Serve and Volley

Open Hopes

The U.S. Open’s first weekend is where hopes are dashed and spring back to life.

By 9.3.13

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Tim Smyczek, the mighty Milwaukee mite, is up 4-1 in the fifth set in a four-hour demonstration with Marcel Granollers, the cool Catalan, of superb and brilliant and inspiring tennis and the crowd at the Grandstand Stadium, three quarters empty until the word spread around Flushing Meadows that something was happening here and nobody knew what it was, is rocking and rolling, screaming at every point, and the whole place is shaking with cries of Go Tim go but -- this must be recorded, the applause for Marcel is deafening too when he pulls off his fantastic passing shots and his gorgeous deep baseline drives, because this is a fine crowd, respectful of talent, polite.

During the points you can hear a pin drop, but you do not, because no pin drops. You hear the thud of taut strings on hard felt (softening under the blows until the officially approved limit of nine games), you hear the bounce of the ball, you hear the athletes exhale and sometimes grunt. You ask your neighbor in the press row, who happens to be a very elegant young lady from Barcelona, is this grunt Catalan, or is it Spanish? Catalan, she says. We all speak Catalan. We learn it in school.

Learn tennis, too. Marcel is a big strapping husky young man of 27, over six feet and the pounds to match, and he hits hard groundstrokes in the grinding but also sharpshooting manner they learn in the academies and training centers of the Spanish tennis federation. The Catalan Generalitat (government) banned bullfighting a couple of years ago, which does not seem to have caused a great deal of anguish in the region, though it has in other Spanish regions, and I am waiting on Mr. Dan Flynn or Mr. Whit Stillman, experts on manly sports and Barcelona, respectively, to explain what this signifies. Anyway if you are interested in Catalonia you should read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.

Spain itself, note, in a federation of states, and some say that due to Catalan irredentism, encouraged by European supra-statism, it is coming unstuck. Others are less pessimistic, pointing out that Spain is one of the few nation-states in Europe worthy of the name, along with France, England, and Poland. However, there was Catalonia before there was Spain, and in one way of seeing it, the supra-statism of the Eurocracy is merely another example of the cunning of history.

The cunning of Catalonia, aspiring to freedom. And yet -- after all the work of the reyes catolicos and Philip II, the fantastic expansion into the New World, the hoard of gold and precious stones, the control of the Empire through a shrewd combination of military power in northern Europe and diplomatic marriages, the thrust even into Africa, and after resisting invading French armies, after surviving the horrors of a savage civil war, after all this -- they want out? Talk about gratitude.

But all these portentous matters are far from Marcel’s mind just now. He is focused on the court. Marcel is cool, not in the sense of Miles Davis, whose “Sketches from Spain” remains one of the finest jazz productions in the history of our national music, but in the athletic sense. He is unflappable in the arena with nine-tenths of the crowd roaring for his rival, though there is a small Spanish contingent and the nice young lady from Barcelona who has red hair and lively observant eyes in the manner of tennis reporters. He argues a few times with the ump. Tim too, in fact. Even with the Hawk-Eye, or perhaps because of the Hawk-Eye, which John McEnroe and most other champs -- though not Roger Federer -- think helps the game, the line calling has been questionable. But it is more likely that the match is so hard-fought and the sharpshooting to the sidelines and the baselines and the service lines is so accurate that, naturally, you sometimes have to ask. What is noticeable on this score, though, is that the percentage of valid challenges today -- the Hawk-Eye verifies a player’s challenge -- is almost exactly in keeping with the overall average for pro tennis, namely, 30 percent or so. Interestingly enough, since Hawk-Eye began eight years ago this statistic has remained consistent, perhaps a fair reflection of the training received by both players and linesmen.

So, a few arguments, but basically Marcel is cool, meaning steady under pressure. He took the first set, lost the second, both very close. Tim Smyczek, smaller and lighter jumps into the ball to catch the high bounding shots Granollers sends at him. At other times, they circle around each other, so to speak, with low slices while waiting for the chance to pounce. Tim is a fantastic athlete. He showed this in an exhausting four-hour five setter against the popular Alex Bogomolov, Jr. just the day before yesterday, going point for point against the muscular Russian until the last two, when Bogey cramped up and could not no longer run, though he stayed in bravely for good form, pundonor as Marcel might say.

No, Tim is no pushover, though at 25 he has almost no experience on the tour, compared to Marcel, and is in the Open as a wild card thanks to some good performances this year, including some impressive matches at the Citi Open in Washington a few weeks ago. Tim is a tough guy, though all smiles and humor -- in fact this is something he brings to the sport that is too often lacking, his good humor, his transparent enjoyment of the game. Anyway, after those two sets, Tim went on a roll, took the third 6-0, shot his topspin to the corners, hit the sidelines, controlled the net. It looked like goodbye Granollers. But in the fourth, it occurred to some of the boys in the press row, as well as the elegant, slightly austere young girl reporters from Barcelona (the Catalan are known to be an austere and reserved race: though so are other Spaniards) that maybe Marcel, shrewd smart fellow, decided to let the set go, get his wind back, return to the attack. Which he did, taking the fourth handily, 6-3. Now it is the fifth and they are each giving it their best again.

These two are closely matched. The stats support this. Granollers, 10 aces, three double faults; Smyczek, 10 aces, three double faults; average first serve speed: 114 mph, 113 mph; second serve, 84 mph, 84 mph; service games won, both 17. The big difference lines in the hitting. Though they both win about half their baseline shots and hit about 70, Smyczek hits far more winners (where you put the ball where the opponent cannot reach it), 73 v. 32. He also made far more errors 115 to 73. Given that they won virtually the same number of points, 147 and 146, these winner and error numbers give you a hint to what went wrong for Tim: while to the naked eye he played better, he was missing when it mattered, on those points when the game was on the line.

Within the frame of these match mechanics, the drama of that fifth set becomes objectively understandable. Smyczek breaks Granollers early, but is unable to hold on to the advantage when Granollers breaks back at 4-2. In the seventh game, they revert to their circling game, hitting cautious baseline shots from the baseline, testing spins and bounces against each other until they get an angle and suddenly hit harder, aim at the corners, rush the net. There is quite a lot of net play, though only Marcel, otherwise a typical clay court baseliner, goes for the serve and volley. The decisive moment comes in the eleventh game when Granollers breaks Smyczek on deuce by using an old and true tactic, which consists of following a point won with a hard shot to the side with one hit deep and comparatively soft, which the other fellow is liable to overhit, sending it long. Serving at 6-5, the set having lasted an hour, Marcel holds at love, and that was the match that was.

IT WAS A GREAT MATCH and Tim Smyczek, a cheerful man with a very strong sense of sportsmanship, gave plenty of credit to Marcel Granollers. He is joined in this happy if soggy and muggy holiday weekend by another Catalan, the gritty and strong-hearted Tommy Robredo, beating the great Roger Federer after failing 10 times in a row, and in three unambiguous sets. Federer has not been at his best this year, and no doubt there will be speculation about his age and so forth, but most of that will be vain and empty speculation. We at TAS wish to take this opportunity, too, while speaking of great Spanish tennis, that Rafa Nadal, at various times referred to in this column as close to being Catalan, really is not Catalan. He is the man from Majorca -- as we always have said, and Majorca in part of the Balleares and it is not part of Catalonia, though it was deeply marked by Catalonia’s dominance of the western Mediterranean, southwestern France, and in short a region far greater than its politically defined space within the present-day Spanish federation. Nadal, in any event, was in the process of beating Philipp Kohlshreiber, who knocked John Isner out of the Open for the second year in a row the other day, but this was as we went to press and we cannot vouch for the final score and the German certainly was giving the Majorcan a hard time.

Historically speaking, Marcel’s hard-earned win means American men are out of the second week of the Open for the first time since there has been open tennis, and the fact that it was a relative newcomer, ranked 109th (Granollers is 43rd) in the ATP, who was our last man standing, is a bitter pill for American tennis.

However, it is not one over which to get unduly upset. It is, perhaps, a salutary one. Nothing focuses the mind like a setback, if you have the stuff in you to benefit from your own adversity. Tim Smyczek put it best: “[O]bviously, it was pretty disappointing to lose, especially being up a break in the fifth. But… I can’t wait to come back next year.”

That, to be sure, is Tim Smyczek at his most sunny typical, but is it not also true of America? There are observers of the sport -- and you can find this in other sports as well -- who take a somewhat jaundiced view, or a slightly mocking view, or simply a skeptical view, of attitudes like Ryan Harrison’s. The young American came to the Open on a wild card and was crushed by Rafa Nadal in the first round and then said he would work harder. Someone referred to this as a Dale Carnegie attitude or maybe a Southern preacher attitude -- Harrison is from Louisiana -- or something like that. Criticism is fine, it comes with the coverage, and it would be a foolish sportswriter who failed to cover an athlete’s weaknesses. It helps the athlete, even as it stings him. But what is this about putting down a positive attitude? Harrison is 21, scarcely out of his teens, and he is improving year by year. The same goes for his friend Jack Sock, who is a year younger and who was taken out of the draw in the third round, in four sets, by the man who is usually referred to as the second Serb, Janko Tipsarevic, who is 29 and was a quarter-finalist here last year. He was beaten by another mighty Spaniard -- Spain is definitely a power in tennis these days -- David Ferrer, shortly after Robredo beat Federer. But Ferrer is not from Catalonia but from the south of Spain near Valencia. As to Jack Sock, he never whines, never blames anyone, thanks his opponent for playing well, and says he has to improve. What are these boys supposed to say, that they are going to work less hard and they are not improve?

It is in the American character to believe in your nerves and bones and sinews that life is forward, to know in your head that there is another day, to feel in your heart that it every effort is rewarded. It is crazy to run down our own guys for giving expression to this attitude.

The other day, playing on the court at Louis Armstrong Stadium, famous for raucous fan behavior, the crowd went fascist. There is no other word for it. They turned against John Isner, engaged in a tough, grinding, exhausting match against the great French champion Gael Monfils. Monfils and Isner happen to be friends. Monfils happens to think that when he plays in the U.S. Open he is free of some of the restraints that -- up to a point -- apply when he plays elsewhere, and particularly on his home turf. In New York he imagines himself to be a Harlem Globetrotter and he puts on a show worthy of the great sports showmen. On point, however, he stays on point: focused, earnest, applying his extraordinary talents to making impossible shots.

You cannot blame him for encouraging crowd enthusiasm, since he thrives on it, nor can you lay it on him that the crowd got very nearly out of control. What was insane was that the crowd sensed blood -- or a longer match -- when Monfils, who had lost the first two sets to a John Isner who has made huge improvements this season to his game (which only a year ago was still far too dependent on his power serve), squeaked out the third set and then stayed nearly point to point in the fourth, even getting ahead at dangerous moments.

It is only good fanmanship to applaud fine play on all sides. It is close to sedition when an American audience at Flushing Meadows cheers losing points by an American and repeatedly calls on the other guy to crush him. You can look it up, but I had the distinct impression the ump was not doing his job, which in this circumstance, in the best tradition of this sport, is to tell the audience, politely, to shut up. On the contrary, he seemed intimidated by the crowd, giving Isner bad calls -- even Monfils said so. This is fascism. It is due to the liberal nature of New York City politics. It is the demagogy of democracy.

Isner battled on, kept his nerve, got ahead in the fourth set tiebreak. At this point, the crowd suddenly went wild-for-John, cheering him on with cries of “USA!” Compounding its fickleness, this lot could only support a winner? It would not support its own side when it needs them, but it wants to share in a win for which it deserves no credit? What sort of crap is this? Is it not the mindset of those who, having grown prosperous and safe during the law-and-order-and-growth years of Giuliani and Bloomberg, are now preparing for a left wing administration that will weigh down the city with more statist interference and income redistribution in the name of fairness?

The tournament officials should have halted the match, cleared the stadium, and resumed the match the next day. With such a normal gesture in defense of civility being virtually out of the question, it is unlikely that John Catsimatidis, whom -- full disclosure -- this paper has endorsed for the New York mayoralty, can overcome the left wing mood that appears to be gathering momentum as the November election approaches.

American tennis men are not blaming “unfairness” for the bad patch through which they are going. They are blaming themselves, implicitly, by insisting they are going to keep on working and improving. It would be well if sports audiences took more seriously the idea of good behavior on the playing fields as a model for manners and character.

Photo: Tim Smyczek (Roger Kaplan)

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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.