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Day Three: A Pair of Seeds Beat the Rain
by Christopher Gerby

Practice Court Report

I hadn't spent much time milling around the practice courts at this year's tournament, so I decided to spend part of Wednesday morning watching some of the world's best players attempt to fine-tune their games. There was a veritable "who's who" of players out there around 11 o'clock. Talented young heartthrobs Tommy Haas and Jan-Michael Gambill were sparring on Court 8. After Haas finished up, coach/father Chuck Gambill kept Jan-Michael out there to get some extra practice on his serve. Torrey Gambill Jan-Michael Gambill (By the way, you ladies pining away for Jan-Michael might be interested to hear that he has a younger brother, Torrey, who looks like him and has embarked on a tennis career of his own.) Meanwhile, next door on Court 7, Goran Ivanisevic was trying to work the kinks out of his game. Ivo had penciled himself in for two solid hours of practice, warming up with Lars Burgsmuller first, then hitting with Jim Grabb. Later in the day, I saw Goran walking around with Thomas Enqvist -- perhaps they were commiserating about their first round losses.

The biggest crowd was evident at Court 10, where Jonas Bjorkman and Chris Woodruff were apparently playing a practice set. They're both fine players (Woodruff was the champion here two years ago), but I'm guessing some of the fans there had been tipped off that Patrick Rafter was scheduled to arrive at 11:30. Pat showed up on time for a relatively light practice, hitting with Bjorkman for less than 30 minutes. Jonas worked with his doubles partner on groundstrokes for a while, then volleys, and then overheads. Rafter actually looked a bit rusty (at least compared to the very sharp Bjorkman), but that's what practice is for. Even the best volleyer in the sport today needs a run-through to get everything in working order before a match.


Patrick Rafter vs. Alex O'Brien
Singles: Second Round
Court Central

About an hour after he finished practicing, Patrick Rafter tried to make the work pay off in a second round match against qualifier Alex O'Brien. The American, known as "O.B." by his friends on the tour, is a doubles player of note. He has represented his country in Davis Cup and plays on the tour with Sebastien Lareau (the man of the hour here in Montreal). However, his singles career has been quite spotty and he had to be considered a major underdog against the #2 player in the world. Rafter exerted his will early on, holding serve easily, breaking for 2-0, and hitting a nice touch volley winner to close out a hold for 3-0. Rafter jumped out to a 0-30 lead in the following game, then won it with a pair of big backhands. After another easy service hold, Rafter had a 5-0 lead. O'Brien was not rising to the occasion at all. He looked like an amateur in the sixth game, double faulting twice and badly missing a forehand at 15-40 to give Rafter a first set bagel.

Rafter held at love to open the second set. He'd lost only eight points overall and looked as if he might not lose a game all afternoon. O'Brien put together a good service game, though, making the score 1-1. Finally on the board, he sarcastically raised his arms in triumph. Patrick Rafter
After another easy hold for 2-2, it looked like Alex might actually make a match of this. Rafter completely took over, though, showing off an array of skills: powerful serves, great scrambling ability (which he used to win the best rally I've seen in this year's tournament), and delicate volleys. He held for 3-2, broke for 4-2, and held again for 5-2. In fact, the Aussie hadn't lost a point on serve in the entire set! Down double match point in the set's eighth game, O'Brien salvaged some dignity with an ace. On the following point, Rafter hit a drop volley which O'Brien ran down and flipped back for what he assumed was a winner. He didn't hear the umpire's call of "not up" (indicating that the ball had bounced twice, winning the point for Patrick and ending the match). O'Brien stood still for a while, back turned to Rafter and the umpire, waiting for another ball to serve with. It was an awkward moment, but when the umpire announced "Jeu, set, match Rafter," O'Brien realized what happened and shook hands with his 6-0, 6-2 conqueror.

Taking questions from the press after his dominant 46-minute victory, Rafter was understandably confident. "These courts suit me very well and I feel like I'm hitting the ball well...If I lose, then the guy is going to have to play very well." I mentioned that Pat's next opponent, Jiri Novak, has a pretty good return of serve and asked if he expected more of a test in that match than he had today. "Not necessarily. I've always had a lot of tough matches with Alex and I really respect his game. Today he was prehaps a touch off, and I thought I played a pretty good game as well. But I will be speaking to Stoltenberg (who lost to Novak) tonight and getting a few tips. It would be nicer to play Jason, since we are mates." Whether he faces a "mate" or not, Rafter is very tough to beat when he plays as brilliantly as he did against O'Brien.


Thomas Johansson vs. Max Mirnyi
Singles: Second Round
Court 1

Big serves would likely be in the offing as 11th seeded Thomas Johansson took on Max Mirnyi, a qualifier from Belarus. It's been a pretty rough season for Johansson, but he dashed Canadian hopes last night by taking the bloom off Simon Larose in the first round. Best known for sharing mixed doubles championships with Serena Williams at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, Mirnyi had already scored three victories this week. Belarus has produced two of the most outgoing players in the world -- Natasha Zvereva and Olga Barabanschikova -- but Mirnyi is a shy lad who prefers to let his racquet do the talking. Johansson is also pretty reserved (in the Swedish tradition), so the only fireworks to expect from this match would come in the form of aces.

Sure enough, Mirnyi and Johansson each launched an ace in his opening service game. Mirnyi added three more in claiming a 2-1 lead, but Johansson held for 2-2. Johansson got the match's first break chance in the fifth game, but Mirnyi served his way out of danger. The holds continued all the way to 5-5 and Johansson was starting to get a tad annoyed. He told a service linesman to "wake up" early in the eleventh game. It was Johansson himself who seemed to wake up a little, ripping backhand winners for 30-30 and 30-40. Mirnyi had been cruising on his serve, but suddenly he was staring down a critical break point. He didn't react well, double faulting to hand Johansson a 6-5 lead. The Swede wasted no time making that break count -- he closed out the 7-5 set with a service winner.

The ace production had dropped off a bit, but both players were still serving well enough to win quick games. As the service holds piled up again, Johansson became increasingly frustrated by non-calls on what he believed to be Mirnyi faults. In the ninth game, the Swede found a way to break Mirnyi without getting any help from the linsemen. He began keeping his passing shots low, forcing the tall Mirnyi to bend down for volleys. That tactic twice got Johansson to break point and he converted the second with a sterling backhand pass, securing a 5-4 lead. Unfortunately for Thomas, his attempt to serve out the match was about as ugly as fellow Swede Magnus Larsson's yesterday. He made three errors in a 15 break and unhappily bounced his racquet. Mirnyi hit his eleventh ace in holding for a 6-5 lead, but Johansson stemmed the tide with a love hold, sending the second set into a tiebreak.

Mirnyi drew first blood in the tiebreak. He knocked off a winning volley for 1-0 and absolutely creamed a backhand down the line to go up 2-0, shouting "Yeah!" as it landed. Mirnyi lost the mini-break with a double fault for 2-2, but a service winner put him back in the lead. Max Mirnyi and Thomas Johansson
Johansson's backhand produced two winners and an error, evening the score at 4. Mirnyi put away a smash for 5-4. Johansson got to 5-5 with a service winner, but a forehand return of his next serve hit the baseline. The young Belarussian pumped his fist, thrilled to be serving for the set at 6-5 in the 'breaker. Alas, Mirnyi fell to his knees missing a forehand volley, handing the mini-break right back. He wouldn't win another point -- Johansson earned an 8-6 verdict in the tiebreak by ripping a cross-court forehand pass and a service winner. Experience may have made the difference today. Max's huge first serve (among the fastest on the tour) will keep him in most matches, but he can't expect to beat the top players without doing well on the big points. Take back a few untimely Mirnyi mistakes and Johansson's 7-5, 7-6 win might have been the other way around. Nonetheless, the #11 seed advances to a third round encounter with fan mega-favorite Sebastien Lareau.


Agassi vs. Reneberg Among Night Matches Washed Out:

With four matches slated for the night session and two others spilling over from the afternoon, Wednesday evening figured to be an eventful one here in Montreal. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. A light sprinkling of rain turned into a steady downpour, eventually wiping out the entire evening session. This could work to the disadvantage of #2 seed Andre Agassi, who still has yet to play a single point this week. Stay tuned.