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The Canadian Charmer vs. The Piercing Portuguese in VA pt. 1

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So I made the pleasant drive out to Charlottesville for the finals of the 10th Annual Boyd Tinsley Clay Court Classic Women's ITF Challenger (Mr. Tinsley was there, which was cool...though I've never been a Dave Matthews Band guy...but he was a great speaker during the post-match ceremonies - very charming). The singles final was being contested between Canada's Stephanie Dubois and Portugal's Michelle Larcher de Brito. When I went out there, I only knew who the 4 players in the SF were, but not who would be contesting the finals. In all honesty, I was very much hoping that Larcher de Brito would make it because, well, I wanted to hear her in person. I'm sure most of the people who follow women's tennis know Michelle by reputation by now. If you don't, just know that she's been known to make a bit of noise when she hits her groundstrokes, but you have to listen very closely.

Exhibit A - turn the volume way up and put your ears close to your speaker to see if you can hear Michelle during this point:
Larcher de Brito/Kuznetsova

I feel like that's something I had to jump at the opportunity to see. Luckily, Larcher de Brito won her SF (after a retirement from Edina Gallovits) and she was joined in the final by Dubois, who I didn't know a heck of a lot about before today. She comfortably beat Julie Ditty in her semi, setting up this very fun, very dramatic finals matchup.

The First Set

It wasn't exactly packed but there were easily a few hundred people there. When I arrived, they had literally just finished warmups and the first ball was about to be served and there was still a lot of bleacher space. I chose to spend the first set standing in the space behind the bleachers, though, because I thought it would give me a better vantage point of the whole court. It did, but moving closer in the later sets actually proved more enjoyable.

It quickly became clear that Larcher de Brito was the player in a better rhythm early on. She hit the ball incredibly hard and incredibly accurately. Dubois tried to hit with her and made several errors. She tried playing defensively and Larcher de Brito just destroyed every ball that was even remotely short - I mean balls that weren't within a foot of the baseline were treated with utter, brutal disdain. In what seemed like 5 minutes, she jumped out to a 4-0 lead. And disappointingly, she wasn't really doing the exaggerated grunting, either. She sounded more like Marion Bartoli a less like a howler monkey. But the next game was very close and they both fought hard for it. When things started getting competitive, even just contesting one game, Larcher de Brito's grunt/shriek started exponentially increasing in volume. People in the crowd looked around at each other, incredulously - "Where's that coming from?" "That grunt is just unreal." When Dubois finally dug deep and won the game, the crowd erupted in support and she pretty much had that support for the rest of the afternoon. I think it was about 70-30 for her. Maybe people liked the underdog/comeback kid or maybe people resented having their eardrums savagely ruptured, but it quickly became a very pro-Dubois crowd. But still, Michelle was on cruise control and steamrolled the first set 6-1, in probably half an hour.

The differences between the two players were very pronounced at this point.

Dubois seemed frustrated and oddly listless. I soon found out why. At the end of the first set, I moved to a bleacher, in front of a chain-link fence, that was literally 18 inches from the edge of the court and sort of just behind the baseline. So when the player was playing on my side of the net, they were just feet from me, which was pretty darn awesome. Never in my life have I seen professional tennis players that close up. Dubois actually hung her sweat towel on the fence right in front of my head. She made very brief eye contact with me and sort of shrugged in semi-apology either for potentially blocking my view (she didn't) or for putting such a gross article of fabric so close to my face. I didn't really know what to do so I just smiled and kept my mouth shut. Anyway, as to why she was so listless - it became pretty clear, pretty fast that she was suffering either some kind of cold or some kind of bad allergy. She must have blown half a pint of snot into that towel in the 2nd set alone. Poor woman - the pollen count in the region has been unreal for the past month and colds...well they're just not fun to play tennis during.

Dubois, though, to her credit, exuded a lot of personality. When she'd make a bad play, she would scream, alternating between French, English and, I'm pretty sure, German and turn to the crowd and roll her eyes. We all kind of got a kick out of her. And she thanked all of ballkids when they bounced her the balls and apologized for misfiring when she tossed back the ones she didn't like. That kind of thing goes a long way for me in terms of fandom.

Larcher de Brito did not exude a lot of personality at first. She was very energetic, unlike Dubois, but she was clearly all business out there. She had her blue visor pulled down over her eyes. She didn't waste time between points. She was out of he chair before the umpire called 'time.' She was sending out the message - "Like me? Hate me? I don't care - I'm here to win this damn tournament and win it quickly and make a lot of amusing animal noises doing it." Very efficient, but this won't necessarily get the crowd on your side...So you can imagine how wild the crowd went when Dubois broke early in the 2nd set to go up 2-0.

These first exchanges of the 2nd set exhibited something the two women had in common - service yips. From 30-0 up in her service game, Larcher de Brito hit 7 straight faults. At the weekend warrior level, I've seen players double-fault whole games away, but come on, you've been in the third round of a slam, Missy! Dubois, likewise, had a ton of trouble with her toss. She must have thrown up and caught about 6 of them in the set and was not very windy at all. And there were simply a ton of breaks. Neither has a remotely powerful serve and the clay didn't help that either.

The clay did help Dubois make this into a competitive tennis match. She started playing a better clay-court strategy than Larcher de Brito,, who was still basically just killing the ball to the corners. Dubois started using more topspin, finding shorter angles to pull Michelle off the court and hitting some damn fine drop shots (sidenote: Larcher de Brito doesn't move forward all that well. Some of the drop shots she got burned on were extremely gettable).

They exchanged a few more breaks and a few more holds and then came the oddest rain delay I've ever seen. It was the lightest sprinkling of rain and I figured that, playing on clay, they wouldn't stop it until it got worse. the players didn't seem to even really mind the rain. But the chair umpire unilaterally suspended play with, IIRC, Larcher de Brito serving at 4-all, 15-0. The players seemed annoyed but went to the sidelines anyway. Then, after about 5 minutes it started raining about 4 times harder and, inexplicably, the umpire immediately called for a continuance of play. It was utterly bizarre. The only thing I can think of is the players just both told her they'd prefer to play on, but it didn't seem like that was what happened, from what I could see. Very confusing. But the rain died down by the end of the set...

to be

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Updated 05-01-2011 at 11:30 PM by munchin