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Du Maurier Open, qualifying, Day 1: Boiling qualifiers sweat it out
by Ed Toombs

Saturday, July 31, 1999

On a hot and humid day -- 31 degrees Celsius -- the intrepid journeymen of the tour were perspiring through the first round of qualifying for the du Maurier Open in Montréal. Fortunately, a breeze and some cloud cover ensured that the conditions were not unbearable. No ball-kids passed out, you will be pleased to know.

An unfortunate bit of news greeted us this morning. Aussie wunderkind and 14th seed Lleyton Hewitt turned his ankle badly last night in Los Angeles, and has withdrawn from the field here. Wayne Ferreira takes his place in the draw as a seed, and Laurence Tieleman graduates to the main draw to fill in Ferreira's old spot. As far as we know, everyone else who is supposed to come will be here.

As always during the qualifying rounds, many spectators are more interested in watching the big names practice. Many of the top players in the field have already arrived and could be seen on court around the grounds trying to hone their games. First and foremost was top seed and world number one Pat Rafter, who drew a crowd of about 200 for a two-hour session with the bleach-blond two-fister from France, Fabrice Santoro. It was a spirited session, with Rafter looking slightly rusty, especially on serve and at net, but moving well and hitting good groundstrokes. Rafter was running swiftly, which is always an excellent sign for him, and has another day to work on his game on the practice courts. I should probably add that to the great frustration of his female admirers, his t-shirt stayed on, at least when I was there. As did Fabrice's. After the session both Rafter and Santoro were whisked off to do autograph duty: Rafter at a downtown department store and Santoro at a kiosk on the grounds.

A smaller crowd gathered at an adjacent court to watch two other well-known players, Jim Courier and Nicolas Kiefer, engage in a spirited sparring session. Other players pencilled in for practice courts throughout the day included Richard Krajicek, Thomas Enqvist, Jan Siemerink, Chris Woodruff and Vince Spadea.
But the main business of the day was first round qualifying.

Max Mirnyi (Belarus) def. Don Johnson (USA), 7-5, 7-6 (7-3)

This was the matchup that intrigued me the most. Mirnyi is a hulking Belarussian with a booming serve who has made good strides in the singles rankings this year, rising from 274 at the end of last year to 120 currently. Notably, Max has beaten Jim Courier twice, and reached a semifinal at Orlando in April. American doubles specialist Don Johnson has a lowly 523 ranking, but is capable of playing some attractive serve-volley singles when he gets the chance. I saw him take Pete Sampras to three sets at Indianapolis in 1996. Honest I did! So I thought he might give Big Max his money's worth. In fact, he did: Johnson had chances to win both sets, but his recent lack of success in singles seemed to lead to confidence letdowns at the wrong times. Curiously, the younger Mirnyi was more composed at key moments, and came out on top in an enjoyable match.

The bearded, ponytailed Johnson (looking a bit like a somewhat thinner, lefty Rafter!) was serving and volleying relentlessly. Mirnyi relied on his explosive serves and groundies, as well as some net play of his own. Max was trying to serve and volley systematically, but he is a bit slow to close the net and gets caught in no man's land too often. Something to work on.

The first set was a close affair. Johnson had the first set point with Mirnyi serving at 4-5, 30-40. With Mirnyi on the attack Johnson did some great scrambling to stay in the point, but the Beast from Belarus finally put away his third overhead to stay in the set. He went on to hold serve, then break Johnson on a massive backhand return, then held at love to close out the set 7-5.

The determined American got off to a great start in the second set, zoning in on Mirnyi's serve with some fine returns of his own, and racing to a 4-2 lead. Mirnyi got the break back in the seventh game when Johnson misfired on consecutive half-volley attempts. After the second error, on a half-volley that was not overly difficult and wound up in the net, Don angrily slammed a ball over the fence. The two remained on serve until the tie-break.

The second set tie-break started horribly for Johnson, who gave away two costly points by dumping a routine volley and netting a makeable backhand passing shot. Mirnyi took a 5-2 lead, impressing the small Court Two crowd with an arsenal of big serves, sharp volleys, and huge forehand passes. A service winner on his second match point clinched a hard-fought 7-5, 7-6 (7-3) triumph for Mirnyi, who has a date tomorrow with another U.S. player, Steve Campbell, for a spot in the main draw.

Srinath Prahlad (India) def. Fazaluddin Syed (India), 5-7, 6-3, 6-2

I couldn't resist checking this one out! The luck of the draw pitted two Indians who are trying to work their way up the rankings and join Paes and Bhupathi on the main tour. Same country, but very different games.

Prahlad, aged 26 and ranked 331, is primarily a baseliner. He has long, flowing strokes, and I particularly liked his stylish topspin backhand and inside-out forehand. He is quite thin and appears a a bit gangly, but this is deceiving, as he is obviously a good athlete who covers the court well. But it looks like he could stand putting on a few kilos. Maybe he can follow the cheeseburger diet affectioned by the Agassi of several years ago!

The younger Syed, 24 years old and ranked 431, is more reminiscent of the current Indian star, Leander Paes: an attacking player who comes in behind his second serve and second serve return quite often, and covers the net well. He also wears his heart on his sleeve, either exclaiming and pumping his fist or berating himself, depending on the situation. Syed's groundstrokes look like they might need work, at least from what I saw today. He takes a very short backswing and sort of jabs at the ball, and his shots were often badly off target today (the wind, which kicked up in the late afternoon, may have been responsible for some of the problems Syed was having).

Unfortunately this was a poor match for the most part. It is never easy playing a good friend and countrymen, and both seemed nervous. The gusty wind didn't make things easier, and points invariably ended with an error by either Srinath or "Fazal", particularly in the first two sets.

The initial set was dominated by Syed's attacking game. With both players struggling, Fazal's presence at the net was making Srinath have to come up with a good pass or return, which he was unable to do more for the most part. A service break at 4-4 put Syed in a position to serve out the set: he failed in that task, but broke Prahlad again at 5-5 and was finally able to close out the set, 7-5, on a risky second serve winner.

The first six games of the second set were a little painful to watch. Both men had trouble keeping the ball in play, and Fazal was having all the misery in the world tryng to keep his rear toe from dragging over the line on his serve: he had a grand total of 14 foot faults by my count, plus a few other foot faults that the line judge didn't have the heart to call! After a succession of service breaks, Prahlad finally held to go up 4-2. This seemed to liberate his mind, and the more experienced Prahlad began to find the range with his baseline strokes and pull away to 6-3, levelling the match.

The third set continued the trend of the second set, with Prahlad increasingly relaxed and confident and Syed's frustration with the wind, his naughty feet and his errors mounting. At 2-2, 30-40, Syed's serve was broken when he hit a poorly-struck slice backhand into the net. Dispirited, Fazal was not to win another game in this match, and a composed and smooth-stroking Prahlad closed out the match in style, 5-7, 6-3, 6-2. Next up for Srinath: the modest German Jan Boruszewski, ranked in the 500s. A golden opportunity for Prahlad to compete in a main draw on the tour for only the second time in his career.

Other action

One of the "thrills" of day one qualifying at this tournament is watching the Canadian hopefuls try for a shot at glory. Usually it is a grisly spectacle. The only local to come close was Steckley, who took the middle set off US Davis Cupper Alex O'Brien before Alex reestablished his authority....

Scores (from top to bottom in the draw):

Jan Boruszewski (Ger) def. Stephan Timu (Can), 6-3 6-1
Srinath Prahlad (Ind) def. Fazaluddin Syed (Ind), 5-7, 6-3, 6-2
Max Mirnyi (Blr) def. Don Johnson (USA), 7-5, 7-6 (7-3)
Steve Campbell (USA) def. Olivier Delaître (Fra), 6-0, 5-7, 6-3
Axel Pretzsch (Ger) def. Chris Gostek (Can), 6-1, 6-3
Mark Knowles (Bah) def. Tyson Parry (Can), 6-3, 6-1
Lars Burgsmuller (Ger) def. C.-A. Sévigny (Can), 6-0, 6-2
Richey Reneberg (USA) def. Will Ritter (USA), 6-0, 6-1
Todd Woodbridge (Aus) def. Kyle Spencer (GBR), 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-2
Oren Motevassel (Isr) def. Paul Harsanyi (USA), 6-0, 6-2
Alex O'Brien (USA) def. Rob Steckley (Can), 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1
David Caldwell (USA) def. Alex Reichel (USA), 6-7, 6-3, 1-0, ret.
Michael Joyce (USA) def. Diego Ayala (USA), 6-1, 6-4
Kevin Ullyett (RSA) def. David Wheaton (USA), 6-4, 7-5