Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Italian Stallions Too Much In BTUSA Jumpoff

Tournament time hit Long Beach with the loud thud of a tidal wave. The only labor on Labor Day Weekend 2008 was in the sand, as number of teams fought to stake their claim as the nation's elite beach tennis team.

At stake? 15 grand, for the winners.

The highly-acclaimed tandem of Matteo Marighella and Alex Mingozzi defended their title in dramatic fashion. The championship match featured everything from belly-flopping digs (employed to keep the ball alive before it touches the sand) and Chris Henderson's eye-popping "sand sock save."

The Italian stallions, key players in the Beach Tennis movement that's established itself in Italy (The 300+ Beach Tennis courts throughout the country is indicative of this), entered the Beach Tennis USA National Tournament with a bullseye on their backs.

Few tennis players on this side of James Blake can counter the athleticism and box cutter-sharp chemistry of the Marighella-Mingozzi duo, which’ve helped Beach Tennis USA develop worldwide visibility.

Marighella and Mingozzi made quick work of Team Rhino, which was exceptional in the Tampa Bay Open, in the semi-finals. The blink-quick antics of Marighella, coupled with Mingozzi's high-flying hops coupled with his teammates ability to sacrifice his body helped the team remain undefeated.

Mingozzi fired shots into crucial gaps, kept the tandem of Mike Edison and Brett Johnson off-balance, and frustrated them with their reflexes at net and athletic aptitude. Rhino had their flashes, but the Florida-based fellas ran out of gas in the end.

They looked drained, mentally. At the end of the match and were sucking back wind after reeling off victory after victory. Edison was sullied in the sand on numerous occasions. The kid who looked unflappable all tourney long finally started to falter, tossing his racket after he failed to beat out a Mingozzi backhand. That earned him an admittedly hilarious earful from tourney announcer Alex Querna.

After slaying one dragon, the Italians weren't finished. The $15,000 prize was all but theirs in the final stage of the tournament, when former two-time national champions Phil Whitesell and the aforementioned Henderson stepped to the plate. This was for all the marbles.

It was before a standing-room only crowd and a number of TV networks--SNY, Tennis Channel, and Comcast Sportsnet--to name a few. Eyes were pasted on the marquee matchup, as it was the centerpiece and conclusion of a 10-city national tour.

The match lived up to its billing. After gutting out three of the first six games, the momentum pendulum swung in Whitesell and Henderson’s direction. The veterans gave an account of how they’ve continually dominated South Carolina, as the crowd began to smell a pulsating upset.

Whitesell and Henderson began to smell the $15 thousand, instigating chants of “USA!” from the lively crowd. On one wowing play, Henderson lost his racket after diving to keep a ball alive. Mingozzi took advantage of the man-up situation, pinning the ball down the opponents’ throat.

Henderson, in a wild sequence, bounced back up and lifted the ball over the net with his sand sock. But Marighella and Mingozzi are the only undefeated team on US sand for a reason. They showed poise and kept their composure to hold off a late surge, running off cookie-cutting serves and spikes that lifted them to the national championship.

The team continues to flourish, though Whitesell and Henderson proved they’re no longer head-and-shoulders better than the American competition. Entertainment, never in short supply during Beach Tennis events, added flair to the event.

A live performance by the scintillating “ball girls” and Brooklyn-bred entertainer SPECIAL rocked both Long Beach and the growing Beach Tennis USA culture. The sport that originated in Aruba has continued its leaps-and-bounds progression. The game has branched out to sandspots in Japan, Bermuda, and now Jamaica.