A True Champion’s Mettle

Play began February 24 amid an air of anticipation. The depth and quality of the field of players had never been greater for a U.S. Open and the members of the Racquet Club of Philadelphia were anxious to see how their Court Tennis Professional, Steve Virgona, would fare against the top players in the world on his home court. Steve, having won the Australian Open in January, seemed poised to take on the world’s best and to test again, in battle, the long reigning World Champion, Rob Fahey. The players all were in top form as the following week they were off to play the World Championship in Doubles up in Boston.

The results in the Singles went for the most part according to the player’s rankings. In the quarterfinal we saw Camden Riviere knock off Nick Wood 6/3 6/4 2/6 6/1. Camden seems to play well on Philadelphia’s “Roland Garros” type court and his retrieving ability proved to be the difference in the match. Rob Fahey took 4 sets to dispatch Bryn Sayers and in the bottom half of the draw Ruaraidh Gunn and Steve Virgona were straight set winners over Mike Gooding and Richard Smith respectively.  This set up some interesting semifinals. Rob Fahey had had two straight 4 set matches and Camden was certainly on his game in a court that suited his style of play. Philadelphia had been the site of his first breakthrough victory when he beat Barney Tanfield in the finals of the US Amateur a few years back. Rob Fahey started out slowly but then slowly kept raising his game. Ultimately his game was too much for the young Riviere and his demi Piques.  Rob won pulling away 6/5 6/2 6/0. The Virgona match versus Gunn was to be a contrast of styles. Steve started out on fire. He seemed to be all over the court and in total control winning the first two sets 6/0 6/2. It was at that time that it looked like he had hit the wall and maybe there was truth to that. While scrambling in the 2nd set Steve crashed his left hand going after a shot on the battery wall. It definitely had stung him and he tried to shake it off but by the third set he seemed to have nothing in his tank while Ruaraidh seemed to get stronger. Steve’s legs were like lead and he showed none of his athleticism of the first two sets. Sets 3 and 4 went to Ruaraidh 6/1 and 6/2. Two sets apiece for the right to play the World Champion in the finals. This was an opportunity Steve did not want to see slip by, especially on his home court. The current Australian champion dug deep and willed himself to move, to go after every ball, to take the fight to Ruaraidh. Sure enough, a quick start propelled Steve to take the final set 6/1. The finals were now set: the World Champion versus the young lefthander and the number two ranked player in the world.

The Sunday Singles final on March 4th was a match the members of the Racquet Club were looking forward to. While the club has had great amateur champions, never has it had a professional champion or player to play at this high level since the days of Jay Gould. Was this the day their Court Tennis Professional would elevate his game overcoming the World Champion for a second straight final putting the Court Tennis world on notice? Or was this the day we would see the champions’ true mettle and see him claim his dominance once again. The courtside was packed and not a seat was to be had. Literally the stands were filled to SRO capacity. With a brief introduction and thanks to all the Sponsors, Patrons and Supporters, the players began their warm-up. The World Champion seemed to be really focused, calm and purposeful while the challenger bounced around trying to get a groove on shots and to play through any nervousness on his part. It seemed the champion was bent on teaching the youngster a lesson on the youngster’s home court. The champion had decided that he was not going to play Steve the way he had played him in Australia and indeed from the outset it was decidedly a different tactical match than what people were expecting. Here were two of the biggest hitters as well as two of the most powerful players, tactically hitting jabs when the audience was expecting upper cuts. It was remarked afterwards that the floor game and attack on the galleries was indeed the highest compliment that these players could show towards one another’s game. At the level these two men were playing at, it would have been suicidal to try and force the ball leaving themselves open on any loose shot. By playing the floor and by hitting galleries for chases, Rob negated Steve’s athleticism, controlled the pace of the match, and kept Steve from gaining any momentum from the serve side. It was brilliant tactics from a great champion who had analyzed his loss to Steve in Australia and vowed not to be put in that position again. This strategy was particularly brilliant in that Steve never found his left-handed railroad. It was never as tight as he needed it to be and it could be surmised that Rob’s constant attacking of the galleries especially last gallery and second gallery, put too much pressure on Steve when he had the chance to serve. The perfect execution on this strategy by the World Champion also kept the crowd out of the match purporting themselves to respectful applause. The first two sets went to Rob Fahey 6/3 6/2. In the 3rd set Steve seemed to awake. This coupled with a slight letdown by Rob, showed why the fans were so excited for the match. Steve can be absolutely brilliant and overpowering when given the chance to be.  The athleticism of the challenger was revealed in all its glory and Steve made quick work of Rob in that set hitting the grill numerous times and maintaing the momentum of the match while staying on the serve side. 3rd set to Steve 6/1. It was now 2 sets to 1 in favor of the champion and if there ever was a test to the champion’s mettle, the third set was it. At the start of the 4th set you could sense the purposeful resolve of the World Champion. Stepping up his play Rob went back to his brilliant strategy. His backhand again and again found the last gallery and second gallery allowing him to make chases and more importantly keep the serve from Steve. To execute this strategy successfully, Rob needed to serve tight railroads, as well, to prevent Steve from coming around and forcing the ball off his forehand. Not only did Rob serve well in the first two sets he served particularly well in the 4th. Sitting outside of the winning gallery I saw first hand the tightness of Rob’s railroads and was left with the sound of Steve’s racket splatting against the battery wall while trying to boast Rob’s serve cross-court. This attempt proved futile and it was clearly revealed to all who watched the brilliance of the World Champion. 4th set and match to the World Champion 6/3 6/2 1/6 6/1. After a few words of thanks, the President of the Unites States Court Tennis Association, Jim Wharton, presented the trophy to the champion and the floor was given to the champion who graciously accepted the US Open prize again giving thanks to all involved. There is not a doubt that this was the finest played match, both tactically and in execution, that has been played in Philadelphia and to Steve’s credit he always seems to learn from his losses so this bodes well for the next time these two combatants square off.   .

The tenth day of matches started with a delay in the Doubles Final. The Sponsors Cup finals was being played to a packed house. In a handicap match that went to 1set apiece, 5 all in the third set, 40 all, the team of Lewis Smith and Bill Swarze overcame the mixed duo of Andrew Purcell and Freddy Adam, due to some spectacular play on the last point. With the US Open Doubles finalists rooting on the sponsors, a terrific point was culminated by a Swarze drive to the forehand corner that Purcell netted providing an upset victory to the team of Swarze and Smith. With the preliminaries done it was time for some fast action in the Doubles Final. The Doubles tournament went according to plan and in the finals it was the #1 seed and World Championship team of Fahey and Virgona versus the #2 seed team of Gooding and Wood. Nick Wood and Mike Gooding started out strong winning the first set 6/2. However the World Champions were just starting to get going. The team of Fahey and Virgona are particularly tough as it is hard to get the ball around Rob on the service side as he stands around chase 4. This enables him to cut off the ball with his volley or let the ball go to Steve on any shots that are boasted in front of him. This strategy, coupled with their tight railroads, make the team awfully tough to beat and this night was no exception. The next 3 sets and the championship went to Fahey and Virgona 6/3 6/5 6/0 There were plenty of athletic gets and retrievals as well as impressive shot making that highlighted what a tremendous game Doubles is. This was a tremendous preparation for the upcoming World Championship in Doubles up in Boston the next week.

Philadelphians work hard to try and make the professionals feel welcomed and it was remarked by many of the professionals how much they enjoyed the Racquet Club of Philadelphia’s hospitality. A great deal of the success of the tournament and certainly a hearty thanks go to the manager, Ed Noll and his entire staff; Athletic Director, Rob Whitehouse and his staff; the Board of Governors of the RCOP; the United States Court Tennis Association; the entire Court Tennis Committee; Harrow Sports; and especially all of our members who supported the event either monetarily, or through housing, or by their participation in the week’s activities. We look forward to the next time we are to host the US Open and we wish all the Pros the best in the upcoming Doubles World Championship