Sunday, September 09, 2007

From Ballpark to Courts, an Odd Coupling

Sports of The Times
September 10, 2007

On one end of the boardwalk, Pedro Martínez took a curtain call like Pavarotti after hitting a high C. On the other end of the boardwalk, a few hours later, Roger Federer fell to his knees like Baryshnikov in a moment of joy.

There was passion in Queens yesterday, with Federer celebrating his latest United States Open championship after Martínez staged an unusual midgame celebration of his comeback from shoulder surgery.

The two sports overlap in these parts only a few days every year, putting the upscale tennis fans in the same traffic jam as the blue-and-orange-clad Mets fans in their shirts honoring Piazza, Alfonzo, Seaver and many of the current worthies.

On this particular Sunday, Flushing Meadows had its own odd couple: Federer in his man-in-black garb in one arena and Martínez making his first appearance of the season in the Mets’ tacky old dive.

They both knew how to carpe the old diem. Federer, 26, hit the floor after the final point of a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory over Novak Djokovic, the 20-year-old who captivated tennis fans these past two weeks. (Federer is decidedly not amused by his imitations.) Martínez, soon to turn 36, gave the home fans a bonus when he emerged from the dugout to wave and do an odd little dance step after pitching five scoreless innings in what would become a 4-1 victory over Houston.

These tennis-baseball doubleheaders do not always work out for the Metsies. On a damp, ominous final Friday in 1987, Lori McNeil duffed an approach shot that would have put Steffi Graf in big trouble in their semifinal, and McNeil never recovered. A few hours later, Terry Pendleton of the Cardinals silenced Shea with a home run into the mist against Roger McDowell, effectively destroying the Mets’ hopes of repeating as champions.

The two sports coexist despite the lack of parking spaces, now exacerbated by the construction of the new Mets ballpark (Why do I keep wanting to call it the New Shea?). But everybody gets along, mostly in hope of witnessing something glorious north of the tracks or south of the tracks, connected by a wooden boardwalk with pedicabs shuttling fans back and forth.

The Mets went on first, with Martínez the main attraction. He came to New York three seasons ago to try to help win a World Series, but he was in tears last September when his body broke down. After surgery and hard training, he made it back for five innings in Cincinnati last week. Yesterday he came home, surviving his wildness on the mound and a couple of romps on the basepaths.

Normally charismatic, Martínez squirmed through 92 pitches, then openly celebrated after the Astros were retired in the fifth. Surprisingly, Martínez emerged from the dugout, a jacket on his arm, taking a wave, which no doubt thrilled the Astros. In the old days, a celebration after five innings would have earned a fastball in the ribs, and Roy Oswalt did indeed drill the Mets’ Lastings Milledge one inning later.

“I wanted to do something back for my fans and in front of my fans,” Martínez said later.

“I’m going to savor every little bit that I can get from the game from now on,” he continued. “I’m just coming back from a surgery that, if I have to do it again: ‘See you guys. No more.’ I’m going to enjoy every little moment that I have. Sign as many autographs as I can because it’s not going to last too long.”

He was entitled.

Petey went out before Federer and Djokovic took the court, with the usual assortment of celebs in attendance — Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Charlie Rose, David Stern and, oh, lookie here, Maria Sharapova, who, for the record, was sitting in the Djokovic box. Djokovic says they are friends.

In a quickie television interview before the match, Federer said he was curious how Djokovic would handle his first slam final. Djokovic later said that he was affected by the stress, flubbing seven set points. (“My next book is going to be called ‘Seven Set Points,’ ” he joked afterward, as charming as ever.)

Nevertheless, Djokovic played three competitive sets, and Federer said he was sure Djokovic would be back in many more Grand Slam finals. Roger did not exactly predict that Djokovic would win those finals. That, for the foreseeable future, seems to be Federer’s job, since he has won 12 of his 14 finals so far. His presence is as emphatic as the one-handed backhand winner he struck down the line to win the second set.

Federer doesn’t waste energy on gestures, but he pumped his fist at that one. Later, he hit the deck after winning another slam title. No doubt Martínez can also fall to his knees in ecstasy and would be delighted to unveil this move in a month or so, on the north end of the boardwalk.



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