Serve and Volley

The Court Never Shrinks

The draw narrows, but the court is the same.

By 9.4.13

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You recall in Hoosiers, when the Hickory coach (played by Gene Hackman) takes his players to the court on which they will be playing in the all-state tournament, and he makes them measure its dimensions, including the height of the basket.

It is not all in the head, but much of it is, and not only in the sense that the famous movie scene captures. There is the mental pressure of the competition itself, of course, getting fiercer as the draw narrows and we enter the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, shrinking draws where everybody knows everybody and thinks about how deal with them. Some players devise specific game plans. Others say it makes no difference, they just go out and play one match at a time. Of course, saying that could be part of the plan.  

And there are the mind games and tactics used by teams -- or individuals -- against one another. Different sports have different traditions regarding what is permissible and what crosses the line into cheating. In tennis (and not only tennis), there is a gray area called gamesmanship, where you do something that is technically within the rules but that you and everyone else knows is not sporting. It can be very minor, such as taking a bit longer than is strictly permitted to get your serve ready and send it over. Or it can be comparatively major, such as asking for a medical time out that is not needed, in order to break the opponent’s momentum, catch a second wind, or both.

There was, for example, the case of the No. 2 seed here at the U.S. Open, Viktoria Azarenka, who asked for a medical time out when our young rising star, Sloane Stephens, had her on the run at the Australian Open last January. No one, least of all Vika, was able to explain with any semblance of coherence just what ailed her; but the inexperienced Sloane was, effectively, jarred, despite her famous millennial generation laid back no-problem cool, and she lost the match.

Who is to say? Maybe there really was a problem and Miss A. was in real pain, psychosomatic. However, there are some old school observers of the sport who feel that while you can say all the hogwash you want about sports being good therapy and so forth, a match is not a therapy session and you have to deal with the chips as they fall, including your own falls. Meaning if there is pain, you play through it, and if it is crippling pain, you abandon and forfeit -- which in fact does happen fairly regularly, though often the player who “retires” does so after trying a medical time out to see if it has any beneficial effect -- on the body or on the two heads concerned, the player in physical pain and the player who, some say, is being subjected to psychological pain.

It was impossible for these uncomfortable thoughts not to cross the mind while observing the scene in the fifth set of the match Tuesday between Lleyton Hewitt, the great Australian champ who won the U.S. Open in 2001 and the All-England in 2002 and who has had real and serious injuries in his career, necessitating surgery, and Mikhail Youzhny, a top Russian player if not at the very top: he has won his share of tournaments in both singles and doubles, but not one of the four majors, and he is considered a dependable and gritty competitor.

He certainly showed it. Trailing one set to two, he twice in a row fell dangerously behind, 0-3 and 1-4 in the fourth and 2-5 in the fifth, only to climb back and prevail. Of course the other way to look at it is to say Hewitt, himself famous for his grit and fighting spirit, blew big leads. It was not for want of stamina; though both men were alternating between catching second winds while playing defense and going on the offensive at the net, it was Hewitt who did this more. On one remarkable point, however, he stumbled while making a remarkably acrobatic catch of a drop shot near the net and managed to get it over, surprising Youzhny who, however, managed to do the same. Meanwhile Hewitt appeared to have scraped his arm. This brought on a first aid timeout, following which Hewitt held serve, which kept the score even at 2-2. After this came the run that took him to 5-2.

Did Hewitt sense that they were going to grind it out and he would be at a disadvantage in such a match? Or did he need a break to recover his bearings (it was a hard fall if, obviously, not one that stopped him from playing out the set) and go on his offensive run? It is impossible to know and it is quite likely the player himself does not know; he is only thinking in terms of addressing his pain with some first aid, since he knows the rules allow him to; and knowing Lleyton Hewitt, it is certain that if the ump had sternly said, “Get on court and play, or quit,” Hewitt would have got on court and played.

Youzhny stopped his run at 5-2, combined guile and craft to even the score. The guile consisted of halting Hewitt’s hard blows by forcing the points into rallies of softly sliced balls that barely clear the net, the craft consisted of finding the moment to jump on one for a shot into one of Hewitt’s corners. Again and again, Hewitt tried to speed up the tempo and force Youzhny back, then attack with a winner, often on volley, from midcourt or the net. It almost worked.

It had worked the other day against a younger, less experienced Russian, Evgeny Donskoy, and maybe in their home town (Moscow) this winter he and Mikhail will trade notes for the next time they face a tough Australian. Youzhny, for the moment, gets ready for the quarterfinals, when he meets Novak Djokovic, who easily beat Marcel Granollers, the Catalan cool guy who beat American hope Tim Smyczek in a magnificent five-setter the other day.

Hewitt’s tumble and scraped arm will be forgot, just as Vika Azarenka’s little accident in Australia is in the course of being forgot. You cannot blame the players for doing whatever they can within the structure that is given them. It is up to the sport establishment (which in tennis as in other sports includes player representatives) to decide what rules and regulations they want for things like bobos, timeouts, HawkEyes, even stadium design. Players were consulted for the re-design of the stadia at Flushing Meadows’ Billie Jean King Tennis Center, just as they were consulted regarding the changes planned for Roland Garros, where the principal stadium is to get a cover, and as they were when Wimbledon’s legendary Centre Court got a roof.

There is, in fact, some skepticism about these roofs. Roofs are fine, but, obviously, they change the conditions under which the sport is played. Andy Murray put it well the other day, when he was asked about weather conditions, which have been uneven in Queens, N.Y., as they usually are in these waning days of summer: 

[S]ometimes the skies have looked [overcast] for … five, six hours. Hadn't really changed that much. Sometimes you are conscious of the rain. Sometimes you can feel it coming a little bit with a bit of drizzle. You will think about it.... I think with the roof, I mean, I don't know how much difference it makes to the players. There's 128 players in the draw. It will help 10, 15 players, but it doesn't help everybody. But for the tournament, it's great. It's great for TV. It's great for people that have tickets to come and watch, as well. And it means also that the tournament, you know, most likely will get finished on time, which hasn't been the case I think like three of the last four years, going on to the Monday.

He did not say whether he thought it would be great for the sport. And why should he? No one knows. It will be different when the sport is played always in the same conditions on the same surfaces. You gets what you pays for, and maybe this is what we, as a society, want. The court does not shrink -- at least it has not, yet, and, regardless, there will be guys and girls going out and hitting the ball to the best of their abilities, as Lleyton Hewitt and Mikhail Youzhny both did yesterday, and as did some remarkable Chinese young ladies, Na Li overcoming Ekaterina Makarova in three sets and Su-Wei Hsieh and Shuai Peng beating, rather more easily, Jelena Jankovic and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. In the semis Miss Li will meet Serena Williams, who demolished Carla Suarez-Navarro with the score they call the double bagel.

On the outside courts, the kids were playing: it is getting close to crunch time, finals, in the juniors’ tournament, and you had to marvel as talented teens ran and hit and placed and served like -- not quite like pros, but like the pros they perhaps dream of joining, on courts that will always be the same size, wherever they are.

Photo: Lleyton Hewitt, UPI

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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.