Can’t beat Flushing Meadows for a great weekend of pro tennis.
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On one rousing point in the third set, Roddick sent a perfect lob over the Italian at the net, who ran back and hit a fantastic tween (a shot between your legs with your back to the net) zooming over the net, which Roddick caught low and put away. Serve-and-volley against passing, risky groundstrokes down the line, both men played admirably, but with the score remaining extremely close for four sets, Roddick finally played with an intensity that left Fognini playing with just enough afterthought to lose the critical edge. When you get past thinking along the lines of How can he do that? or What am I doing wrong?, that is when the magical blend occurs and play turns to work, successful work, adult work.
That is what we saw in Roddick on the weekend and the reason there was buzz of cancelling his retirement plans. However, I am sure he is quite serious. And I am also sure that when we see players playing with opponents they know they are dominating, it is a sign of maturity — of monarchial behavior — that they do this in a respectful manner. The stunts they pull have a purpose and they are not done to excess and they refuse to make fun of their opponents. In this sense, the low moment of the basketball tournament at the recent Olympics came when an otherwise admirably sporting U.S. basketball team crushed the Nigerians like bullies, and added the bad manners of bragging about it.
At the Open, the up-and-coming Americans went down over the holiday weekend, but honorably and with displays of strengths and ambition that augurs well for our position in global tennis. They are young princes and princesses. Steve Johnson, scarcely out of his teens and playing as a wild card in his second Open, was decisively defeated by the second best French player, Richard Gasquet (world rank 14; the best, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, went out early), and it was fine, Gasquet on top of his game and playing very aggressively. Teenager Jack Sock, following a loss to the second-best Serb, Janko Tipsarevic (Novak Djokovic is still at the cruising stage, encountering no serious opposition), went on to lose alongside Melanie Oudin, his championship partner in last year’s mixed doubles, to an Anglo-Indian team, but here again it is fine, Sock is well on his way and is learning constantly, and young Melanie has many years ahead. Ryan and Christian Harrison are advancing in men’s doubles, might well meet the mighty Bryans (who speak highly of them) in the semis, and the charming and graceful Victoria Duval is advancing in the junior girls’, in which she is playing. (Correction: Miss Duval is still an amateur, which may not have been clearly conveyed in the earlier dispatch on her first-round loss to Kim Clijsters.)
This is why you learn to play, in every sense of the term. You learn not only to be good at the game, but to be good. Play is constructive, beneficial; teachers know how helpful games can be in learning. So do business leaders and indeed all managers of all kinds of organizations. But play is not without a dark and dangerous side, as Shakespeare knew.
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,
They kill us for their sport,
muses the well-meaning Gloucester, blinded by King Lear’s evil daughter. Did he get the idea from his contemporary John Webster, who, as Jay Jennings notes in the introduction to his fine anthology, Tennis and the Meaning of Life, writes in The Duchess of Malfi, “We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls, struck and bandied/Which way may please them.”
Lear was written ten years before Malfi, but it was revised (like much of Shakespeare’s work) and reworked and a specialist, such as the fellow who thought war in Mesopotamia would be a cakewalk, might provide some insights into this. It would be interesting to know, though inessential for my purpose here. Shakespeare and Webster were friends and competitors, and they may well have discussed this idea.
What is certain is that they both understood the deadly seriousness of play — which is perhaps why they did not neglect, even in their most earnest and tragic work, the play element in a play, or in a game of tennis.
(One more Correction: The report in an earlier dispatch that Novak Djokovic would meet American teenager Dennis Novikov in the third round was subverted by the latter’s loss to France’s Julien Benneteau, who went on to lose to the defending champion in three sets.
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