Live From New York

Promised City

It's only a game, but it's in New York. Next time maybe Jerzy Janowicz will appreciate that.

By 8.29.12

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In a hard-fought match on Court 10, one of the outside courts at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, site of the legendary U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, Polish star Jerzy Janowicz blew his cool several times in the direction of the chair ump, a prim and schoolmarm type who refused to be ruffled and told the young man, all six and a half feet of him, to stop second-guessing the line judges and get on with the match. That seems to have made the young Jerzy -- he is 22 but his place of birth was lost in translation when I spoke to him, for reasons that will become apparent -- even more angry and he slammed his way through the end of the second set and took his fury into the third. It appeared his opponent, 19-year old Dennis Novikov, was going to crumble, intimidated by the Polish charge.

Instead he dug in after nearly blowing the second set tiebreak after taking a 6-1 lead, and falling apart completely in the third set. He took a deep breadth (literally), shook his head a few times, smiled inwardly (it showed outwardly), and put his serve back to work. Dennis Novikov, who is nearly as tall as Janowicz but bigger, more muscular, has a very, very big serve.

The teenager finally pulled it out, keeping, it must be said, a more level tennis head than the young man, who repeatedly misjudged Novikov's speed and agility on the court and thus gave him opportunities to put away formidable forehand winners when he thought he was tripping him up with short lobs and slices. However, I was struck by the quality of both men's games. They are big, but they move as well as basketball players and eschew the old counter-punch, trying instead always to gain the initiative.

They have time to grow into great champions. The Floridian already seems well on the way to getting a firm mental control of his own game; that is to say, he sees the opportunity, refuses to be frazzled by the circumstances. If his serve is not working or, as in the third set, the forehand is unreliable, he'll figure it out and fix it; who else can?

And that is a very American attitude. Seize your chance; create your chances, what you make of them depends on you. This is one of the main reasons people came, and continue to come, to America. This is why people came and continue to come to New York, the promised city.

Jerzy Janowicz, after the match, was dejected, surly. He did not want to talk to anyone. Maybe his reputation had preceded him, but I found myself alone in an interview cubicle with him; usually I just listen to the questions of the other, more experienced and profound sports reporters, who come up with gems I never could have thought up, such as (of a winner), "Do you feel good about the way you played today, Joe?" or (of a loser), "Were you feeling pressure today, John?"

I came up with what I thought would be a good ice breaker, which given his demeanor I thought might be the thing to do. "So, shall we speak English or what?" What came back was incomprehensible, so I said, "You like New York?" He shrugged, but I could not tell if it meant indifference to New York or to telling me about it. It seemed to me he had been expressing himself in English when arguing with the ump.

"Well so," I continued, "where you from? City boy or country?"

At this point a Polish reporter stepped in and took over, so I excused myself.

Although I was sorry to have failed to get any insights into the development of tennis players in post-communist Poland -- Jerzy belongs to a generation that has no experience of stalino-totalitarianism -- I was very happy to have chosen to watch the action at Court 10. Sitting next to me was a group of boys and girls only a little younger than Jerzy Janowicz, and they were all rooting for him, though in a fairly demure and quiet way. A few rows away was a group of two or three men who were yelling encouragement to him at the top of their lungs, using the rhythmic chant heard in Yankee Stadium (Let's-go-Jer-zy!)

"You from Poland?" I hazarded, always the impertinent reporter. One of the girls, a really pretty one with a lean and slender look, smiled like the sunshine that was pouring down on that part of Queens (we were perspiring) and said, "Yes! How did you know!"

"I'm a trained reporter," I said. "Are you visiting America?" -- "My first time!" she gushed. "It is wonderful! We go," she pointed to the others, "to everywhere, tomorrow to the Statue of Liberty!"

"No!" I said, though in fact I happen to know there is always an enormous crowd at the Statue -- it is very popular. "You are all from the same family?"

"Yes, but they are my American cousins." It turned out the family had a branch that had come here and a branch that had stayed in Poland.

"And you support Jerzy?"

"Yes, yes!"

"Well, I am sure he appreciates it." (Actually I rather doubt it, judging from his disposition after the match, but at the time who could tell?) "Is it because you know him? You from the same town?"

"No! It is because he is Polish!"

They did not know where he was from, exactly, but they knew he was Polish, as did the louts yelling his name (which got some others yelling Dennis's name, which eventually led the ump to do her thing). They supported them and were mad about the other, more successful Polish player, Agnieszka Radwanska, who in fact easily won her first round match early in the day. Tribalism?

Nah, just the loyalty of the home team to the home. Or some such. Earlier in the day on Court 7, I had observed the same phenomenon. Jimmy Wang, a sleek and suave crosscourt ground-strokes specialist from Taipei, was up against Ivo Karlovic, a strong tall Croat. I am not sure about this, but it does seem tennis players are getting taller and bigger compared to the days of yore. In the days of yore they were tough little wiry guys, like Rod Laver or Jimmy Connors or Ivan Lendl. I do not mean these champions were short, but you know.

So, Karlovic -- big huge Croat, ranked and everything, against this little Chinese guy, though not all that small for Chinese, to be honest. I think the reason Chinese people tend to be fairly small by comparison, for instance, with Croats, is that there is not that much space in China. Or maybe it is the nutrition. At any rate, for the moment my favorite Chinese athlete is Yao Ming, because he created a foundation to put a damper on the ivory market -- very big in China -- due to his fears for the elephants and the rhinos. And he is right, they are in trouble, those beasts. And in the best conservationist spirit of the Republican Party, I say it is time we saved the elephants, as well as the rhinos. That would certainly rattle the liberal media types in Tampa who think they are covering a convention of reactionary greed-mad plutocrats -- save the elephants! Put it in the platform! See if the party gets credit! I can hear Messrs. McCain and Lord going har-har.

Jimmy Wang is a beautiful player to watch, full of deft movement and clever shots. In all fairness, Ivo was clearly suffering -- he was injured in the foot earlier this season and, from observing him today, he really should not be playing. He put up a good fight but, basically, he had to rely on a power serve -- he served so many aces I lost track -- but he had nothing else, kept whacking easy backhands out of bounds, that sort of thing, and Jimmy could pass him, notwithstanding his long arms, and force him into errors almost at will.

But this is neither here nor there. What is, for the purposes of this dispatch, is that sitting right next to me -- yes! Chinese! Cheering Chinese! Go Jimmy go! "You like Mr. Wang?" I inquired with rude inquisitiveness. But I already knew the answer. 

The tournament goes into its third day now, seeing as how everyone did his job on Tuesday and acquitted himself honorably. Sloane Stephens, the hot little powerhouse of American lady tennis, upset the veteran, if that is the term, Francesca Schiavone, who plays with all the elegance you would expect of an Italian -- these generalizations really are going to have to stop, I know -- and a great deal of athletic skill and passion besides, but young Miss Sloane was giving her shot for shot and a dollop of her own medicine and she out-finessed her.

Sam Querrey got a scare but pulled through -- and gave some exposure thereby to another under-appreciated star of Taiwanese tennis, Yen-Sun Lu, who I certainly hope will be heard from again soon, while another hope of American tennis, Rhyne Williams, who is still in his teens, was beaten by our perennial hope, Andy Roddick, good for him and Rhyne is on his way. Alex Dolgopolov, who is from Ukraine, beat Jesse Levine in a test of endurance that went the distance, and he deserves credit not only for the display of his high-risk style of play but for the resilience that got him back from two sets down. And to no one's surprise, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams wiped out their opponents as night fell on Arthur Ashe stadium, and it would be an act of kindness to refrain from publishing their names. But they came to Queens, Paolo Lorenzi and Coco Wandewhege: for that we thank them, as they, surely, also thank Queens for being there.

FLUSHING MEADOWS, QUEENS, is a borough in the north and east of the great city and apart from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the New York Mets, who play ball in the same neighborhood, it is known for the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills. But, in truth, Queens is known also as a place to which upwardly mobile immigrants move after getting their stakes in the grimier zones of Manhattan, the island-sized slum which people yearning for freedom encounter when they get off the boat and feel under their feet the promised city, where you are free to make your own mistakes and earn your own success and reach for your own dream.

Actually, Manhattan has improved a great deal since those days of yore. But Queens is still a destination for the upwardly outbound and the successful and those in search of a little extra space. This is a common human aspiration, perhaps even a universal one. As a result, there are people who live in Queens whose origins are on different continents. Mexicans, for example -- the Corona Park neighborhood is nearby -- and Chinese. And at a New York event like the U.S. Open, it is inevitable that a characteristic of New York should be manifest. People here mix and melt, learn to give their loyalty to a system and a society that insists there is only one set of rules -- as in sports, which is one reason early 20th century immigrants were baseball-crazy -- and very clear criteria of success, not arbitrary ones. Their families, however, give them, next to what the dynamism of American society gives, a need to connect back to something peculiar to themselves.

Immigrants often become passionate sports fans even when they have little time to practice a sport. They have to work, get their kids through school, help other members of their families and communities. Sports reconcile longings and values that, in some ways, are contradictory. Through sports people recognize and identify with the great meritocracy that is American society. And at the same time, they can root for their favorite players on irrational racial or tribal or ethnic or some other grounds.

On another outside court near the one where the tall young men battled it out for four sets, there was a spirited match between Shahar Peer and Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, and it was a great match, with the Israeli girl coming up from way behind and almost pulling it off but finally succumbing in the tiebreak that closed the match. They both played fine nerve-wracking baseline tennis with long rallies and risky shots into the far corners. Both young ladies received plenty of support, but it was clear the audience was mainly on the side of Miss Peer. "New York is one place," a man sitting next to me said when I asked him why he liked the Open, "where athletes are judged on their individual merits." He thought about that for a moment and added: "It is one of the places, and they are getting rarer, where Israelis -- and Jews -- can compete without running into all kinds of politically-inspired complications."

One of the things about these outside courts is that little known players get chances to try their skills before fairly small, fairly intimate audiences -- one hundred is a good guess, maybe two when a better known athlete like Miss Peer is on -- who care for them in an almost personal way, even though they never will meet them. I rather wished Jerzy could have met those kids; maybe he would have stopped sulking and smiled at the chance he had -- the chance to be here, at Flushing Meadows, in New York.

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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.