Sports Arena

Pain and Rain

Paris'll always have Brian Baker, and so will we.

By 5.31.12

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PARIS -- The way the play works, first you hit deep and push him behind the baseline, and it has to be a shot that he has to lunge for or hit on his heels, so the ball comes back shallow, inside the service line or thereabouts, and you go for it and he cannot be sure that you are not going to kill with a flat shot into a corner or right into his feet, and no matter how often you do this play he is going to hesitate because of that idea and when you touch the ball with a gentle slicing motion that brings the racquet from in front of your shoulder and down to your knees, he is never ready for what happens, which is that the ball drifts over the net like a feather and lands two or three feet on the other side and bounces low. And, if the play works the way it is supposed to, bounces again before he reaches it: even if he runs like a sprinter, has the reflexes of a boxer, and the peripheral vision of a point guard. But that is if it works the way it is supposed to.

If you consider this for a moment, you realize that the drop shot can only be executed consistently by someone who can hit the tennis ball very hard and very deep and very accurately. You do this to set up the shot. Most, in fact all, competitors at the French Open, known formally as the Internationaux de France and one of the four apex tournaments of the sport, can, of course, do this. But that is like saying that any Division I baseball pitcher, let alone a pro, can throw from the mound to the strike zone nine times out of ten at 90+ mph. The question is whether you can do that in match conditions, or game conditions when referring to our national pastime, when it is a different ball game. Under these conditions, when the other fellow is doing everything possible to keep you off balance, putting it there so he cannot do anything better than put it back where you want it, is rare, because you will not get many opportunities. But if you are very good, you create your opportunities.

Playing against Gilles Simon, the 12th ranked player in the entire known universe, Brian Baker, who is ranked 141st, placed dropped shot winners as if he were practicing free throws.  

Baker's ranking, to be sure, is relevant only to the fact that by getting it up there so quickly after having been out of the game for the past seven years due to extremely grave medical conditions requiring surgery, he proved immediately upon his return that he plays at a much higher level than the ranking suggests, not that 141, out of how many hundreds of thousands of would-be competitive players, is anything to scoff at. Baker is finding his way back, trying out game plans, tactics. There is his remarkable second serve. There is his aggressive volley play, courage at the net, deep hard backhand. The forehand is less reliable, tends to swank out of bounds when pressured. He is warming up, and in a year or two should have an all-court game that is fearsome. And there is that drop shot, which very few players master.

The proof of the effectiveness of this shot is that Gilles Simon cannot catch it. The rare times he does, the best he can do is lift the ball feebly over the net and watch helplessly as Baker, ready, puts it away. Contrast this with a duel earlier in the day between the tall man out of the Argentina, Juan-Martin Del Potro, and French doubles specialist Eduard Roger-Vasselin, who eventually lost. It was a fine spectator's match, almost everything well done -- except the drop shots. Del Potro, who belongs to a tiny elite that can seriously threaten the top four in the world, is a tall muscular slugger and Roger-Vasselin is a classicist who knows how to do everything with textbook form. But both, whenever they tried the drop, as often as not got caught by their own trick and found themselves backpedalling or abandoning the point as their soft put was caught and fired back away from them. No, it is not an easy shot. But despite its effectiveness in Baker's game, it is not enough. He cannot overcome Simon's resilience and consistency, losing the first two sets, 6-4, 6-1.

The third set goes, excruciatingly, to the tiebreak, because leading at 5-3, Baker takes chances, volley attacks in particular, and they do not pay off. Baker is intelligent, but not necessarily prudent -- much like Simon. In fact, they are both somewhat like Tony Parker or Paul Pierce, bold but strategic, not reckless. Simon, a thoughtful and perceptive man, is a good server, he hit more aces than Baker in this match, but Baker makes better use of his second serve, because he knows he is almost never going to miss it, and it often surprises. By contrast, he is ready for the opponent's second, stepping forward even more than most players do because he is quite sure of being able to attack it with an angling backhand, his most consistent and strong ground stroke.

The crowd is going a little wild at the legendary Chatrier stadium. This is a handsome stadium as it is, I cannot see why you would want to improve it, but they -- the French Tennis Federation folks, who own and manage it -- are going to be giving it a major renovation including, I am told, a retractable roof, for better or for worse, as part of the great Roland-Garros improvement-and-expansion, scheduled to be finished in 2017 and costing 275 million euros.

That is the estimated bill, and with cost over-runs, and assuming there is such a thing as the euro in 2017, it may cost a lot more, but at any rate it is a mint. Well, why not. Maybe it is a good idea? Even if the place is as nice a tennis center as you can imagine? Human nature always seeks improvement, so maybe even good things can be improved. Look at racquet technology. Look at the materials used in athletic apparel. Or consider medicine. Without constant improvement, the fantastically effective "Tommy John" surgery would not be available to fix Brian's arm, not to mention what had to be done to his hips and wrist. And now he is hitting long bombs, as well as those drop beauties that remind one of John McEnroe at his most artistic.

So anyhow, the crowd at Chatrier. Going bonkers, as they did the previous evening, when the great and normally indomitable Serena Williams blew a lead in the second set -- having won the first -- then blew a lead in the tiebreak, then finally fell apart completely in the third, though she put up a fantastic final fight, saving eight match points. It is peculiar about these crowds. They are highly partisan. They were screaming their heads off in support of Serena's opponent, a young French lady named Virginia, Virginie in French. A charming and gutsy girl, actually close to Serena's age, but with nothing like her record, in fact practically no record to speak of, but here she was, winning against the very best. Well, of course, you should cheer. Hooray for the underdog! But it sounded so… partisan. There were two kids, a mixed race couple if you will let me, as an American, notice, in the bleachers, waving an American flag and piping up, SERENA SERENA when the deafening Allez Virginie chants died down. Brave kids! Looked like nice kids, too, though they were some distance from where I was, but it was clear what they were doing, giving a go to the old fair play. A disappearing concept, I fear.

It was the same yesterday. Vas-y Gilles! Allez Simon! Loud, too, almost raucous. This is not football, nor hockey. In those sports you can be loud. In baseball it is legit to yell, "Kill the umpire!" although in these days of PC plus terror-alerts on all sides, you better have a lawyer nearby. Or in the morning during the Del Potro affair, the crowd was going bonkers for Eduard (Eddie in English), and Del Potro, who is a gentleman, did not complain, though he did complain about a ball at one point, said it was damaged and requested another one. Served an ace with it, too. This shows real athletic genius, concentration, focus. The ball matters. The shouts of a partisan crowd of fans, no problem. That is admirable. Juan-Martin Del Potro won, and that is what matters.

I somehow have a feeling that Serena, though she often has played at Roland-Garros and often has expressed her fondness for Paris, was irritated by all the screaming. It has to be noted that the tennis crowds at most venues, including most certainly this one, never fail to applaud a fine play by either player. Serena got many rounds of sincere applause, as did Brian. His drop shot beauts elicited admiring gasps and cheers. His pinpoint serves the same. His powerful deep groundstrokes got the same respect as Gilles'. But the French wanted the French side to win.

They should want the French side to lose? Fellow next to me at the Del Potro-Roger-Vasselin match, elegant and polite man, was sharing my admiration for the classic form of both men, so I asked him. Who would the crowds cheer at Flushing Meadows, he replied. Of course we want the best man to win, that is sports. But we wish the best man to be our neighbor. It turned out he is a friend of Eddie, and he readily conceded -- this was mid-way through, when the match was still close -- that he did not really have a chance. Delpo is a great player, he said, almost the only one in the tour who can beat Nadal, Federer.

By some fluke, I ran into the two pro-Serena kids after the Serena-Virginie match, outside the stadium. I asked. It was immediately clear they were not American, which is probably why all they had chanted was Se-re-na, rather than, Let's go, baby or, C'mon, kid or even, Let's go Yankees. So you like her because, ah -- ? As an American, supposedly obsessed with the question of the color line, I had to know. She is such an athlete, the boy said, heavy French accent and all, such a great competitor. She and her sister, the girl added, likewise heavy accent. We are for Venus, too.

I felt much better after that brief exchange, told them to look up the paper on the web, wished them well, and perhaps they were there again the next night, yesterday, as Venus went down, again at Chatrier, before the elegant and nimble Agnieszka Radwanska, two easy sets, she admittedly did not fight like her kid sister and even complained (a little) as the rain began to fall. The officials insisted play continue. They are both beautiful, tall and so graceful, but Agnieszka is coming into her own and Venus, at least it seems, is growing a little weary, she's had many medical problems the past two years. Those long graceful limbs and that marvelous movement of eye and arm and body are still there, but the shots do not burst out as consistently as they once did and, truth be told, Agnieszka trounced her pretty bad. Coming at the end of a day that began with the trouncing of our Georgia peach, Melanie Oudin, by an Italian girl named Sara Errani, this was bad news but bearable, if you think of it as just a game. Easier said than done when you consider America's present position, but that is for another day.

The crowd was not partisan, though, the way it had been with Serena, because neither of these young ladies is. You support your own. I think that is good. You should. But supporting them also means being decent, perhaps even extra decent, to the strangers among you.

Brian won that explosive tiebreak, 7-4, and then he trounced Gilles in the fourth, 6-1. It really looked like the run begun with his first-round win would continue. He of all people, who had been sidelined in doctors' offices and hospitals while his contemporaries were making careers on the courts, would see that our colors would be carried at least another day. Because the truth is, friends, it looks pretty bleak out there, and it looked pretty bleak even before the rain started coming down seriously, too late to save Venus but early enough to stop some great matches not involving any Americans.

This is why Venus and Agnieszka ought to get together. Venus and Serena believe in giving back, as they have got, and they have sponsored and championed a tennis and learning center in Southeast Washington, D.C., even though they are from Michigan and California and Florida. The idea is to develop talent and give kids who come from poor and broken down neighborhoods a chance. This center is not working as well as it ought -- too much infighting among the grownups -- and the Williamses surely know this and they know they ought to do something about it, but there is only so much anyone can do. It is still better than not having a center, and it will improve. It may get worse first, but eventually it will improve.

Now Agnieszka wants to do something along these lines in Cracow. She begins from a more basic place -- she has to first persuade the city fathers that building and maintaining public facilities for sports, and tennis in particular, is not off the wall. They should get together and discuss these kinds of projects. They will become friends, perhaps start a Washington, D.C.-Cracow Tennis Exchange and Scholarship Program. This would lessen the risk of our kids not knowing the histories of our respective countries and saying howlers about them. History should be high on school programs, in Poland and in America. Tennis and other sports, too.

Brian crushed Gilles in the fourth set, but immediately unraveled in the fifth. It is one of those things that cannot be explained with mathematical precision. His forehand had been his weak spot all evening -- less reliable than anything else. Simon finally got the hang of how to exploit this, and the forehand errors piled up. It could have been something else, though. It could have been several things, including Simon putting on a dominant game in that final set, after three hours, despite falling again and again for those drop shots. They were not enough, as Brian well knows. No single shot ever is. But one thing is sure -- they will remember Brian Baker in Paris and if American players follow his lead, refuse to quit even under the pain and strain of adversity, they will start winning again. It sounds corny, but it is true. Thanks, Brian. 

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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.