Halfway through the first set tiebreak, Adrian Franklin, a young Fox News sports producer who comes from Melbourne and speaks with authority on his country’s tennis history, observed that the fabulous team of Ashley Barty, who is 17 years old, and Casey Dellacqua, 26, had not lost a set in this tournament and it might do something to their mental toughness should they lose one at last. “They play extremely well together,” he pointed out, which might seem redundant for a team that is in the finals of the U.S. Open, but he added, “they never blame each other if they make mistakes.”
Tennis doubles teams consist of only two players, but you only need more than one human being to have problems. Social problems, emotional problems, political problems, financial and legal problems — whatever you want, humans will provide. You cannot beat human beings for making a mess of things and then blaming everyone but themselves; one reason for the perennial popularity of the comedy shorts of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is that they found endless ways of re-telling this simple fact of life with other people. The great baseball novels of Mark Harris, American classics that TAS has been re-discovering this summer, are premised on the strains the long season puts on the members of a ball club, and when you think about it, there probably is not a sports story (or movie) that does not include somewhere in its structure the difficulty of teamwork.
“They do not blame each other when mistakes are made,” Adrian Franklin observes. Another truism? You would be amazed at how rarely people take responsibility, and even more rarely do people seem to understand that no matter what happens, you were part of it, and you think and act with the calm that comes from knowing you are still part of it.
There were not many mistakes in that first set, which is one reason it went to a tiebreak. The Australian women get ahead early — it looked like 4-1, but the score is less important than what happened, which was that the Czech girls — they are young women, but we speak of the girls of the tennis courts as we speak of the boys of summer — against whom they were playing just smile at each other and even it up on Lucie Hradecka’s serve, and then make the slightest slip again and Ashley-Casey are a set up.
Australians are low key, not exactly stiff upper lip types but certainly not given to wild celebration, but Adrian observes that it has been a while since the glory days of Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Margaret Court. In any event, he says with typical understatement, Ashley Barty has a strong future ahead.
She is not the only one — the junior girls tournament, played by teens practically Miss Barty’s age, brought out some phenomenal talent. The final between the American Tornado Alicia Black and the Croatian Ana Konjuh was excruciating in its tense drama, and it really does not matter who won, if these kids — they are kids — and the boys playing on nearby courts and who were doing just as well in their boyish ways (Borna Coric, also of Croatia, played three sets against the Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis), stay in the sport, there is no reason to fear for its future, at least no athletic reason.
But the Czech team, which has a substantial record, notably a win at the French Open in 2011, demonstrated in the semis that their looks belied their iron nerves. In the semis they beat the team of Serena and Venus Williams, five-time winners at Wimbledon, four-time winners at Melbourne, two-time winners at Paris and New York.
Lithe, blonde, light, slim, fair, as girls then to be in Prague and Plzen, the home towns respectively of Miss Hradecka and Miss Hlavackova, they are a fortress and an artillery unit as they hold their line.
Mitteleuropa, a civilization as well as a geographic expression, produces beautiful girls. So does North America. We must worry whether Mitteleuropa did itself in, permanently, by the atrocities of the past century. But thanks to tennis we can think of beautiful girls in Prague and Plzen, as well as Perth and Ipswich, Lynwood and Saginaw, and of course Brooklyn and Queens.
Now it is the second set of the final, and Lucie and Andrea are unfazed by that tiebreak. They come back very strong, sweep the second set 6-1. Their ground strokes are hard and sharply aimed to the lines and the corners, their footwork and their volleys make them resemble a well-oiled machine: a well-rehearsed dance movement is more like it. When people function well together, they anticipate what the situation is bringing and know what their best contribution can be without being told. This may sound like a truism, but take a look and see how hard it is. In doubles tennis, the key to victory is that you know what your partner can do and therefore you can confidently set up a play where you know he (or she) will come through. At its most elementary — which is nowise to belittle it — this play involves a serve that should come right back at the partner at the net, who can then finish the point. Among professionals, this happens more often than you might expect, because you can only do so much so often in returning a serve that is working well. You see this clearly with Venus Williams guarding the net after her sister puts a twist on one of her serves; with her reach (“wingspan”) and fast hands, she can get almost anything that comes back. The basic strategy the Czechs used against these two was to concentrate on breaking Venus’s serve and then hold their own, though in the second set they got ahead of themselves and broke Serena too.
After that near shut out in the second set of the final, the Australian girls immediately get back at them. It is going to be point for point all the way to the end of the deciding set. The key moment came in the 11th, when they knew exactly what they had to do. Andrea Hlavackova on how they did it:
[A]t a close game you need me to get something on the duce side to give her a chance to close it.
First she didn’t close it but then she did. I trusted her on that game because I knew she’s been having great games yesterday [in the semi-final against the Williams sisters], and I was believing that she will play through today again.
Then I was confident on my serve.
Lucie’s great games that Andrea referred to were the late games of the second set of their semifinal. They played almost flawless defensive tennis, shooting back the artillery shots the Williams sisters sent to them. Serena should by all rights have been in a winning mood, having won her singles semi handily earlier in the day, putting an end to a fine run of Asian power, unless you count Australia as an Asian power. Ashley Barty and Casey Dellacqua, as it happens, were the ones who beat the Sino-Indian team of Jie Zheng and Sania Mirza, but is Australia an Asian power or a Pacific power? Serena beat Li Na, who managed to look at the bright side although, frankly, the score says some, if not all of it, 6-0, 6-3. Miss Williams was magnanimous in victory: “I think she played well. It was, I thought especially towards the end, a very quality match.” The end saw some remarkable defense, as Miss Li saved match point after match point, but you do not see Soren Kiergegaard, sending in a dispatch on this headlined “Either Or.”
Serena said she and her sister played “miserable” tennis in the semis, and it is true they made errors, 21 to the Czechs’ seven. Still, the Czech win was fully deserved. They proved it in their tenacious win the final when they needed all their nerve and sinew to close out the difficult third set. It was a great day in Prague and Plzen and Karvina. Karvina is the hometown of Radek Stepanek, who with the great veteran Leander Paes (who is 40; but Radek is almost 35) stopped Mike and Bob Bryan (who are also 35) on his way to a doubles championship.
“It’s for like our small country something big,” Lucie said.
The Paes-Stepanek win over Bryan Bros. rendered their title win almost anti-climatic, though to be sure they enjoyed it. Leander Paes is now one of the winningest players in the sport’s history, and it is a pity the doubles game at which he excels does not attract more attention. This is Paes’ third championship win at Flushing Meadows, and he has got three championships at Roland Garros and one each at Melbourne and Wimbledon. But one of the most remarkable things about Leander Paes is his old fashioned sense of being on team. After beating the Bryan’s, he said “I will be with him in his corner no matter where we go in our lives,” and he reminded the press that when Stepanek was gravely injured at the Australian Open, requiring spinal surgery, he never considered offers to take other partners: “… that’s not what you do. What you do is you stand by your partner.”
You stand by your job, too, and the city that makes it possible. He reminisced: “… what New York stands for … is phenomenal. I was actually in the Twin Towers, the basement, the night before it went down. I still have a receipt from … a store … there I bought some khaki pants from, and I was there after a mixed doubles final.… So I was there literally less than 12 hours, probably 10 hours before it happened. The resilience that New Yorker’s show is the reason I love this city.… I love this city. It’s awesome. “
Tomorrow: TAS reviews the women’s and men’s finals, Vikotoria Azarenka vs. Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal.