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Stepanek Steps Up

When will American tennis?

By 8.8.11

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WASHINGTON -- No qualifiers reached the end of Washington's traditional August tennis tournament, but unseeded Radek Stepanek*, from Monte Carlo, took on top-seed Gael Monfils of Trelex, Switzerland, with a bold game plan based on the concept that if you keep him moving he will miss.

Monfils, who made it to the final at the Legg Mason Classic here on Washington's 16th St., N.W. courts, otherwise known as the Rock Creek Tennis Center, following a dramatic win in the third set tiebreak over John Isner in the early hours of this same Sunday, was favored, but so were all players Stepanek faced after the early rounds. Superior strategy and an uncanny ability to maintain a wide range of tactics won the day.

By definition unusual, such upset by an underdog can be explained in part by the last-minute withdrawal of players who would have made the draw tougher, notably the Americans Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish. There was also the climate argument: an exceptionally warm heat wave even by Washington's summer standards gave way to an exceptionally humid weekend, with serial thunderstorms causing interruptions and delays. The pro-tennis equivalent of double headers took its toll; and Monfils himself appeared to think it affected him more than his opponent, though of course they were up against the same conditions: he allowed as how he could not find his rhythm against a competitor constantly varying his shots.

This was practically the same conclusion reached by Stepanek's victim in the semi-final, the young American Donald Young, who was routed after a nice run that included a win against the seventh-seeded Marcos Baghdatis. "He took me out of my game," Young said, and it is true that with his baseball cap on the wrong way in the interview room, he seemed eerily out of it.

Stepanek consistently found tactical openings against his stronger-hitting opponents, including Igor Kunitsyn and Fernando Verdasco, refusing to let superior pounding or, certainly in Monfils' case, flashy athleticism intimidate him.

Notwithstanding their addresses, this year's finalists at the tournament, made famous by such American champions as Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Michael Chang, and Andre Agassi, as well as Andy Roddick in the past decade, are neither Swiss nor Monegasque. No doubt they have found nice places to call home in the temperate and cozy environments of the French and Swiss Rivieras, but their choices also point to an economic issue that affects professional sports and, by extension, incentives to do well.

Note that Stepanek, considered a veteran and an old man because at 32 he was the oldest at this event (Jimmy Connors won it at 36), is neither an excuse-maker nor a complainer, not that he is particularly gracious or generous in his praise of others, either: he is cold and fair, with just a touch of your typical Czech irony. He has been around the block a few times, a member of the supporting cast of hungry central and eastern Europeans who, inspired by Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova, saw tennis as ray of sunshine in the bleak environment of what their rulers used to call "real socialism."

"You know the [Communist-era] Polish joke," a fan from Sofia (attending GWU), said to me in the bleachers during one of the rain delays, "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us. In some ways tennis represented the exact opposite: you are alone out there, it is the individualistic sport par excellence, even more than swimming for example, where the team spirit is always very present. You work hard and they pay you well."

Stepanek himself has done well, about seven million dollars in prize money -- we still count in dollars -- over the years, with probably half a million this year depending on how well he does at the U.S. Open and later end-of-season events. Monfils, who is only 24, has won well over five million already and is on track for three quarters of a million this year, which may or may not explain why he left his native Paris for Switzerland, a low-tax country.

The relation between the competitive incentive and tax rates is a theme which Boris Johnson discussed in his Telegraph column during this year's tournament at Wimbledon. The former newspaperman and Spectator editor, London's mayor is a low-tax conservative and native of New York. Mr. Tyrrell and I have suggested he consider running for president on the Republican ticket, as he might represent an elegant fusion of the upper-crust country club Republicans whose traditional leadership is sorely missed, and the faith in the liberating and vitalizing energy of the free market represented by the Thatcher and Reagan legacies. However, we are still awaiting the review by Prof. J. Rabkin of constitutional issues involved in a Johnson run.

BE THAT AS IT MAY, the question of what motivates professional athletes is interestingly brought out in the recent history of this sport. It has been, if not dominated, at least carried, on both the women's and men's tours, largely by athletes from low-tax ex-communist bloc countries who are in a hurry to make it, or "tax expatriates" to such places as Switzerland or Monte Carlo. But is this theory sound? If hunger drives ambition, where are the Nigerians, the Moroccans, the Mexicans, the Dominicans?

For that matter, where are the Americans? Are our tax rates too high, or is it something else? In the view of any number of Washington tennis teachers, for example Mr. Harry Miller, who coached young players for many years in the Washington, D.C. area, there is plenty of hungry talent in the region, and surely across the country, but it is in the nature of our sports culture to neglect long-term development in favor of spectacular champions who will draw big crowds to big events.

It is also not impossible that the adults who are supposed to be helping mentor and guide young people are more interested in their own little advantages than in their charges'. This certainly fits into the state of our education establishment more generally: for all the talk about "putting children first" and getting "excellent" teachers into the classrooms, it is by now painfully evident that the "reform" movement in education has been more a matter of putting people like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan first than about doing anything to save public education.

There are strong and well-funded tennis-oriented institutions in Washington and the surrounding suburbs. For instance, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, based at the Rock Creek Tennis Center where the Legg Mason Classic takes place, runs programs designed to help failing students catch up on their school work. Tennis serves as an organizing, discipline-teaching principle. The Center is planning a major expansion, with a new facility in the southeast part of town.

There it will be close to another educational institution, the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, which the mighty Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, have promoted. While such institutions surely do a world of good, legitimate questions may be raised on why they do not do even more. Or more exactly: why, if they -- and similar organizations elsewhere -- create a foundation on which children and teenagers learn the meaning of scholastic and athletic discipline and perseverance, does there not seem to be any long-term follow-up? Who picks up the kids who do well at the Southeast Center? Who moves them to the next level?

It is very well for Mayor Vincent Gray to show up at the Classic and hand out a few awards and boast about how well everything is for "our kids," but why is he putting cronies on the city payroll complete with SUV's and other perks? What are they doing that can be more important than tennis-and-academic scholarships? Why do the people mismanaging public schools getting high salaries while the staff on the ground at the Southeast Center, the men and women actually in touch with the kids they are trying desperately to keep in school and on the courts and off the streets, are making do with barely more than volunteer stipends?

How we tax, how we educate, how we set priorities -- you cannot extrapolate from professional sports, which after all are only that, sports. It is difficult not to see in the poor state of American tennis, however, a reflection of a much larger, deeper, and graver malady in American society. By all evidence, we are not creating and nurturing and maintaining the conditions that make citizens and champions, patriots and devoted parents: adults.

*Photograph by Katherine Ruddy

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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.