By Roger Kaplan on 6.5.12 @ 6:05AM
Can’t get anywhere without ‘em in tennis these days.
She’s got her ticket, I think she’s gonna use
Think she’s gonna fly away…
— Tracy Chapman, American balladeer, singing about an American girl
To me she looked a bit round, additional to very fit and long-limbed, and I thought this was fine. But the colleague next to me in the press section said, no, that is just a little normal roundness there in the middle. She is lean, tall, fair, and this roundness is womanly. Well, in any case, she is the greatest. She is having a good season. Her name is Petra Kvitova and she won Wimbledon last year and she is scarcely more than a girl, albeit now a fully grown woman, from Bilovec originally and now Fulnek, two little Moravian towns not far from Ostrava, home town of the great Czech master Ivan Lendl. And she just beat the last American standing and I hope, sincerely, she goes all the way and wins this tournament, these Internationaux de France at the incomparable Roland Garros complex near the Porte d’Auteuil in a handsome neighborhood on the west side of the greatest city on earth, tied with New York and London. And — as Petra might say with a nod to her Bohemian neighbors, being the soul of niceness — Prague.
I am a reporter and I report nothing but the facts, ma’am, but I have to confess I came to the legendary and charming Court 1 last night under the ominous gray skies and feeling the drizzles in the air rooting for Barbara, Varvara as she still prefers to be called, Varvara Levchenko, our princess and our champion with everyone else gone and beaten in the singles draws, our Last Man Standing except of course she’s a woman, and American woman,
My love don’t give me presents
Turn me on when I get lonely
People tell me she’s only
Foolin’, I know she isn’t
She’s a woman who understands
She’s a woman who loves her man!
She is from Allentown, Pennsylvania, O’Hara country if memory serves, and before that she is from Tashkent, she not only is an American woman, she is an Immigrant Woman — like my grandmother and, reader, most likely like yours — and she partakes of what we call proudly and rightly The American Dream.
But tonight, I admit, I am a traitor, once the match got under way I knew I favored Petra.
Sure, of course, let the better man (or woman) win and all that English public school ethos, I support that, but let us not deceive ourselves. Petra was so good, so dominant, so elegant in the all-court all-game all-strokes all-around win on Court Number One, the charming little “bullring,” as they call it for its shape and size, behind the grand and classically designed Chatrier where the mighty Scot, Andy Murray, against a hostile crowd in near-freezing windy weather, was even then demonstrating why he is the greatest player of his time Who Cannot Win a Slam — but maybe if he keeps playing this way he will pull it off here at the French Open, though when he starts playing Spaniards, as he must in the next round (David Ferrer), he will be against a tougher race than he has faced so far.
Actually, it was because of Murray, who was demolishing a Frenchman with a beautiful one-handed backhand, Richard Gasquet, but not much else, that Petra and Barbara, or Varvara, were playing on Court No. 1. It was about 16 degrees centigrade by the end of the day, and it looked like a major storm was on the way, with those heavy gray clouds such as filled the sky the day Napoleon met Wellington in a suburb of Brussels called Waterloo. They — the organizers of this tournament — did not want, if they could avoid it, to reschedule matches, they already had done that on this same day (which was why Stan the Man Wawrinka several hours earlier had faced down the Great Jo-Wil Tsonga and almost but not quite stayed upright), so instead of letting the ladies wait for Andy and Ricky to finish what appeared for a couple sets to be heading for one of the grueling gritty grinding four- hour five- setters that have characterized the better matches lately, which surely would make it impossible for the young ladies — Petra is 22, Barbie is 25 — to play, they noted that the “bullring” was available and —
And the rest is history. We, the Americans, are out. We are finished. One of the junior boys might yet get somewhere, but I would not put money on it, and in the big leagues, we are gone. And I take no comfort in the fact the Chinese are gone, too. Shuai Peng got whipped the day before yesterday by the tall and graceful and shrieking Russian (based in Florida) Maria Sharapova, who is favored to go all the way this week and add her one missing Grand Slam trophy to her record book, and today it was the mighty Na Li, most famous Chinese person on earth (out of about a billion) and the defending champ here, who got totally humiliated by an unknown Kazakh named Yaroslava Shvedova. It is not even clear to anyone that there is a single tennis court in Kazakhstan, which is somewhere north and east of Pakistan, where we are playing for keeps and with real bullets, not these fuzz-covered yellowish balls that, due to our mindless trade policy, are made in China, and — sorry, I promised Mr. Tyrrell I would not mix sports and foreign affairs in these pages, I take that back. Although I cannot help noting that the Babolat balls that they use here are made in France. The French may be about to make a run for the exits in Afghanistan — still another stan without a tennis court in sight — they must be yet doing something right, at least on the sports industry front.
Yaroslava Shvedova does not sound Kazakh to me. It sounds distinctly Russian and, in fact, this very fair and solidly built Yaroslava appeared, as she went about bouncing Na-na around the legendary Lenglen court, as Russian as they come, Russian women. Mr. Pleszczynski knows much more about this racial stuff in the former Russian empire than I do, but until I can get back to Arlington and ask him I am forced back on my intuitive sense that in places like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where Varvara is from originally, there are, or once were, Russians. They were not all Uzbeks and Kazakhs in those places, such as you read about in Michael Strogoff and other boys’ own books on the barbaric lands of Central Asia.
Varvara’s father and mother decided that there was no hope for them or their children in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, and made a dash for Allentown, PA, when they got the chance. And good for them, Varvara is now our only hope, or was until she got into a match with Petra Kvitova. You want to go deep in a tennis tournament and make some cash, try to avoid the bracket that has Petra in it. Eventually, however, you can run but you cannot hide, so you may as well face the music. She is amazing. She can do everything, and she does. Varvara — and bless her for carrying our colors this far — looked finally as if she was giving up, and went down in a few minutes in the second set, 1-6, as the thick dark gray clouds gathered overhead. And note that she has stuff, too — did she not beat the great Francesca Schiavone a day or two before? But she is limited. She has a very limited, if strong and stubborn, game. In this regard, a match between Francesca and Petra — I say this objectively and putting aside patriotic considerations — would really be a beaut, two absolutely classic all-court all-shot women, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, that sort of thing, or in another era Suzanne Lenglen (the legend for whom they named the beautiful stadium where Na went down before the mighty Kazakh girl) and Helen Wills.
Where would we be without strong immigrant women. Well, we do have a future hope in teenage phenom Sloane Stephens, a wonderful bundle of talent with a wonderfully supportive family (which unfortunately the father deserted prior to getting indicted on morals charges after dashing a promising pro-football career and finally ending it all in a car wreck), and she had a nice run until being stopped by U.S. Open champ Samantha Stosur, who is Australian. But she is frightfully young and gives us reason to hope for the next several years — hope for her and hope there may be some boys her age out there who can play as well as she does and might be induced to put aside their other teenage activities and devote some time to the sport.
Well, immigrants, promising teens, veterans (Serena and Venus Williams, even if they did not go deep), we should thank them for making a better show than the men. Ryan Harrison got as far as the round of 16 in doubles with Aussie partner Matthew Ebden, a classicist, but classics were not enough as they double faulted their way to defeat before a Bulgar-Canadian duo, Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor, who are as likely as not going to meet the Bryan’s, Mike and Bob, in the finals, and that will absolutely be the end of the American run.
So, you can say quite a lot about American women — check out Tom Petty, among many, many others — but where would be without them? At least at the French Open, , we would be, strictly, nowhere, which simply goes to confirm the old American adage that if you can’t live with ‘em, ya can’t do without ‘em, either, so obviously it’s better to live with ‘em and make do.
Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.
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