The way things have been going lately for Raul Ramirez, he should have known that the shipment of new rackets he has been expecting, the ones that were supposed to be waiting for him when he got to Washington for the $125,000 Volvo tennis tournament, wouldn't arrive.
It hasn't been Ramirez's year, and yesterday certainly wasn't his day. The 25-year-old Mexican, runner-up to Brian Gottfried in this tournament last year, hastily borrowed a racket for his first-round match but had little of his old touch of resourcefulness and was beaten by qualifier Jeff Borowiak, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, at George Washington University's Smith Center.
No. 1 seed Eddie Dibbs was pushed to the limit in the night session by another qualifier, former University of Southern California All-America Bruce Manson, before winning, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.
Manson, 22, a compact and stylish left-hander who developed his aggressive serve-and-volley game on the cement courts of his native Los Angeles, pressured Dibbs into producing some of his finest passing shots as a means of survival.
With a small but vocal Monday night audience behind him, Manson nervelessly served a love game at 4-5 in the final set, sealing it with an ace down the center.
He then saved three match points from 0-40 in the 12th game with three big serves, two of them aces. This brought cheers and stomping from spectators who were plugged in and appreciative of this unexpected first-round treat.
But Dibbs did not crack, either.
Manson missed his final two first serves, and "Fast Eddie," a scrapper who relies heavily on attacking returns of serve, cracked two hummers. They forced first a forehand volley long and then a forehand ground stroke into the net as Manson, feeling the tension at last, stayed back on his second serve on the fourth and final match point.
Ramirez was seeded No. 5 in the 32-man tournament, but that was on the strength of his computer ranking rather than his recent form, which has been dismal.
He is No. 12 in the world on the print-out of the Association of Tennis Professionals -- based on tournament results of the last 12 months -- but has won only one singles match in four tournaments this year, only a scant handful since happier time last October.
"I'm having a tough time getting going. I've just been playing terrible, and I can't seem to get back the same attitude I had before, when I was winning," said Ramirez, who has been sub-par since a virus sidelined him for a month at the end of the year.
Two weeks ago he tried to gain late entry to the U.S. National Indoors at Memphis, but there was no room for him in singles. Deciding he needed mathc play, he went there anyway to play doubles only -- and lost in the first round.
Last week he was 0-3 in a series of round-robin exhibition matches in Brazil. He arrived here from Rio de Janeiro on Sunday evening, and his run of luck held true; his baggage was lost in New York.
Ramirez had hoped to get a fresh start on his heretofore nightmare season with a batch of new rackets from his manufacturer, Adidas, which had promised to ship them in plenty of time for this tournament from its plant in Belgium.
"I had been playing with the same ones for months, and the heads were warped. I just left them in Brazil. I came with only one, and it was dead. I couldn't even play with it," said Ramirez, launching with considerable good humor into a postmatch tale of woe.
"They told me the new ones would be here for sure, but there was no sign of them. Half an hour before the match, I didn't know what racket I was going to use. I borrowed a couple from Zeljko Franulovic, the only player here I could think of who uses the Adidas fiberglass. I called the house where he is staying. He wasn't there, but the people he is staying with sent a couple of his rackets over.
"They got here five minutes before the match, with no grips. I borrowed those from Sherwood Stewart. I got one on just in time for the match, and Sherwood put the other on and brought the racket out to me.
"The whole thing was so unprofessional, it was a joke. I'm embarrassed. It was ridiculous," added Ramirez, who normally uses a wood frame but experimented with the fiberglass last week in practice and is thinking of switching to it. "I was so badly prepared, I didn't know what I was doing the first set."
Borowiak, a 6-foot-3, 29-year-old Californian, is a solid, experienced, sometimes inspired pro who beat Bjorn Borg in this tournament a couple of years ago. But he also has been inconsistent of late. His computer ranking has slipped to No. 93, and he had to win three qualifying matches over the weekend to get in the main draw.
Borowiak was not particularly sharp, but he played a more purposeful match than Ramirez on the medium-fast synthetic carpet, attacking throughout, resolutely getting to the net.
Meanwhile Ramirez, until he changed tactics in the third set and started coming in behind both first and second serves, curiously decided to stay back, hitting defensive backhands and big top-spin forehands.
"I don't believe he's staying back so much. That's not his game. That's what happens when you lose your confidence," shrugged Ramirez's frequent doubles partner, Fred McNair IV, at courtside.
Borowiak held his serve from 15-40 in the ninth game of the final set. On the break points, Remirez mis-hit a backhand return, then sailed a forehand long down the line after failing to come in behind a return of a second serve.
Borowiak held after two more deuces, Ramirez lobbing long on the last point -- as he did often throughout the match.
Ramirez had two game points on his serve in the final game, but Borowiak got to advantage -- his first match point -- with a blazing forehand cross-court passing shot. He blew that by sailing a backhand return long, but got to match point again by running around a second serve and belting a forehand down-the-line return winner.
Ramirez tossed the ball to serve, and let it fall. He was clearly apprehensive. He had reason to be, for when he did get the ball in play, Borowiak passed him with a cross-court backhand off his first volley.