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Tennessee Terrific

They call him the Comeback Kid, but soon it will be the Master.

By 8.30.12

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Tall slim strong: and with a grace that brings gasps from the seasoned New York audience -- forgive the redundancy -- Brian Baker gently puts a drop shot over the net, a killer move that he plays as well as anyone else on the Tour, stays on his toes.

But Jan Hajek, already in a deep hole, goes for it and, though Baker has been putting shots away from him throughout the match, catches this one and strikes it well, forcing Brian back to stretch for it and hit back a playable volley. Another exchange like this and the Czech sends one flying over the Tennessean's head, well out of bounds.

I turn to Jim Madrigal, Baker's coach and fellow-Tennessean, "Soft hands?" Mr. Madrigal, an amiable and patient gentleman from Knoxville, had just explained to me the meaning of the term, which refers to the ability to catch a hard-driven shot at the net and gently direct it out of the hitter's reach, or drop it so gently just over the net that he cannot return it.

He shakes his head. "Luck."

And grins. It is the luck champions make for themselves. He had a lucky break midway through the first set when Hajek, a strong-hitting, gritty baseliner who is ranked 92, gave away the sixth game with a double fault and an unforced error, giving Baker the first break of the match. You never say no to luck in tennis, but Baker scarcely needed it, dominating with a form and tactics that kept his opponent off balance throughout.

Even the short rally Hajek managed in the third set gave Baker a chance to display the qualities that have brought him a growing fan base since he recovered from an ordeal of serial injuries requiring major surgery and returned to the Tour this year.

He had an impressive clay court season, reached the second round at the French Open and the fourth at Wimbledon, and after a comparatively disappointing hard-court season he comes to the U.S. Open in as good condition as he has been all year, if the accuracy of his shots, the decisiveness of his serves, and the all-around tactical sense are anything to go by. The classy drop shots are an aesthetic treat; no less impressive are the power top spins that seem bound to fly out of bounds and then drop just on the baseline.

Does this sound like gushing? Then I plead guilty. Brian Baker of Nashville, Tennessee, is a fine player and it is one of those things, that we bemoan but cannot complain about, that he missed the years that would have almost certainly made him, today, among the top 10 players. Not to worry: Roger Federer is proving at this tournament that the relentless youth-oriented drive of big-time tennis must be rethought. Not to be self-serving, but I never thought much of it. I am all for youth and I simply love it, for example, that we have a 16-year old Haitian American, Victoria Duval, who is promising to give American tennis a great star in the years to come, right up there next to the scarcely older Sloane Stephens.

The reality is that American tennis is in pretty good shape, judging from the early rounds here at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the heart of Flushing Meadows, Queens and right next door to Mets baseball. Queens, this week and next, is the greatest borough in the greatest city on earth. And there are quite a few young up and coming stars -- Jack Sock from Nebraska, Ryan Harrison and his 18-year-old brother Christian from Louisiana, Dennis Novikov from Florida (correction: the author and TAS apologize for mistakenly giving Dennis 19 years in the previous dispatch, which he will in fact only have in November), Rhyne Williams, another Tennesseean, who lost a nice first-round match against Andy Roddick, earning the latter's respect, California's Vania King, and surely quite a few more who will forgive me if I fail to mention them; they are a rich field and it takes time to count them all.

Yes, we are a rich, rich country. The prize money here is huge: 1.9 mil for the winner (men's draw). We can afford to reward our winners, even if we do it in a messy way that sometimes seems unfair. It is. But so is life (dixit John F. Kennedy). And it is better than the alternative, which is obligatory fairness enforced by -- I ask you.

We produce great kids and great adults too, like the doubles team that is moving up to the front in the political wars to take on the task of restoring the very qualities of American opportunity, invention, and confidence that bring the world's wretched, who are also the world's best, to these shores and to this, this very borough, this great and hustling and marvelous Queens. And that too, take the heavy-handed analogy for what it is worth, is why the U.S. Open is so great, so unlike any other tournament in tennis, because it is the tournament that says you have made it all the way to the land of hope and freedom and --

All right, all right, I can hear Mr. Tyrrell murmuring, cut the crap, we are conservatives, not sentimentalists, and when was the last time you won a set, hah?

As it happens, I had a reasonably satisfactory match the day before leaving Washington, where I confess my residence is located, splitting sets with my pal Nate before we decided to quit. It was 2-2, we play long. Basically, we are irresponsible bums, we play much too much. We decided to call it a draw not because we had work to do, but because, as Nate said, "This way we can say we had a rain delay and we can resume as soon as you return from New York," which he does not pronounce Noo Yawk, as Mr. Thornberry does. Mr. Thornberry is a Rays fan, so I assume -- correct me, Larry -- this means we share an admiration for the late, great Mr. George Steinbrenner.

Who was a New York power and who did not, as far as I know, live in Queens.

Meanwhile, John Isner, another hope of U.S. tennis, held off a tough rally by the resilient and friendly Xavier Matisse of Belgium and prevailed at Arthur Ashe in four sets, with a tiebreak that went to 20 points in the fourth. Isner is the highest-seeded American at the Open (9th) on the men's side.

On the ladies', America's own Divine Divas, Venus and Serena Williams, easily beat fellow-Americans Lindsay Lee-Waters and Megan Moulton-Levy, next to whose very nice mother-in-law I found myself sitting in the Grandstand court. The Williams sisters, having brought back Olympic gold, are aiming to dominate still another time at this tournament where they are great fan favorites -- the charming little stadium next to Louis Armstrong Stadium was packed like a can of sardines and felt positively deserted, though it was far from that, when the talented but temperamental Ryan Harrison took on Germany's Benjamin Becker right after the divas quick win.

The doubles match was inspired only in fits and starts, as Miss Venus went sluggish on her backhand only to put in some outstanding demonstrations of net play, and Misses Lee-Waters and Moulton-Levy were, notwithstanding their evident good nature, stage-struck. By contrast, Ryan Harrison put on a superb display of all-court dominance, attacking and defending with equal effectiveness.

No need to wave the red, white and blue to say Americans young and less young are doing well, and there is no need to take anything away from such fur'ners as Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic (seeded 8th) who once again showed why he cannot be underestimated when he came back from two sets down to beat France's Guillaume Ruffin, with the same patience and skill for which he is renown and feared. But it certainly is fine to wave the red, white and blue from time to time, and take special heart in that great American story of courage and never-say-die from Nashville, Tennessee.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.