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Diversity Tennis

A special report on this year's U.S. Open, killer instincts and lack thereof, eateries and politics on Washington's east side, and more.

By 9.16.10

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Overconfidence, fatigue, or what? Of course, there is always the possibility that the other player plays better. This was the loser's own sober conclusion after the fact, yet it was astonishing to watch Roger Federer twice miss break chances that would have won his U.S. Open semi-final match against Novak Djokovic. No less surprising, the young Danish champion Caroline Wozniacki fell in the ladies' semi to an excellent and hauntingly lovely but uneven Russian, Vera Zvonareva, who not at all surprisingly was crushed in the next match, during which she played without focus or spirit, by the Belgian tennis mom, Kim Clijsters, who in her semi-final had disposed of her rival, the magnificent if somewhat flashily attired American, Venus Williams.

Kim Clijsters and Venus Williams are past U.S. Open champions, and the crowd at Flushing Meadows felt sentimental about them as familiar faces. The 20-year old Caroline Wozniacki lost in the final to Miss Clijsters last year, but was seeded No. 1 due to an excellent season, and with her flying blond pony tail in the unusually windy conditions she looked like a football cheerleader, as did the other well-known favorite, Maria Sharapova, who lost to Miss Wozniacki in the fourth round. Kim Clijsters won the fans' heart with her sunny nature and their minds with her strong steady play.

Novak Djokovic too is strong and steady and in his match with Roger Federer he imposed a grinding defensive game, closing points with brilliant passing shots when opportunities arose. The effort cost: by the fifth set he looked exhausted compared to Mr. Federer, but he hung in and trusted in the great champion's self-defeating game. The legendary Swiss precision evaporated again and again as Mr. Federer's forehand went wild, though it was with a backhand that looked like a gesture of exasperation that he lost the last point at the end of a long rally. He hit more that 60 unforced errors. Think about it: more than one per game. For an ordinary player, that would be not bad -- give one up, win two, you can stay ahead. But Roger Federer? Against the number three seed? When every game counts?

However, Mariano Rivera that same weekend hit a batter on the shoulder with the bases loaded.

Not to belabor the obvious, but athletes are human. Ted Williams had a tendency toward rude arrogance, and Mickey Mantle had a self-destructive streak. No comparisons, of course, but personally, I lack the killer instinct, I admit. I tried to explain this to Mr. Wladyslaw Pleszczynski, assuring him playing with me would be no sweat, but he demurred, alleging family obligations and a heavy work load while Mr. Tyrrell journeyed into the wild blue. Actually, Mr. Pleszczynski is my kind of sportsman, quiet and thoughtful and with a deep memory and he never calls a dubious shot in his own favor. Like me, he prefers to call, Good shot old man, than, Motherf***, which is the language I usually put up with on the public courts, but you know me, I accept that our nation allows for diversity.

I have to confess I may have been spending more time than is reasonable on the public courts of Washington's east side. The extenuating circumstance is that last spring my erstwhile partner said the hell with food. We tried to run a restaurant after the failure of our Juba Express idea. His wife walked out on him and he took a studio in Arlington and went back to teaching tennis in East Potomac Park and said food is for the birds (which is belied by his own healthy appetite) and if I found investors for our projected Tennis Club Marrakesh, as we had often discussed, to call him. Meanwhile my better half was preparing her bid for the city council. She is popular in the neighborhood, also she has a little business to run.

Abandoned on all sides, I sank to hustling games on the local public courts and left the food thing in the capable hands of my Jamaican cook, Miss Barbara Harris, who has the sunniest personality in the world and a smile to melt the ice box (actually a room), and our buddy Mr. Malloy, an ex-Marine and a retired cop who is rather on the paranoid side (like many chefs), but he has a big heart and a good head when he uses it. His cheese steaks are very big sellers, though I myself have never tasted one. I never eat restaurant food. If you knew what goes on in -- but never mind.

I am not much of a betting man, but I had to hustle games if I was going to give free lessons to the local kids. There stays a bit of the teacher in me and I cannot say no to kids. Except when it is in their own interest. You have to learn when no is no. However, during the summer I cannot say "Show me your homework" before handing them a racket and letting them on the court, so they have it easy.

THE KILLER INSTINCT is what seemed to be lacking in Roger Federer all year. He started out well, beating Andy Murray at the Australian Open, but he messed up in Italy, then he messed up in Spain, then he messed up in France, then he messed up at the All-England, and then he messed up in Canada (where Murray won, briefly raising England's hopes, though he happens to be a Scot). He played brilliantly in the early rounds of the U.S. Open, notably avenging his Roland-Garros loss to the Swede powerhouse, Robin Soderling, by taking him apart in three masterful sets. Did this make him over-confident against Novak Djokovic, or did the effort tire him? Somehow, he let things slip when he had the chance.

My ex-business partner, who was in the tour many years ago and rose to a respectable place somewhere around 200, which when you think about it -- but I digress -- my so-called partner told me it was stupid to waste any more money on a greasy spoon and dead-end ghetto kids and join him at Hanes Point. "You could teach young players to develop the killer instinct," Mr. Ba said, "young players who are not going to end up in jail for sticking up your stupid shop." He can be brutal. He apologized, however, saying he only meant you should not try to do what you cannot do.

"But I don't have the killer instinct," I said. I could have said I am basically a soft touch but that would have overstated the matter.

"My point exactly. Hey, did you mention our idea to the Moroccan ambassador?"

I did not want to explain that my research showed that a new tennis club in Marrakesh was not such a great idea, for all kinds of reasons, and that we should be looking further south, which meant talking to people whom the Moroccans hate. Although Mr. Ba is surely the best player against whom I have ever played a set (the score was 0-6 last time, and I seem to recall, probably in my dreams, that one time it was 2-6 due to his playing with a ping pong paddle), he has zero interest in politics and is only vaguely aware that the countries to the north of his native Senegal have, as they say, international issues.

The tennis hustle did not work very well because I never could bring myself to take money off guys I was friendly with, but the lessons were fun. Kids can get a bit rowdy, but I kept the drills going at a steady rhythm. Something went wrong with the Reinvestment Act because the neighborhood pool and club house next to our courts on Anacostia Avenue were supposed to be rebuilt (a fine use of your tax dollars), but instead they were torn down and then nothing happened. Admittedly they were putting the finishing touches on a brand new community center in the Deanwood neighborhood further east, but they only built one tennis court over there and the folks in Kenilworth were never told why some moron downtown ordered their swimming pool torn up and no replacement. This summer it got awfully warm on the public courts, and unlike last summer we could not move over to the pool when the drills ended, so we sat under the nearby tree and I brought out an ice filled cooler with drinks from the restaurant, and suggested we go spend the afternoon at the new neighborhood library -- they actually did finish that project -- but the kids wanted to go to the pool at Deanwood. Which figured, as who wants to sit in a library when you can be in the pool?

I said I would do it if we could get at least two parents to come along because I did not want to drive a bunch of screaming kids and then keep an eye on them in a crowded pool, exposing myself to legal hassles if one of them drowned. I know this is a cop-out. There were no parents available and I knew it. But what do I do if there is trouble, ask Vince Gray for help? When one of his people came around to the restaurant asking us to put up his campaign posters I said I wanted a liquor license in return, and I never heard from them again. But I did not put up the Fenty people's poster, either. We put up "We Miss Marion" posters and increased sales. It is a fine neighborhood, a bit third world but hey, America is diverse. Meanwhile, my sweetheart ended her campaign and threw her support to Fenty. This did not get me a liquor license, either.

What is interesting from a psycho-social point of view at the Kenilworth Park courts is that the regulars, who really should be called irregulars and most of whom are not dry, are always asking me to play doubles with them. At doubles I am always out to lunch, and not because I happen not to be dry either. They keep asking me because when we play singles they think, not inaccurately, I outplay them. So they want me on their doubles team. They tend to prefer doubles, which is more like the playground football games they grew up with, complete with trash talk and unending disputes over calls. But then the old pacifist instinct kicks in and I double fault in the tie breaker or something. The killer instinct is more needed in doubles than in singles, and its absence is more, so to speak, fatal.

ALTHOUGH MR. BA, whom I call Bailo because we are pals and business partners even though we cannot start a successful business, is an excellent pro and a man of international travels, he does not know who the prime minister of his country is, or even the president -- it is Abdoulaye Wade, if you are interested -- and he did not realize it was an event of some significance that there was a team called the Indo-Pak Express in the men's doubles tourney at the U.S. Open. It was not derailed until the final, when it ran into the mighty Bryan Brothers, Bob and Mike, who are basically unbeatable.

Aisam ul Haq Qureshi and Rohan Bopanna played well and overcame barriers of caste and religion and tribe. This impressed the fans. Their respective ambassadors, Their Eminences Abdullah Harood and Hardeep Puri, visited Flushing Meadows and sat near each other. Their ambition is to bring peace to Kashmir and environs, which ain't beanball considering how well diversity is regarded in that lovely and bloody region. The difficulty is that those neighborhoods are full of excited and excitable people who go haywire at the mention of a Jew or a Christian. Or a Muslim or a Hindu. They also kill girls for smiling at boys, especially when they are their sisters or daughters. They make our own book burning pastors look like Quakers, if you want to know the truth. However, the sportswriters love these fellows, Chariots of Fire and all that sort of thing, transcending such ignorant prejudices as the ridiculous notion that Pakistan is a violent treacherous hate-devoured place.

Aisam ul Haq Qureshi said after the match, "We are a peace-loving nation and we want peace as much as you." All who heard were deeply moved, choked up. Moreover, the Bryan boys donated money to the victims of a Haiti-level climatic catastrophe in Qureshi's homeland, thousands dead and a million homeless, but neither he nor Eminence Harood mentioned anything about donations, just peace and love.

There was a whisper of a hint that Ben's Chili Bowl, a prestigious Washington culinary establishment, might take an interest in taking us over, but it stayed a whisper and then the nicest businessman on the street, Prabhjot Singh, a young Sikh about to become a father, was gunned down in broad daylight while protecting one of his customers from a couple of thugs. He ran a check-cashing store and was always a soft touch for an advance, helped the homeless, donated to the community.

The whole neighborhood turned out for Roger, as he was known on the street, and the police got the leads they needed to find the killers. Then some Indo-Paks took an interest in us, for reasons I could not fathom, but Mr. Ba said, in his native language, those Asian guys are good with money. Maybe that is why we did not see any. Anyway, in the meantime we serve Miss Harris's excellent Jamaican curried chicken instead of the cheese steaks, because Mr. Malloy has been sulking and staying home and talking about re-upping in the Marines or writing a novel.

Toward the end of the U.S. championships, folks in some of these distant lands where we are engaged in savage wars of peace went bonkers and rioted due to some hayseed reverend saying he was going to burn a Koran (the Islamic Bible) on 9/11. In Kashmir the Indian army was ordered to maintain order by shooting to kill if necessary, which it did. I waited for the Indo-Pak Express to announce they were going to put their tournament money into a Kashmir Boys and Girls Tennis Camp, but if anything was said, I missed it, and there was nothing from the best-of-buddies ambassadors, either. The reaction of our own ambassador -- your tax dollars at work -- was to observe that desecrating holy books is a terrible idea, though he did not have anything to say about rioting and killing on the strength of a rumor (the pastor ended up not doing anything).

As a rule it is best to leave politics out of business and sports. In the 1930s the Nazis were always trying to broadcast the fact that Gottfried von Cramm was German. He sure was. He hated them, too, and they nearly murdered him. Don Budge's intercession saved his life. When war came he served with distinction on the Russian front. He returned to tennis after the war and rebuilt the ravaged family businesses.

Last year Venus Williams raised some hell (as did Andy Roddick, who had a disappointing season this year) about the anti-Jewish policies in force at a tournament in one of the Gulf Emirates, wherein some sheiks are trying to buy their way into tennis respectability. Observe that in neighboring Abu Dhabi, they made a deal with the Louvre Museum, which the French government approved over the protests of many prominent critics and museum officials, including Françoise Cachin, who made the Orsay Museum the jewel it is and went on to serve with distinction as director of France's museums. But who am I to editorialize. At any event, Miss Williams said it was wrong to prevent an Israeli athlete from competing, even on trumped up security issues. So this year the sheiks, who also are suspected by international security types of trafficking in small Indian boys and Filipina house slaves, said the Israeli, whose name is Shahar Peer, could compete, which she did, losing in the semifinals to Miss Williams, who went on to win . The two met again in the fourth round at Flushing Meadows and Miss Peer put up a good fight, including taking the elegant Miss Williams to a tie breaker in the first set.

RAFA NADAL, WHO IS FROM MAJORCA, had a much better year than his friend and rival from Basel, winning in Madrid, then in Paris, then in London. He was hot. The consensus among fans and sports writers was that there would be a showdown at Flushing Meadows and the question of the Pete Sampras Succession would be resolved once and for all. In fact, it was resolved for a few years, during which Federer was the undisputed Best in the World. His footwork, his ground strokes, his masterful serve, his volleys at the net (when needed: he is not a serve-and-volley player like Pete Sampras) made him unbeatable. He was graceful, fast like a leopard, always ahead of the return and in position to hit where he wanted.

Possibly he got distracted by parenthood and should take a cue from Miss Clijsters, who took a couple years off to stay with her daughter and by all evidence has returned to the tour invigorated and more powerful than ever. Mr. Federer could return in '12 or even '13 and play another ten years. Consider Pancho Gonzalez's long career, or even Rod Laver's. Consider Tilden's. And they did not have the benefit of power-drinks and non-fat food, not to mention training regimes supervised by experts. Maybe their equipment was better. Today we play with funny shaped lightweight metal rackets, and it is quite possible they do not have the power and control afforded by the beautiful Bancrofts and Dunlop Maxplys and Slazengers of yore.

Anyway, as I say everybody was looking forward to the showdown and it did not happen. Late in the season, Mr. Federer brought the legendary Paul Annacone into his camp, reportedly to help rethink his game, but to no avail, or too late, or whatever. He kept getting ahead of Mr. Djokovic, and Mr. Djokovic kept coming back until Mr. Federer gave up or hit a wild backhand or thought of Basel, who knows. Meanwhile, Rafa Nadal was in excellent shape and no one could take a set from him or break his service. If Mr. Federer in his 2003-2008 heyday was a leopard, Mr. Nadal is a marsupial, springing from base line to net, bounding across the court into the stilts, a steeple-chase racer to Mr. Federer's miler. Mr. Federer reminds tennis fans of Pete Sampras, further back of Rod Laver and his elegant compatriot Roy Emerson. Mr. Nadal is all Agassi, Connors, Gonzalez. In my book, gratuitous as it is to say this, Pancho Gonzalez is the greatest player of all time except for Don Budge, but it is completely gratuitous, so forget it. However, since I am in the hole anyway, I will add that Serena Williams, who was injured and could not compete in the U.S. Open, is better than Kim Clijsters, with all due respect, and is at the same level as Martina Navratilova, Margaret Court, and Billie Jean King, but these are different eras and cross-era comparisons are for the birds and the experts, so forget it. It was experts got us into Iraq and are keeping us in Afghanistan, too, but excuse me, no politics in a sports column.

Before I forget, Mr. Nadal crushed Mr. Djokovic in four sets and that was the Open that was. Mr. Djokovic is full of heart and guts and goes for some admirable rallies and has a power forehand that he sometimes hits while leaping into it, a new twist on the traditional advice to "step into the ball," but he wilts. This does not prove Mr. Federer could a' had him with a more concentrated… killer instinct, especially in that fifth set when he pulled ahead, but, well, they will talk about it. In the meantime, Mr. Nadal has achieved a career grand slam (as did Mr. Federer last year) and logically must be seen as the Numero Uno del Mundo. And although a Kansan named Joe Sock won the boys' title, the first American in many years to do so, the fact is that U.S. tennis is going through a rough patch. So's the country. We're due for a change, that's for sure. And this time it better be believable.

 

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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.