Serve and Volley

Polish Charges

Defense beats offense? Only if the tactician plays better!

By 8.28.13

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There was, in fact, a sense in the stands on Court 13 at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, site of the U.S. Open Championships, that Jerzy Janowicz, the young Polish star from Lodz, was getting bad calls from the line umpires, but it has to be truthfully said that even without the calls he was getting whipped, and badly.

The culprit was a relative unknown, the Argentine veteran Maximo Gonzalez, who outplayed the ebullient and hot-tempered Pole, wore him down, rolled with the punches when necessary, and prevailed in three sets. Gonzalez, who is 30, comes from Tandil -- the hometown of Juan Martin Del Potro, who will play his first match on Wednesday. He is a journeyman athlete, who has not won any majors (he has played here only four times), but he displays the shrewdness and the tough resilience of the true, dedicated professional.

Against Janowicz’s cavalry charges he was as a stonewall -- until he saw an opportunity for a flanking maneuver and hit the ball exactly where Jerzy least expected it. It was magnificent tennis because the contrast in styles, and in the emotions whence they came, was so spectacular. Unflappable cool beat hot passion, but it was obvious that Maximo Gonzalez’s passion for tennis is no less intense than Jerzy Janowicz’s.

A somewhat more subdued version of this match took place earlier in the day, in the clash between another Polish player, Michal Przysiezny, and Julien Benneteau, doubles winner at the Citi Open tournament in Washington a few weeks ago. The Frenchman needed four sets to subdue his Pole, but the pattern was strikingly similar, patient defensive play breaking the attacker. Which is not to say the man from Bresse, any more than the Argentine, was purely defensive in the classic manner of, say, Rene Lacoste, whose entire (and only) dictum was, “Hit one more shot over the net than your opponent.”

Gonzalez and Benneteau can be aggressive players, often making risky attacks at the net and aiming shots into the corners and to the sidelines. The difference between an essentially defensive game and an essentially offensive one is underscored by the psychology you bring to the match. There is the player who thinks, I must get him off balance immediately; the other is no less sure getting his opponent off balance is the idea, but he knows he can take his time doing it.

Players like Gonzalez and Benneteau own the sweeping, long-armed, deep strokes that come from learning the sport on clay. Their returns of serve, like their powerful baseline forehands and their efficient, tireless backhands, are steady. And they know how to turn their reliable shots into cunning weapons that wrong foot their adversary of cause his to misjudge where and how they will bounce and they also know how to hit deep.

They tend not to net their shots; when they miss a point it is because they either cannot reach the ball or send it long or out of bounds. With Janowicz and Przysiezny, you see balls slamming into the net constantly, and you also see the effect it has on them. The long shot, you sense it is a matter you can correct with steadier strokes, better foot movement, eye on the ball and fixes to your timing. Netting them, you feel somehow -- it is not necessarily so, though it usually is -- you are being outplayed, the point is not under your control, and the frustration grows and your games disintegrates.

On the American side, progression was not so frustrating. Jack Sock, one of the rising hopes of U.S. tennis, and Donald Young, who has been a rising hope for a few years now, both won their first-round matches, Young decisively and Sock when his opponent, the German Philipp Petzschnerr retired in the third set after they traded wins in the first two. John Isner and Sam Querrey also advanced to the second round, as did Bradley Klahn on Monday.

There was a great five-set drag-out battle between Grigor Dimitrov and Joao Sousa, which the Portuguese player finally pulled off, but the greatest drama of the day took place in Louis Armstrong stadium where after three fantastic sets of point-for-point thrills, 17-year old Floridian Victoria Duval defeated the Australian veteran (and 2011 champion here) Samantha Stosur. It took Miss Duval five deuces in the tenth game of the last set to finally get it over.

The U.S. Open is the biggest -- well, let us be fair, one of the four biggest -- stages in this sport and it brings out the kind of exuberance and enthusiasm and passion and triumph and disaster that this day’s matches displayed. Certainly, the rankings are there for a reason, and it was no surprise, for example, that Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic easily breezed through their first round matches. There are always upsets -- the most striking in the first round was probably the British qualifier Daniel Evans over Japanese champ Kei Nishikori, the most elegant was surely Venus Williams over the higher ranked Kirsten Flipkens, allowing her to join her sister Serena in the next round. But these are pleasant surprises, as was a baby-faced 17-year old’s stunning win on Tuesday. These give the sport, and the tournament, its magic. Still, it is in the studied, tactical clashes between contrasting players like Maximo Gonzalez and Jerzy Janowicz, Julien Benneteau and Michal Przysiezny, that the first week of a great tournament finds its deepest moments, for it is in these matches that the sport in its greatest variety finds its best expression.

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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.