James Blake hits an ace, and on his next serve, match point, crushes the return of serve with a forehand winner, putting a definitive end to a rally that Lukas Lacko managed to carry through the third set and the first two games of the fourth. During that rally the 24-year old Slovene found reserves of strength and shrewdness that were not in evidence in the first two sets and it even seemed he might use finesse against Blake's superior power, probing against the lower-ranked American's troubled backhand and getting shots past him at the net. He did not have enough of whatever he needed, and the 32-year old Blake gets the critical points as they go down the stretch, in particular several at which Lacko has the ad.
James Blake, a New York-born Floridian, is one of the more popular American players and he had the crowd with him at Louis Armstrong Stadium as the U.S. Open got underway yesterday at Flushing Meadows, Queens. It is the last grand slam tournament of the 2012 season, the most extravagant, probably the most popular, in the etymological sense of the word; the first day brought out a huge audience, filling the stands at the storied stadia, Arthur Ashe, Armstrong, Grandstand -- the latter the scene of a strong first round performance by Jack Sock, the tennis world's most famous Nebraskan after Andy Roddick and an up-and-coming hope of American tennis. Sock easily put away Germany's Florian Mayer, with a flurry of aces and service winners that left the German shaking his head, but also with some deft and elegant play at the net that assured him control of the match's dynamic.
Sock's partner in last year's mixed doubles victory here, Melanie Oudin, was less impressive, overwhelmed in two sets by Lucie Safarova, a left-handed, strong-hitting player from Brno, Czech Rep. It did look like the day was going to the big hitters, but in the most anticipated event on the women's side of the tournament, the clash between the Ice Queen of Siberia, Florida's own Maria Sharapova, and the elegant and haughtily beautiful Magyar Melinda Czink, it was primarily a match of placement and movement. Miss Sharapova's service, often a question mark, was effective and consistent, and she placed three times as many winners as Miss Czink, whose grace could not completely cover the strain of playing on the main stage at the mighty U.S. Open, in the world's greatest city.
New Yorkers support their tennis extravaganzas, as they support their big leagues ball clubs (the Mets play next door to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which is the official name of the complex here) and indeed everything else that emanates from the city that Alexander Hamilton did so much to make great -- a point of history that the Grand Old Party, convened in Tampa, would do well to remember this week. New York, gateway to freedom for people from almost everywhere, is suffused with a municipal patriotism that serves it well. Shrugging off a rain delay of over two hours, the show goes on as boisterously and gruffly as ever. The mayor is here tonight to welcome the great tournament and the thousands of fans -- according to reports, but I must say I have not spotted him; admittedly he is of small stature -- and the Star Spangled Banner is sung by the lovely Jordin Sparks before the start of the evening session (featuring Kim Clijsters and Roger Federer) and if the New York National Guard regimental band is not here maybe it is because they are otherwise engaged; they surely would be welcome.
However, to get back to this matter of the luck of the draw and the tough first round bracket positions, being up against the best on the very first day is the inevitable fate of those who are not the best. It would have been fine if Miss Czink drawn at least a couple of easier rounds, giving this unjustly little known player a chance to become better known to American fans. By contrast, Donald Young, who was in the same spot a few hours later facing Roger Federer, is known as a player perennially showing promise. This year has been disappointing, but he snapped a long losing streak only a week or two ago at one of the last Masters in the U.S. season at Winston-Salem, so it must have been galling to have to start over again so quickly by being dealt the world's number one, and the number one seed at the Open.
Well, life goes on; and you must consider that Donald Young is only 23 (Federer is 31) and he is among the 128 best male tennis players in the world, if you use the criterion of being invited to the U.S. Open. Teen Victoria Duval, still another gift of immigration to American greatness (her parents are Haitian M.D.'s), gave Kim Clijsters, who has announced this is her last hurrah, a lively fight on many points, but finally succumbed to the three-time U.S. Open champion's experience and toughness. Or Go Soeda, of Kanagawa, Japan: he gave Mardy Fish a real scare in the second set of their match, which the American gritted out in three.
There will be a few days, a week actually, to sort out the very best from the very good, and there will be fine tennis along the way and disappointments and exhilarations in equal measure as each round cuts the field in half with slices of yellow balls bouncing and skidding over neat blue surfaces of exact, and exactly similar, dimensions. In the meantime it is well to think of how fortunate we are in having in the same week the peak of the sport's season and the peak of the pre-campaign in our great quadrennial exercise in democracy. New York and Tampa, great and vital and pulsing centers of who we are as a nation, what a pleasant and invigorating accident of scheduling.
As many win as lose until there is only one left, that is the iron and meritocratic law of a tennis tournament. I suppose we would like to say the same thing about our political process, but of course politics is an inexact science and you do not have the same objective criteria of success. It makes perfect sense for Australia's Samantha Stosur, who is the defending champion here, to easily win her first round match against Petra Martic of Croatia, also at Arthur Ashe Stadium, early in the day, just as it made sense for Andy Murray to win in three sets whose scores (6-2, 6-4, 6-1) make them look easier than they were, over Russia's Alex Bogomolov. Murray dominated, with twice as many winners than Bogomolov, but observers got the impression several times that he was going into one his notorious self-imposed mental derailings -- actually, it is much fairer to say that it was, rather, Bogomolov who put up a good fight and played some brilliant points. Sure, tennis is mental and you are up against yourself as well as your opponent, but you have to give him credit, always. That is sportsmanship.
This is something that no one seems able to do in the political sphere. I fail to see why, in a democracy, we cannot grant to the other side a measure of respect and even the ultimate respect of saying they have a point. It seems to me that was the attitude that characterized, for example, the disagreements between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. In the end they supported each other; Douglas never doubted that saving the Union was more important than being president. Well now, I know I should not mix great and profound historical themes with sports coverage, and I know, too, that gentlemanly behavior on the playing fields is often honored more in the breach; but you know what I mean.
Well, it was a fine start, Roger Federer finished the day with a fine display of form and power while Donald Young was a brave competitor and a good loser. Rain and all, the tournament rolls; and it will be a great week for America, showing how welcoming and freewheeling we are, in the world of sports and in the realm of ideas for government, it is a week to say to the world, Look at us, we're getting it on!
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