Monday, October 19, 2009

Florida Federal Open, 10/14/84

On the morning of October 14, 1984, Michelle Torres fought off the nerves one might feel going into a tournament final. Instead of being anxious, Torres felt relaxed and confident of her chances in the championship of the Florida Federal Tennis Open in Tarpon Springs.

“There was no pressure,” she recalls. “I felt like I was out there having fun and trying to do my best.”

At just 17 years old and in her fourth week on the pro tour, no one could have faulted Torres for butterflies in her stomach. Instead, she delivered a steely performance that would make even the unflappable Chris Evert – the player after whom she patterned her game – quite proud.

As she geared up for the match, Torres found herself a long way from home. Still a senior at New Trier West High School in Northfield, Ill., Torres straddled the line somewhere between being a carefree high school student and serious touring pro.

"When a tournament ended, I went back to my high school," she says. "Since I was only on the tour part-time, it didn’t feel like a job. It was more of a thing on the side for fun.”

She’d prepared herself for life as a pro, however, by spending two weeks at a time in Bradenton the previous year training with tennis guru Nick Bollettieri. Already a state high school tennis champion, and at one time ranked as the 10th best junior player in the world, Torres felt like she belonged on the tour.

The previous month, she made waves in Ft. Lauderdale at the Maybelline Classic, making it all the way to the finals. Her opponent in that match: Martina Navratilova. A young player new to the tour could not have drawn a less-favorable matchup. From 1982-84, Navratilova dropped a total of six singles matches during one of the most dominant stretches by any athlete in any sport.

Torres left Ft. Lauderdale a witness to that dominance, falling 6-1, 6-0.

“That was an embarrassing experience,” she says. “I had not played her before and wasn’t prepared for her style. She had this left-handed kick serve which I wasn’t used to, and her serve-and-volley game the way she’d come into net behind these amazing drop shots. I wasn’t disappointed though, because overall I had a great week. I just felt bad because people had paid to come see the finals and it would have been nice to make a match out of it.”

Wiser for the experience, she entered the Florida Federal with as good a chance as anyone in the draw. Navratilova, the defending champion, declined to play in the tournament due to scheduling conflicts. Hana Mandikova, a winner of four Grand Slams and the fourth-ranked woman in the world, presented the biggest challenge to Torres’ chances.

Torres opened the tournament with victories over Ann Henrickson and Mary Lou Piatek to set up a quarterfinal match with No. 3 seed and Largo resident Bonnie Gadusek. Torres made short work of Gadusek in the quarters, 6-3, 6-4, to avenge a defeat earlier in the year at the Virginia Slims of Florida.

Tournament favorite Mandikova, suffering from flu symptoms and a 102-degree temperature, dropped the first set in her quarterfinal against Camille Benjamin before retiring from the match. So instead of facing Mandikova, Torres drew the unseeded Benjamin in the semifinals.

Benjamin was no pushover, however, and raced to a 4-3 advantage in the first set. Torres rallied back to take the first set 6-4, then held on in a thrilling second-set tiebreaker, winning 7-6 (7-2).

That set up a showdown with fellow 17 year old and recent U.S. Open semifinalist Carling Bassett. Bassett, the daughter of Tampa Bay Bandits managing partner John Bassett, came into the tournament ranked 10th in the world and riding a high from her recent run of success in New York. The two Bollettieri proteges were each seeking their first pro tournament titles.

"I had played Carling in practice, and was familiar with her game, as she was with mine," Torres recalls. "Going into the finals, you feel comfortable and aren't intimidated with what you're going to see.

Carling didn't play very well in the first set. She made a lot of errors, which was great for me because I got an easy set and was halfway to winning the match. All I had to do was hang in there. She played a lot better in the second set, but I think she was just nervous that day. I stayed mentally tough and remember eeking it out in a 2nd set tiebreaker."

Torres captured the match 6-1, 7-6 (7-4) along with a check for $28,000. She vividly remembers the trophy presentation, which included the requisite giant check, and for some reason, a photo op of her holding a chimpanzee.

"I asked my mom if I could buy it, but she said no," Torres recalls with a laugh.

Her triumph in Tarpon Springs was the sole championship during a career in which Torres rose to as high as No. 18 in the world before retiring in 1989.

Torres, now known by her married name of Michelle Casati, remains active in tennis as an instructor in Northbrook, Illinois. The passage of time, however, has done little to dull her memories of that week a quarter-century ago.

"I think about it now and then because it was my only win on the pro tour," she says. "As a teen, you really don't take it in as much as when you're older and have the benefit of time to appreciate it."

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