Monday, May 3, 2010

Rory McIlroy’s bravura performance; Tennis schedule reminds me of a player in the past

I’m not sure who to write about this morning: Rory McIlroy or Andrei Chesnokov.

Andrei Chesnokov?

Let me come back to him in a minute. It is impossible to ignore McIlroy this morning given his performance on Sunday at The Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte. Looking up at a leaderboard that included Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Angel Cabrera and Jim Furyk—to name a few—McIlroy went out on Sunday and shot 62—finishing his round with six straight 3’s—to win The Quail Hollow Championship by four shots over Mickelson and five over Cabrera.

It was a bravura performance, climaxing with a 40-foot birdie putt on 18 that was never going anywhere but the middle of the hole almost from the moment it left his putter. I just finished writing my weekly Golf Channel essay and the thing I kept coming back to wasn’t so much the brilliant golf but the absolute joy McIlroy clearly brings to the golf course.

The kid turns 21 on Tuesday, which means he’s about the same age that Tiger Woods and Mickelson were when they burst onto the scene—Mickelson by winning a tournament while still a junior in college; Woods by winning twice on tour at the end of 1996 a few months before his 21st birthday.

Woods was always a golf prodigy, a genius on the golf course—and still is in spite of his performance this past week—but one thing he never was going to be was fun. Mickelson tried a little harder. He’s always made a point of signing autographs and smiling back at people but it has never been something that has come naturally to him.

This kid has a little Arnold Palmer in him. He’s got all the shots but he’s also got a natural way of connecting with the fans that you rarely see on the golf course. A lot of players complain that it is unfair for fans to expect them to smile or acknowledge them when they’re working—which is what they’re doing on the golf course. I get that. But when a player is naturally inclined to be that way it is all the better for him, for the fans and for the game.

McIlroy walking up 18 on Sunday applauding for the fans was cool. It also was natural, not concocted in any way. Fans like him; other players like him; the media likes him and he can flat out play. If Tom Watson doesn’t win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach next month, a McIlroy victory might be the next best thing. That’s no knock on Mickelson by the way, it would just be a fresh new story line.

Okay, onto Chesnokov. Unless you are a real tennis geek you have no idea who I’m talking about. In fact, unless you are a real tennis geek you are probably wondering why in the world tennis would be on my mind at all right now. I do keep up with the tour, at least enough to know who is winning week-to-week. This past week, the men were in Rome for what was once known as The Italian Open. Now, thanks to some marketing silliness it is called The Rome Masters or some such thing. Rafael Nadal won for, I think the sixth time.

When I was a kid, NBC used to televise The Italian Open, The French Open and Wimbledon. Only Wimbledon was actually on live, but I watched raptly anyway. Bud Collins called it, “The Old World Triple.” I still remember Vitas Gerulaitis winning The Italian one year and how big a deal it was back then.

I dreamed back then of someday doing the “Old World Triple,” in the same year. Not only did I get to do it in 1990 when I was researching, “Hard Courts,” I got to do it while hanging out with Bud a lot of the time which only made it about 1,000 times more fun. Bud believes he is part-Italian and traveling around Rome with him was a little bit like being with Vito Corleone at Connie’s wedding—except Luca Brasi was nowhere in sight.

My fondest memories of that week in Rome though center on Chesnokov—who liked to be called Chezzy. He was then a solid clay court player, the first really good player to come out of the Soviet Union in years. He liked to pretend he didn’t speak much English but in truth he spoke it about as well as I did. He and Natalia Zvereva were in a battle back then with the Soviet Tennis Federation about purses. The federation was getting about 90 percent of the money they were making on tour. Chezzy and Zvereva didn’t see that as fair.

It took a while for me to get Chezzy to trust me—which was understandable. At first when I told him I was writing a book on life on the tennis tour, he was suspicious. “Why do you want to talk to me?” he asked. “I never win anything important.”

He never did win a major, but he had beaten Mats Wilander at The French in 1986—the first time I encountered him—and had been in the French semis in 1989, losing in four sets to Michael Chang. He won at Monte Carlo in 1990 and made it to the Italian final a couple of weeks later. What was amazing was HOW he made it to the final. He kept losing the first set, falling behind in the second and then rallying—somehow—to win. The matches took longer and longer--Chezzy was a classic stay-back clay-courter who simply wore you down—but he kept winning.

Every time he was asked in a press conference what he was going to do to get ready for his next match he would smile and say, “I go to disco.”

He was joking. He was very serious about his tennis, but not about much else. When I finally got him to sit down and talk to me over a long breakfast that week, he talked in detail about how he had fallen in love with the game as a kid and had known early on that it was his ticket out of a rudimentary job in Moscow.

“I know this because of the Olympics,” he said. “Once they say tennis will be in Olympics (1988) I know the government will put serious money into the tennis programs and I will have a chance. If not for the Olympics, they don’t let us travel to compete.”

I like to think that Chezzy and I found common ground that year. He became one of the non-star stars of “Hard Courts,” much the same way Paul Goydos did in “A Good Walk Spoiled.” Unlike with Goydos, who I am still friends with and see all the time on tour, I haven’t seen Chezzy for years. There aren’t that many people I’d like to sit down with at length again from my years covering tennis, but Chezzy would be right near the top of that short list.

He was a very good player. And a better guy, though I doubt he ever did see the inside of a disco.


JDM said...

Are we allowed to tease John for editorial content?? Huge fan but Chessy lost in four sets to Chang, not 5. The heartbreaking five setter that he lost was to Henri Leconte the next year, which is covered in Hard Courts.

Andrei's problem was either talent or choking in big matches. These two high profile losses were NEVER avenged, as both Chang and Leconte retired with 8-0 records against him. I think Andrei had more to deal with as far as the politics goes and could never put 100% to tennis.

Gunnar said...

Rory really does bring a joy to the game, it is very refreshing. The heavily managed and groomed athletes of IMG or Bolliteri (sp?) Tennis academy, etc really sap the pure joy from these athletes. It is great to see such genuine enthusiasm from Rory. Rory has a great golf game, it would be very special to see him win the Open at St Andrews.

Anonymous said...

I very much agree that it was a great performance by McIlroy, and hopefully for watchers of the sport there are more to come. I just hope the media doesn't build this up too much that it/he takes on a life of its own. Or if you guys do write that its a changing of the guard (yes, some writers already saying that) I hope his friends and family keeps him isolated from it. It was fun seeing the reception of the other players as he was going to the scorers tent, that even at the age of 20 he has a solid internal group rooting for him. To me, it means he isn't lost to much in his world to rub folks the wrong way.

Jeff J said...

It is interesting you injected Andrei Chesnokov into the story. I first say Andrei at Wimbledon in 1984. He was playing someone on a side court. There were maybe 12 people watching the match. I was struck by how well Andrei served and moved on the court. I thought he might the next big thing. And I swear Merlin Olsen sat down next to me to watch the match, but not sure.

Mr. X said...

Rory seems like a nice story, I hope there is nothing like Tiger's misadventures in his background.

Any chance you'll post about Men's LAX culture given the recent story at UVA? Or maybe Snyder's latest PR gaffe with the Tater cheerleader and her Marine husband?