NEWPORT, R.I. – Little guy. Little country. Giant performance. But it wasn’t quite enough for the diminutive dynamo named Olivier Rochus, who did his best to wreck the afternoon for the homebodies – and very nearly did.
You really couldn’t dislike this teddy bear of a tennis player, 5-foot-5, 140 pound Ollie. However, he was rocking the cradle of American tennis, the Casino, and almost ran circles around the crowd’s man, a US citizen, Mardy Fish. Smallest laborer on the pro tour, Ollie Rochus out of a small Belgian town called Namur, has the legs to keep up with and often surpass the big guys in his business. His shotmaking is a collection of spins that keeps the ball low, and he’s a sharp volleyer, the main man of Belgium’s Davis Cup team.
Fish has played Davis Cup for the US, and hopes to again. When they climbed to 4-4 in the third set – dead even — the final of the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships was tighter than the brothers at a fraternity beer party. Anybody’s tennisball game. It was then that Fish’s power took over for a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, victory that earned him $ 75,700, and the prize that went with title, the Jimmy Van Alen Cup.
“Mardy pushed me hard at the end, and the crowd pushed him,” lamented Ollie (not to be confused with his big brother, 5-7 Christophe Rochus, a first round loser). “His serve was flawless” — registering 24 aces and 14 service winners. The 6-foot-2 American from Tampa served 69 per cent in the concluding set, 60 per cent overall. It was firepower overcoming footspeed.
Ollie fought Fish off through four deuces in the penultimate game, canceling three break points until he double faulted, an inch long, and couldn’t overtake Fish’s next volley.
Even with a 5-4 lead the victor wasn’t safe. Ollie jarred him momentarily, holding two break points, and rescued a match point only to fall to a closing serve-and-volley. Mardy’s groundies, erratic in the early going, began to measure up to his serve.
“This is the eighth year I’ve played here, and I finally won it,” No. 79 Fish glowed beneath his beard. “I’ve been working hard on my conditioning, lost 30 pounds” – like his buddy Andy Roddick.
Rochus, No. 65, said, “I played here for the first time, last year, made the semifinals. This year the final…well, next year?”
If good-natured Ollie asked Santa for anything it was “to grow.” But he never did. Still, life as a little guy from a little country with a backhand powered by only one hand, hasn’t been too bad: over $ 4 million in prize money since turning pro at 18 in 1999.
So another Hall of Fame Week at Newport’s Casino came to a close, hot but sea-breezy. The world’s oldest tennis parlor, dating to 1880, with its grassy rectangles and fascinating museum continues as a treat for those who savor sporting history along with the last American grass court tournament for the pros. And as a nifty discovery for those first-timers entering the handsome playpen behind the massive green doors on Bellevue Avenue.
Probably the highlight of the Hall of Fame’s welcoming of seven new members was the elevation of Californian Brad Parks, the first wheelchair player to be accepted in the tennis Valhala. Paralyzed from waist down as a teen-ager in a skiing competion crash, Parks was determined nevertheless to be an athlete. “I tried tennis, and it took me a year to get the hang of it, with the 2-bounce rule,” said he who became a champion and the guiding light in the globalization of the wheelies.
Taken in, too, were two doubles teams: Aussies Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge, as well as American Gigi Fernandez and Belarussian Natasha Zvereva. Another Aussie, Owen Davidson, made it as did an English administrator, the late Derek Hardwick.
Gigi Fernandez laughed, “Natasha and I were dumped by our partners. It hurt, but we got together and won 14 major titles that got us in here.”
Hard to say whether Ollie Rochus is the tiniest ever to grace the Casino lawns. Some of those 19th and 20th century guys were limited packages. But he does just fine as
a dauntless hustler, the small town small guy prancing on an international stage.