Serve and Volley

Champions and Winners

A fine finale and a reminder of what sports are for.

By 8.5.13

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First Stepanek, then Fish, hit a shot around the post for a winner, in each case getting the ball behind the backs of their opponents.

Although there were no other stunners quite like these almost back-to-back around-the-posters, the plays were typical of the high-velocity, edgy, nervous, amazing-reflexes game of doubles tennis and -- as Rod Laver said decades ago and repeats in his autobiography, The Education of a Tennis Player (this is not a placement ad), new edition 2010, it is a pity the public has not taken to doubles the way it has to singles.

However, it was a great match that Radek Stepanek, the 2011 winner of the singles at the Citi Open Washington Tennis Classic, played alongside Mardy Fish. They both had acceptable runs in the singles draw, losing in the third rounds to Dmitry Tursunov and Kevin Anderson, respectively, and they were coming off the high of a dramatic win in the semis over Grigor Dimitrov and Michaël Llodra that went to what they call a 10-point tie-breaker, a kind of curtailed third set, one of the recent format changes on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tour designed to improve audience appreciation while also encouraging singles players to join the fun. The system, which also provides for a one-point win after deuce instead of two, shortens the playing time and allows players to conserve energy, while, of course, making each point more dramatic. They won by 6-3, 3-6, 10-8, and with all due respect for Llodra, if his energy to the end had been as high as Dimitrov’s, but – but there are no if’s in sports, are there?

They were working well together, but it has to be said that the other side, consisting of Julien Benneteau and Nenad Zimonjic, who won their semis match with ease (by comparison) over last year’s winning team of Treat Huey and Dominic Inglot, 6-3, 6-4, was working even better. Well, that is my theory, the side that wins is the side (or the individual) that works better. There can be exceptions, but this is not the place to get off the topic. They won. They played better. End of story.

Except it was a great story. Benneteau has a classical manner that combines reliable baseline power with the needed reflexes for the volleying game, which he masters as well at the net as at mid-court, from where he culls low balls just before they hit the ground and crunches them back in the holes. Zimonjic has a smashing game at the net and a power serve, which played havoc, double faults notwithstanding, against Stepanek, who despite having one of the finest returns of serve on the tour – Zimonjic himself says so -- returned horribly, to the point it was almost a sure point for B and Z when he was receiving. And so despite a great rally by the Czech-American team in the second set, where they ran up a 3-0 lead with those around-the-post shots perfectly typical of the way they were surging, the more fine-tuned Serbo-French side prevailed, 7-6, 7-5, their break in the second set coming in the eleventh game.

No doubt players like Zimonjic are interested, but they are probably right in observing that the sport, if it is to hold the attention of a large fan base, can benefit from the variety that doubles provides. Prize money demonstrates that the market is still heavily on the side of singles; at the Citi Open, the winner of the singles takes nearly 300 thousand, while the winning doubles team takes under 100. On the women’s side, the winner takes 40 thousand, the doubles team scarcely 11. This may seem like good pay for a week’s work, but keep in mind that there are 64 starters in the male draw, 32 on the women’s side; 32 men in doubles (16 teams) and 32 women. If you do not win, you get half of what the round ahead of you got, if you follow me.

However, money is not everything. A life well lived is you work well and you love well: I believe a Viennese doctor thus defined the aim of it all about a century ago. It may be a stretch, but that is not so very different from saying that the unexamined life is not worth living, if, that is, we agree that the examined life leads you to want to work and love. By still another stretch, you can say that what they are all saying is that you should trust in the creator and follow his commandments, which boil down to doing the right thing by others and keeping faith.

NONE OF THIS HAS ANYTHING to do with the sport of tennis – or does it? -- but it came to mind as I made my way toward this splendid Washington institution which is the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, where all these great athletes were playing doubles. It was a beautiful summer day as they so often are in Washington, warm without being hot and humid, a slight breeze, beautiful blue sky. I took a long detour and drove by the new facility for tennis instruction built by the owner of the tournament, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, originally set up in the late 1950s as the Washington Tennis Patrons’ Foundation by successful and rich individuals who believed their sport would help troubled kids stay out of trouble and learn to live and work better.

The Foundation has its headquarters at the FitzGerald Center, which is in a very nice neighborhood at the edge of Rock Creek Park on 16th St. NW, but they have now opened a new facility across town on East Capitol Street. This was done with private donations worth about 10 million dollars. The center, whose director is a man named Willis Thomas who as a child and teen played tennis with Arthur Ashe, brings tennis instruction to kids in surrounding schools, which are mainly in Ward Seven, and encourages them to enter programs at the facility, during the school year and over the summer, combining tennis instruction and school work. Teens can enter the Center for Excellence program, which is more of the same and which has a consistent record of sending their graduates to college on tennis scholarships.

It did look nice, though closed for the weekend – there are plans to eventually open it to the public, on the model of the Rock Creek courts, which charge modest fees -- and I went on to some of the nearby municipal courts to see who was out on such a beautiful day. There were some players, though it was early, not yet 8 AM, and we played a couple sets and I mentioned the Foundation and asked if they knew kids who were enrolled. They did not. But they said it was a good thing. Good for the kids, they said; good for the ward.

One of the interesting things about watching pros in any sport, if you also spend a certain amount of time watching and working with kids in high school programs, or such community programs as the WTEF (click here for Katherine Ruddy’s photos of this program at work, is that you are reminded of the eternal truth that men (people if you prefer) are not created equal. It is well to have political institutions that build structures that facilitate equal opportunity and equal dignity, but that is precisely in order that individuals with unequal talents, and for that matter different aspirations and goals, understand the fundamental natural truth of life and its hazards and inequalities. You watch little children play at the WTEF, and you think these eight-, 10-year-olds are going to be champions! You watch them a few years later in high school and you are sure they are going to be big NCAA stars, Olympic athletes, pros! You watch pros play and you reassess your opinion.

THE TURNING POINT in the men’s singles final at the Citi Open occurred toward the end of the first set. Juan Martin del Potro, known as the Giant of Tandil from his home town in Argentina, had fallen behind 1-4 and was now receiving at 3-5. He had won the semis the night before, around midnight, due to a long rain delay, against the aggressive Tommy Haas, who had a great run. He was tired and it showed, while John Isner, who has had an excellent summer season so far, with a win at Atlanta the previous week, was comparatively rested, having won his semi, against Dmitry Tursunov, earlier in the day. Isner’s first serves were holding up and he was able to break, due to some strong return-of-serve play, as well as some adroit strokes, including a couple of rather deft drop shots, that caught del Potro off guard.

So with Isner serving and the score 40-30, it looked like the set was in the bag, when del Potro made a breath-taking backhand down the line return that no one saw or even knew had happened until the ump called “deuce.”

It was clear then that Delpo was back on his game, a game that differs from John Isner’s somewhat the way the pros’ games, with all due respect to their individual styles, differ from the well-trained and taught kids’ or juniors’ games. The exceptional player has something, a sense of the moment, the place, the very essence of the mental and physical territories that constitute a sporting competition, and he knows how to exploit that sense better than very good ordinary athletes. The latter, at the technical level, what we call the fundamentals, may be just as good – they may in some cases be better. They lack the instinct to make the right move at the crucial moment that gives them the edge. That amazing return by del Potro was the demonstration of just this instinct.

It did not guarantee victory. In fact, del Potro, who won here in 2008 and 2009, but was absent for the next three editions, went on to lose the set, as Isner took the next point for the advantage with a beautiful shot from the net and then served a winner. But it was clear up in the press box, where the legend-in-his-own-time Charlie Brotman was nodding wisely, that it was over. (Final score: 3-6, 6-1, 6-2; for Katherine Ruddy’s magical photo coverage of the finale, click here.)

Tennis professionals like Willis Thomas and Mike Ragland, who are in charge of programs at the WTEF, are well aware of the differences, invisible to the man living the unexamined life, between expertise and championship-level skill. Willis Thomas himself, after all, was Arthur Ashe’s childhood tennis partner. He decided to give a skill to kids that comes with, and at the same time transcends, the tremendous joy and merit that comes with learning a sport very well, and that serves them no matter how far they go in athletics. He and Mike Ragland and their coaches, men like Charles Ribout who grew up in Ward Seven, show their young charges that they can be life-long champions by loving well and working well, playing hard, and winning in the ways that matter.

Which is, too, what you take away from a successful tournament like this one, a relatively modest affair as professional sports goes, but a big deal too, because it represents the enduring value of a few men some fifty years ago, and some women, who examined their lives and thought they were pretty good, and thought they could makes others’ better too.

(Correction: Mr. Charles Ribout, who coaches at the WTEF, was mis-identified above as Charles Brown. The writer apologizes to Messrs. Ribout and Brown and to the WTEF.)

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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.