By Erin Bruehl, USTA.com
NEW YORK, NY-- There was great professional tennis, a lively crowd and plenty of entertainment, from banter with the crowd, to an on-court cameo from world No. 1 golfer Rory McIlroy, in another winning night for the game on Tennis Night in America.
Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki both made their Madison Square Garden debuts Monday night in the opening match of the BNP Paribas Showdown and Sharapova emerged the winner 6-3, 6-4 over both Wozniacki and her boyfriend, McIlroy. Roger Federer and Andy Roddick then took the court next and continued to delight the over 18,000 fans in attendance, with Roddick winning 7-5, 7-6 (7) over the 16-time Grand Slam champion.
Tennis Night in America is an annual celebration of tennis in collaboration with the USTA, with over 1,400 facilities hosting youth tennis events featuring 10 and Under Tennis throughout March. Events ranging from youth registration sign-ups to Kids’ Tennis Clubs and Play Days are all being held as part of an effort to encourage more children to start playing the game and have fun with it with equipment sized right for them, with smaller racquets, foam balls and shorter courts.
The match was also played on a court with blended lines, featuring the shorter court lines for 10 and Under Tennis for a pre-match demonstration, as well as the regulation professional lines.
And it was a special night for all the players to play in the World’s Most Famous Arena and for the first time for Roddick, Sharapova and Wozniacki.
"I was really excited when I got the invite to play here," Roddick said. "I grew up a massive sports fan and the things I remember the most vividly are (Michael) Jordan playing here, him coming back here and the first time he came back after that, Reggie Miller and Spike Lee talking trash to each other. All that great stuff. To be able to play here where so much history has happened, so many events have happened in all areas of entertainment was a real special experience for me."
Among the special activities, he also had an opportunity to take a picture of New York Knicks’ sensation and new point guard Jeremy Lin, who has taken the NBA by storm the last few weeks with his scoring and passing.
Federer played at the Garden in 2008 against Pete Sampras in the first tennis match there in eight years. Madison Square Garden hosted both the men’s and women’s year-ending tournaments for years in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with the last women’s tournament being held in 2000. In an arena where many of the greatest players of all time have played, all the players Monday night were honored to be part of it.
"It is amazing to be back. Andy has been one of my greatest rivals. We have had great battles in all the great stadiums and this is one of them," he said.
In the opening match Monday, just after Sharapova took a 5-4 lead in the second set, Wozniacki did some changeover on-court dancing with a young tennis fan. Seeing her rival having so much fun, Sharapova did her own dance with a male fan, to which the announcer dubbed it ‘Dancing With the Stars.’
But the fun did not stop there. After some banter on-court between both players, Wozniacki motioned to her box and McIlroy got up from his seat and was lured onto the court, where he received a hug from his girlfriend and both her racquet and ball to serve to Sharapova.
The world’s top golfer did not disappoint, in jeans and sneakers, serving to the world No. 2, and displaying a nice backhand slice on a few balls, before Sharapova hit a ball high and wide to give McIlroy his first point. He held up his hands in victory to cheers from the crowd, before returning Wozniacki’s equipment and returning to his seat.
"It is such an honor to be here and be part of the history on this stage," Sharapova said. "When you know you are playing at Madison Square Garden, it is an opportunity you don’t want to miss."
"(McIlroy), won more points than Caroline did," she joked.
Wozniacki agreed with her opponent on the joy about playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena, but not with her assessment of her play vs. McIlroy’s.
"That comment was not very nice," she joked back. "He did great. He was 1-out-of-1, so he is 100 percent in winning points against Maria. He wasn’t too pleased with me. But he can say he was playing tennis at Madison Square Garden. Not a lot of people can say that. He got an experience out of it and he won a point against Maria.
"It was an unbelievable atmosphere," she added in seriousness. "It gives you a little nerves. You see so many stars, concerts and legends here, so to be here is just an honor. It was a special experience and the crowd was really great out there."
From there, Sharapova broke in the last game to win the match on an overhand winner, closing out an entertaining start to the evening’s matches.
It was an exhibition but it was hard to tell that from the way Sharapova came out firing. She was dictating points early and broke in the opening game for the early lead. She won the opening set with her second break, when Wozniacki hit a ball past the baseline.
She fell behind right away to begin the second, with Wozniacki earning her first break in the opening game. Wozniacki then led for most of the second set, fighting off three break points to go up 4-2 at one point.
Sharapova broke back two games later to even it up at 4-all after a double fault and Wozniacki hit a shot into the net. She then held 5-4 before the dance-off and hit with McIlroy began.
The entertainment continued into the second match. With Roddick serving in the fourth game, on serve at 2-1, a fan yelled out ‘Let’s go, Rafa!’ Even though the 10-time Grand Slam champion was nowhere in the house, Roddick did his best to oblige the fans. Moving to the ad court to pretend to serve lefty, he made a Rafa-like grunt on each ball of the next point, as the laughter became louder from the crowd. When he won the point with a volley winner to win the game, he finished the Rafa act with a powerful fist pump and a pull on each sleeve, just like the Spaniard is known to do.
The two then traded breaks to stay on serve as the first set progressed before Roddick broke to go up 6-5 with a leaping overhand winner and then closed it out with a great service game, featuring several aces from his trademark lightning-fast serve.
Federer broke out the serve-and-volley at times throughout the match and a bunch of classic ‘How-does-he-do-that’ shots to applause as competing cheers of "Let’s go, Roger!" and "AN-DY ROD-DICK" periodically broke out.
The second set featured no breaks of serve and progressed to the tiebreak, where Federer had a set point up 7-6 but hit two straight backhands into the net to give Roddick his first match point, which he converted when Federer hit a volley long.
He lost the match but he was happy to be playing his longtime rival Roddick and hopes it is not the last time he plays at the Garden.
"I really enjoyed myself tonight," he said. "When they contacted me that they wanted me back at the Garden, I was really hoping I would play Andy. He was my favorite choice. I am happy it happened and I really had a great time. I am hoping to be back one day again."