My set against Michelle Larcher De Brito at Longboat Key
Cycling Longboat Key after a sushi lunch in downtown Sarasota with my friend Nana I spotted Michelle Larcher De Brito training at the Longboat Key public clay courts. So I challenged her to a set the next day – if she can beat me I’ll fork over fifty bucks (we had played mini tennis two years ago on the same courts with her winning 11-9 and 11-8). She smiled and hesitated and then agreed. I looked up her ranking at the ITF site and she’s down to 227 because of missing half of last year with some kind of injury suffered in the third set of the third round of Wimbledon qualies. She’s 23 now and has resumed her career but it’s been a struggle back to her previous form which was once so formidable she beat Sharapova on center court at Wimbledon and took a set off Serena as a teenager at the Stanford event.
So we meet at 3:30 to play. I set up to hit with a local friend for an hour at two to get ready. I hit well and feel good despite it being my first time on har-tru in two weeks. Also I’m fresh off winning the media tournament at the Miami Open so my confidence is strong. Larcher De Brito arrives with her mom and coach dad in their van and are extremely nice people. As nice as anyone you will meet in pro tennis. The first thing I ask Michelle is if she ever hit with Monica Seles who lives in the area. She actually did very early in her career and just after Seles retired and was still playing exos. Seles’ intensity had not diminished at all though. Seles would even run to pick up balls between points – just like Connors was known to do. And this was AFTER Seles had retired. .
So we begin to warm up doing mini tennis at the net, and I realize I feel comfortable with her balls. We drift back to the baseline and we both keep the rallies going down the middle. I’m actually surprised that I’m not missing any balls at all and she’s the one who first misses by hitting the net cord. We continue to hit and I actually never miss anything and she narrowly misses two more – again they go into the net cord. This fuels my confidence and I begin to believe that I can actually win this set! She comes in for volleys and I keep feeding perfectly for her and then I take volleys and don’t miss any of those either. We both do overheads and serves. Her serve seems just average and something I can handle quite comfortably. I do the racquet toss for serve and she calls up and wins and elects to serve. I crack that we’re both not known for our serves and she smiles.
I remember the first point – she served to my forehand and I returned to her backhand and she went cross court and I got it back but she hammered a winner to my forehand side which was out of reach. She won the game easily with the same patterns of battering me around the baseline like a yo yo but she did have one double fault. I did notice that she started doing breathing sounds – not grunts – which I interpreted as her amping up her intensity because she respected my game and perhaps was somewhat threatened? We switched sides and I hit a very good first serve which she netted with her forehand. I won the second point on serve as well after a short rally and a miss for 30-love. She won the next two by running me back and forth. Once she got a rally going she was able to dictate me around the court side to side. She never missed any of those when she had time to set up. I was lucky to get two good serves to win the game for 1-all. I still remember it being ad-in and serving one off the sideline which her backhand netted. That was to be my final game though. After that she really locked in and dominated the rallies. Hitting into her strike zone was not smart on my part. I did win a few scattered points like when I sliced a shorter ball inside the service line to her forehand or I hit a good return from the ad court up the line to her forehand – twice she missed on those with errant forehands into the net. But I just could not get her off balance enough. And when she was balanced and had time she just ate me up and made me pay. Even high deep balls she teed off on and moved me to a corner and ran me ragged. By the third game I suddenly felt tired from all the running back and forth and I was actually thinking to myself that the court seemed so much bigger against her. I rallied though. In the 5-1 game I had another break point at 30-40 and tried to step in and whack a return to her forehand again but I got too close to the ball and netted it. That was my last gasp. She rolled me from there for 6-1. At our handshake she said thank you but I thanked her instead. It was an honor to share a court with a player who actually beat Sharapova at Wimbledon. Her father Antonio remarked that women’s tennis is all bang bang and that once players get behind a ball they can just push you all over the court and that’s exactly what his daughter did to me.
Caroline Larcher De Brito – the mom told me about the wrist injury that happened at Wimbledon qualies last summer. It happened in a fluke instant – from just hitting a ball to the ballkid across the net at the other back wall. She couldn’t finish the match and had to miss the rest of the year. At first the injury was suspected to be a pinched nerve (by the WTA physio) but it was actually a tendon separation and surgery was needed and then a three month stint wearing a cast which meant no tennis for months in the middle of summer in Florida. The cast in the heat caused some skin problems and it was basically three months of misery. But injuries are a part of tennis and today Larcher De Brito departed to Alabama for a $25k ITF tournament on clay which is her least favorite surface with grass being her preference because of the lower bounce. She is considering to try yoga and kick boxing training to strengthen up her body as she enters the next chapter of her professional career.