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Masters at Work

When the going gets tough, the masters get tougher.

By 6.6.12

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PARIS -- Novak Djokovic kept things simple as the much-heralded match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga got under way Tuesday afternoon at Chatrier's center court. It got complicated after the first set, which the Serb won handily, and for three nail-biting classics, it was clear the match could go either way, as indeed these sets did, 2-1 Tsonga. It was Tsonga's first time ever in the quarter finals at the French Open, formally the Internationaux de France, played at the historic and legendary Roland-Garros stadium near the Porte d'Auteuil on the west side of Paris and named for a World War I ace who went down with his craft in October 1918.

Tsonga himself said it: the pressure would be on the mighty Serb, because the goal of the world Number 1 is to reach the final and win it, thus accomplishing the rare feat in this sport of being the defending champion in all four top tournaments at the same time (to win them all in the same calendar year is the next level, but only Don Budge and Rod Laver have reached it). For J.W., France's top player, the goal was already, achieved: get at least to the quarters in all four majors. He never has been at his best on clay and this one, on his own native ground, had thus far eluded him. And once he got ahead 2-1 by letting Djokovic alternate fabulous groundstrokes with unspeakable (for him) errors, as well as by executing some fabulous plays of his own, notably with attacks at the net, it had to strike him that getting to the quarters was fine, but more was within reach. So the pressure mounted on both men. The fourth set was, for Tsonga, a heartbreaker, as indeed he showed in a comparatively heartless fifth. But it also has to be said that Djokovic's courage in that fourth, when he attacked with what seemed like reckless disregard for prudence when only a point away from disaster, was the mark of a very great sportsman.

Popular in France -- he is a native of Le Mans, the famous auto racing venue, though he lives in Switzerland, perhaps for the proximity to Roger Federer -- JW is a big young man of 27, who has an inch or two on Djokovic and at least 20 pounds, and he is fast and agile like the basketball power forward that his brother, in fact, is. He has beaten most of the top players, including yesterday's opponent, but never won a final at a grand slam, though admittedly in the years he has been pro no one on the men's circuit has whose name is not Federer, Nadal, del Potro or Djokovic. Indeed his ranking, presently number 5, reflects the structure of a strong generation of champions, dominated by a stratospheric quartet directly under whom are a number of obviously great players who no less obviously share a certain degree of frustration and disappointment.

Tournament hunger is palpable at the Roland-Garros stadium, where French tennis fans bear some resemblance to those who regularly sit in the bleachers at Wrigley Stadium. It is not the same kind of sport, to be sure, and there is some consolation in the fact of a winner on the ladies' side in 2000, Mary Pierce (American father), and no one is saying that does not matter, but you know.

You know what, the thought police asks brutally. Well, you may end up in jail within our lifetimes for saying this, but the real fact is simply that tennis -- like baseball -- is played at a higher level by men than by women. This was shown very clearly, if not in a statistically definitive manner, by some other matches that happened to be held earlier in the day we are considering here, namely the gentlemen's and ladies' doubles quarter finals. In the former, Mike and Bob Bryan (the only American men still standing at Roland Garros, all the singles contestants having been eliminated and Ryan Harrison having lost his last doubles the previous day with his Australian partner Matthew Ebden) overwhelmed the Austro-Argentine team of Oliver Marach and Horacio Zeballos, marvelously gifted players but no match for the mighty Bryans, to whom the only meaningful comparison in the Open era is the legendary Woodies team of Australia, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. In the latter, the U.S.-Kazakh team of Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova -- the same who the previous day beat the most famous Chinese person in the world (plus French Open defending champion), Na Li, crushing her in two sets, 6-2, 6-0, after dropping the first -- was downed decisively by the Russians Maria Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova, notwithstanding their ghastly attire.

Which proves clothes are not everything, where women are concerned, but the point here is that leaving aside the disappointment felt by a bundle of American charm as well as a promise for a better reputation for Kazakhstan, there was simply no reason to even want to compare the two matches, which is why no one did. Which in turn is why no one ever compares the ladies tour with the men's, except sometimes when talking about money. And why should the money be the same, anyway (as is increasingly demanded?)

The Bryan's are breathtaking athletes, who combine the acrobatic coordination required by the top level men's doubles game, fast as ping-pong and incomparably more difficult (indeed, closer to hockey than ping pong), with a tactical sense worthy of a jazz combo. They know exactly when to pick up on each other's strokes and carry the tune through to where it is going, which is first a point (the point at issue) and eventually, almost invariably, a match point and victory. The women's game is qualitatively different. It consists of two women sharing one side of the court, playing against two other women doing the same on the other side. This may be fun. It is what most recreational doubles players do on weekends or late summer evenings. Of course the Vania King's and Maria Kirilenko's of this world do it much better, but it is not what their sometime partners in mixed doubles are doing.

Vania King, whose brother is also a tennis player, is a second-generation American (her parents immigrated from Taiwan before she was born) who expresses an image of Chinese -- and Chinese-American -- tennis players that is quite different from the one Na Li projects. Though not without a sense of humor off the court, Miss Li is fierce, a "dragon lady" in the not unfair stereotype, whom you would not want to cross. Her eyebrows slant downward, her eyes flash, her mouth is set, hard. She is from Hubei, deep in China's heartland, and, correct me if I am mistaken for I say this with no prejudicial intent, she is a Han, one of the dominant Chinese tribes (I refuse to use the term "ethnic group" for anti-communist reasons), a tough dame if you ask me, again no prejudicial intent.

Vania is one of the rare people, especially among the women, whom you will find in a high level tennis tournament who actually looks like she is enjoying herself. Looks, to be sure, can be deceptive. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, both of whom found themselves on the main court surrounded by screaming hostile fans of their opponents (contest: explain why this was so in 18 words or less, send answers to author c/o The American Spectator; winners will be announced in a later issue but other than that will not get any rewards, recognition of their wits being already over-generous). Well, they very obviously were enjoying themselves no end. Maybe it was a mean streak in them -- making all these people suffer -- or, more likely, the sheer passion of competition, but as the tide turned in their respective matches, boy, did their faces show an evil gleeful joy! Priceless, as the credit card ad has it.

However, with Vania, the joy is so simple and clear and clean that it is simply fun to watch her, and it scarcely seems to matter whether she wins or loses. Perhaps when you think about it afterward it does, but not as much as with the Bryan boys, because there, big stakes are at stake, world domination in doubles, men's doubles. I want American girls to play well and play hard and play with dedication and love of good sportsmanship but I honestly cannot worry too much if they lose or win. I want our girls to win in ballet. Possibly in gymnastics and ice skating, certainly in skiing, swimming, and softball. I understand that girls' basketball has been played for almost as many years as boys', and so good for it, and for them that play. But it is exactly my point. For all their agility and skill and grace and beauty, you do not compare the women's game, either at the college level or in the WBA, with the men's.

So anyway, the big event, or rather events, of the day were that the question being decided, namely whether the Top Men were going to be in the Top Square, the Final Eight, and sure enough -- actually it occurs only rarely --, it came out exactly the way it was seeded to come out, with one exception. The great Roger Federer, who came back from 0-2 to beat the great Argentine Juan Martin del Potro (who beat Roger for the 2009 U.S, Open title) 3-2, meets the world's top man Novak Djokovic later this week, who came back from 1-2 to overcome the mighty Jo Tsonga in yesterday's bitterly cold and damp afternoon epic at Chatrier with the crowd roaring and rocking. The battling man of Majorca and World's Greatest Clay Court Champion, Rafael Nadal, goes up against compatriot Nicolas Almagro, who defeated the more highly seeded Janko Tipsarevic, while Andy Murray, representing the Land of Hope and Glory (as well as Scotland) has it out with Rafa's other compatriot, David Ferrer, and should be a tough one because Murray battles like a lion and Ferrer like a bull. Almagro and Ferrer are from the southeastern provinces, the Mediterranean coastlines, of Spain, where you can play tennis all year. La Mancha, which is in Castille, does not produce great tennis players (or bullfighters), but of course it gave us ___ (fill in the blank and get an extra recognition if you participate in the contest above).

The last several matches, the Bryans' very specifically included, have been superlative, and though the masters involved in them are all highly particular in their styles of play and their strategies and, apart from the determination to win, their ways of approaching to the sport, they did bring out a simple, or deceptively simple, common point, which is that when you get into trouble, how you get out of it reveals your deep talent, or character. Andy Murray got into trouble with Richard Gasquet, and Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic got into real trouble with their respective opponents yesterday, and it did not faze them. The play got tough, and they got tougher. They wore out their opponents, physically and mentally. In this regard, it must be said that Djokovic was the most impressive, if only because del Potro simply could not keep up once Federer put his foot down in the third set and began dictating every point (as did the Bryans, totally dominating from the net with power and lighting speed but outplaying from the back court when they had to), as neither could Gasquet against Murray. But Tsonga put up a fight for three very hard sets, getting four match points which he just could not close. The question will have to be whether, assuming Nadal gets past Almagro and either Ferrer or Murray (which is a big assumption though a fair one), his fierceness will weigh more heavily than Federer's competiveness and shrewdness or Djokovic's grit and spark.

As Rafa Nadal has been, thus far, the best player in the tournament, the stakes yesterday really boiled down to getting a little close to seeing who is going to get a shot a dethroning him (he is the defending champion; he won last year, beating Roger Federer who in the semis had stopped Novak Djokovic, then, and afterwards again, on a great run, one of the greatest in tennis history). The consensus in the press box was this. They all look good -- damn good.

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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.