more, than anything happening inside the stadiums. The early days are anarchy, the time of surprise.

"I've never seen a guy do this," U.S. tennis great Stan Smith, 63, winner of the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, was saying early Tuesday evening. "He's one of a kind."

This was just off Court 16 in Flushing Meadows on the second blistering day of the 2010 U.S. Open. A doubles match had just gotten underway, with the initial draw for a packed-in crowd the daring pairing of a Pakistani Muslim named Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and an Indian Hindu named Rohan Bopanna. That the two have teamed up despite the world's most bitter -- and nuclear-tipped -- rivalry, that they played Wimbledon this year in warm-ups declaring, "Stop War Start Tennis," that they've organically tapped into tennis' long but recently dormant tradition of social activism makes them unique, startling even, and wholly deserving of some first-week gawking.

But Smith wasn't talking about Bopanna or Qureshi. He was staring at the other end of the court. There, for a moment anyway, stood a 31-year old American about to serve named Brian Battistone. He held his racket in his left hand, tossed the ball some 15 feet into the air with his right, then switched the racket into his right and leapt high before smacking the ball over the net like Karch Kiraly spiking. Battistone's father used to own the Utah Jazz, and he's a former ballboy with a 36-inch vertical leap; his serve was clocked last year at 139 m.p.h. The ball cracked down at an unholy angle as Battistone landed. You have never seen anything like him.

And that's only the half of it. The racket in Battistone's hand was fire-engine red. It had two handles, splayed on the end like a divining rod, and goes by the name, "The Natural."

"He does two things that are very, very odd," Smith said. "The two-handled racket, plus the serve is, uh, pretty amazing."

Still, Smith was less shocked than most onlookers, whose comments ranged from "What the hell is that?" to "That jump makes no sense on the second serve" to "What was his coach smoking?" Tennis has a long tradition of geeks obsessed with string hybrids and the latest experimental gear; 43 years ago, Smith himself was knocked out of the 1977 U.S. Open by a no-name wielding soon-outlawed spaghetti strings. Battistone's two-handled racket is legal, though at first he traveled with a certificate for disbelieving referees, opponents and tournament directors.

"When my brother and I first came out on tour 2½ years ago, it was the worst," Battistone said after. "Nobody had even seen it before, and people would laugh constantly, make jokes. But after we were able to win a few matches, and in the first year we made the top 200. I don't think it's quite normal yet, but a lot of players are used to it and have fun with it now. They'll try it out. People see it as somewhat legitimate."

Somewhat. Battistone, who started playing with the racket -- developed by Southern California inventor Lionel Burt -- in 2007, teamed for this Open with Ryler DeHeart, who refuses to even pick up the racket -- much less swing it -- for fear that it will mangle his stroke. In the locker room before Tuesday's match, Battistone showed "The Natural" to Rafael Nadal, said it would be a natural for him, and Nadal took a few swings. Whether that had anything to do with his surprising difficulty that night with unranked first-round opponent Teymuraz Gabashvili isn't clear, but Nadal said after that such a racket was, well, crazy.

"For me, yes," Nadal said. "For me is no reason to play like this, yeah. Is add the complication on the game, you know."

Complications are dangerous, of course; they're what most players try to strip from their games. Yet for fans it's complications like Pete Sampras' stomach troubles or Battistone's racket that turn a routine match into something to be remembered for decades, and to stumble upon just one such "complication" at a Grand Slam is something to be treasured. But to come upon two in one match is all but unheard of.

Yet there two were on Court 16: On one side, a Cirque du Soleil act in a baseball cap, someone playing pro tennis like you've never seen it before. And on the other, two men who've willingly complicated their games in a way most players would never consider. It's not just that agents and marketers want their charges to limit public pronouncements to innocuous tweets about shopping; it's that coaches urge them to keep it simple, stupid, and not junk up their heads with emotionally-loaded, human matters like politics or social issues. So it is that we hear so many players speaking only about forehands, serves and "taking it one match at a time." Yet the most beloved pros have always been iconoclasts like Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker, John McEnroe, ArthurAshe and Billie Jean King -- those able to compete while wrestling with political, social or sexual issues, those who find their games empowered by the complications others find distracting.

Bopanna and Qureshi have been friends for 14 years, and played together some before their partnership took flight on the challenger circuit at the end of 2009. This year has seen steady improvement, but since the two joined the Monaco-based "Peace Through Sports" organization and suggested a trans-boundary tennis match at the heavily fortified border-crossing at Wagah, they've charted a steady rise -- making the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, the semis in Los Angeles, beating the Bryan brothers in Washington D.C. -- and entered the Open seeded 16th.

For their first-round match against Battistone-DeHeart on Tuesday night, the stands were jammed with "more Pakistanis and Indians than Americans," Qureshi said, "and you couldn't tell the difference. Who was Pakistani or Indian? They were all mixed together and supporting the same team: Indians coming to take my autograph and pictures with me, Pakistanis taking his autograph.

"Obviously we have to look at the bigger picture. Nelson Mandela, Arthur Ashe, all those big legends: Definitely you can change people's minds through sports. Football does that; there's no reason tennis can't do it. Our combination is very rare and we're getting all this publicity and hype. And I feel like we can use it to change peoples' minds. Minds are changing anyway. Every time Indians and Pakistanis come and support us, minds are changing."

India and Pakistan have gone to war four times since the bloody partition of 1947, and nearly did so again early this decade. Both men said that they've gotten nothing but support for their partnership from family and friends, but with the disputed territory of Kashmir always a flashpoint and both nations bristling with extremists, nothing is guaranteed. Recent terror bombings, massive flooding and the latest cricket scandal have only highlighted Pakistan's chronic instability, but the 30-year old Qureshi remains undaunted. He has no use for Muslim intolerance. If he didn't quail in 2002, when Pakistan's tennis federation threatened to ban him for teaming with Israeli Amir Hadad, Qureshi's not going to now. Bopanna, he said, is "my best friend."

"Whether somebody's a Christian, a Hindu or a Jew, if I feel I can do well with him, I will definitely play with him," Qureshi said. "My main reason is to promote this game in Pakistan. If I feel somebody can help me do that, I'll stick to him and with him and give thanks to him. Rohan's really been a help with that cause."

Tuesday, the team faced down its latest challenge -- both expectation and the extreme -- by holding off Battistone and DeHeart, 6-3, 7-6. It seemed easier than the score, if only because Bopanna and Qureshi were the only ones on Court 18 unfazed by Battistone's high-flying spectacle, by his dangling legs, by the sight of his stretch forehand with a second handle jutting out. Bopanna, you see, had played -- and beaten -- the pair in March.

"You have to make sure you keep watching the ball, not him," Bopanna said. "That's where I think a lot of people make the mistake. The first time I was looking at him, thinking, 'How is this possible?' But if you don't pay attention to how he is doing it? Then you are fine. And we did well today."

It ended after 88 minutes, Bopanna and Qureshi walking off surrounded by chattering fans, a TV camera, a reporter with a notebook. Battistone owns the patent for "The Natural" with his brother so, as he and DeHeart posed for a few photos, a hitting partner unloaded a few to fans at $200 apiece. Soon there was almost nobody there. Too quickly, a match that somehow combined gravitas, quirkiness, nuclear Armageddon and fun, a hard-fought but sporting match pitting a Muslim and a Hindu against a Mormon and a one-time Catholic now tending toward Deism, dissolved away. Everybody had moved on, thinking about the next round, the next meal. All in all, the whole thing felt like a gift.