It was a decidedly uneven day for American tennis as the first round ended at the CitiOpen tournament, played at the William H.G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center at 16th and Kennedy Streets in Northwest Washington. Veteran Mardy Fish came back from a miserable first set to bring misery to the rising Australian Matthew Ebden, showing that guile and grit can beat grace and form. But Ebden’s compatriot Samuel Groth put on a demonstration of classic serve-and-volley tennis to overwhelm a determined young Dennis Kudla after a first set that went down to the tiebreaking wire.
It was no less ambiguous on the women’s side of the tournament, wherein such bright young hopes as Sloane Stephens and Christina McHale went down in two and three sets respectively, as did Beatrice Capra and Jessica Pegula. They all lost to young ladies with light colored hair and difficult to pronounce names, but you can look them up and anyway the tournament’s not over till it’s over and wait till the first round is complete on Tuesday before despairing of young America.
Let us be clear. Tennis is an individual sport. Let the best man win, or woman, is the rule, and fair’s fair. Olga Puchkova, who was born in Moscow but now lives in Florida, beat Miss Stephens by holding out with more determination on the baseline and maintaining her cool in the heat of the summer evening. They are both the same weight but Miss Puchkova is taller and ranked much lower. Well, upsets happen.
Mardy Fish and Matthew Ebden, on the other hand, are both tall, over six feet, but their games could not be more different. The 25-year-old Ebden plays a classic, and classy, Australian game, with elegant baseline strokes when he is not rushing the net in the serve-and-volley tradition. Fish, who is a Californian from Minnesota, grinds down his opponents with superbly angled shots into the sidelines and the corners, a cunning and supremely intelligent game that speaks volumes of his determination and dedication (overcoming ill health and injuries and never quitting).
The Fish-Ebden match was particularly interesting because it overlapped with another game of contrasts, the one between another big serve and volley Aussie, Samuel Groth, and Virginian Dennis Kudla (born in Kiev, a city in Ukraine). Groth was able to impose his game on the 21-year-old Kudla in a way that kept eluding Ebden. The serve-and-volley works, when it works. When you go up against an opponent who is able to consistently break its momentum, you get into the kind of trouble that plagued Ebden in the second and third sets, out-ground-stroked and out-finessed. In effect, you are playing checkers against a chess player.
Kudla put up an awfully good fight in the first set, meeting Groth game for game until the tiebreaker. Groth took it easily, at 7-2, but the real turning point came in the fifth game of the second set, when he broke at love, meaning he denied Kudla a single point on his own serve, which is not good for the person broken.
On the other hand, it is by no means the end of the world, or even the match. You can get broken, you can even be broken at love, and get your revenge -- maybe even break right back on the next game.
But it was most unlikely in this match. Until that moment, it looked as if it might go either way. Samuel Groth’s serve and volley game was matched, game for game, by Dennis Kudla’s consistent baseline ground strokes. When Groth got to those, which usually he could do -- he is very fast and nimble on his feet, despite his size -- they entered into thrilling rallies, but the American almost always stayed steady longer, kept his shots deep, played his opponent like a yo-yo, corner to corner, made him hit long or out of bounds.
This plus the extra ounce to put in the killer shots when Groth was on serve, and Kudla would have been playing rather like Mardy Fish. But he lacked the latter’s shot-placing ability. A purely defensive, counter-punching game can work, as it nearly did, for one set, but it is unlikely to work for two when you are up against someone as strong and aggressive as Groth.
The best defense is a good defense? Or a strong offense will trump any defense? In this game the object is to be the last one to put a ball over the net and inside the opposite court; given Kudla’s skill at retrieving and hitting back hard, Groth knew he must get the ball away from him. The way to do this is to ace him with a serve that was coming down like a stealth bomber, or to smash shots from the net. He stuck to this plan and it finally wore down his opponent, just as it had worn down Rhyne Williams the day before.
With James Blake losing in two sets late in the evening to the Bosnian veteran Mrinko Matosevic, and Rhyne Williams himself -- back from his loss in the qualifying rounds as a “lucky loser,” meaning he slipped into the main draw due to someone’s withdrawal -- losing to the tough Somdev Dewarman, who is from Assam but lives in Charlottesville, the Americans to watch tomorrow are Wisconsin’s Tim Smyczek and California’s Sam Querrey, and the Nebraskan Jack Sock. We have a way to go, but there is much to be gained from studying the Australian power game, which used to be the American game as well. Combine that with a Mardy Fish-like tactical brilliance and you have a mighty strategy. Easily said.
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