Serve and Volley

Well Done, Mates

The CitiOpen opens, and proves weekends in Washington are not necessarily wasted.

By 7.29.13

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Matthew Ebden, whose usual MO is to serve and volley in the tradition of Australian tennis -- he is Australian -- steps behind the baseline for a textbook demonstration of tactical defense. He takes Saketh Myneni’s smash from midcourt and hits it back hard, repeats, and then again just easily enough to draw the tall Indian toward the net and give Matt the chance for a perfect passing shot. Ebden follows up with the break on the next point and he is up 2-0, a cushion after a fairly easy, but classy, first set. Which figures. Matthew Ebden is a classy player, with elegant ground strokes and graceful quick movements on the court. Of course you never know in tennis, but he looks ready for the main draw, as he completes the two-round qualification. You could be doing worse things on a humid July weekend in Washington, D.C.

Note that Saketh Myneni is no slouch. He needed three sets to beat Donald Young on Saturday, but he beat him all right, as Young pulled even after falling behind in the home stretch but could not sustain the rally. You hear it said that American tennis these days is like that.

I do not say it. I do not because to say that would be to say kids are like that and I do not believe it. The kids are all right. You have to give them support, time, and they come through. You watch two young prospects like Tim Smyczek and Jarmere Jenkins -- not kids strictly speaking but rising young players in their 20s -- compete through three sets of high speed baseline cross court power tennis and you know it does not matter which of the two qualifies (Milwaukeean Smyczek beat the University of Virginia star, if you must know), they represent the future.

It is not American tennis that is failing to live up to its promise, it is American government. This is Washington, so it is the one place where while covering sports you are permitted to make political jeremiads. American government these days is big and grand and bold until you get down to the can-you-walk-as-you-talk part of the deal and then it turns into mush and mess, except in Mali, where by no fault of the politicians in Washington we are shoulder to shoulder with our gallant French allies building an air wall across the Sahara and protecting our African brothers from the jihad hordes out of Libya and beyond.

But let us not digress. Ebden’s victory in the bag, he is followed on the Stadium Court at the William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center at 16th and Kennedy Streets, N.W., by his compatriot Samuel Groth, who is even bigger than he is and who is up against a huge and handsome boy from Tennessee, Rhyne Williams, who you would think ought to be playing football not tennis, but in these times that is not unusual.

The great Australian tennis player Rod Laver, who has a good claim to being the greatest tennis player of all time, universal and cross-national, was, indeed still is, rather small in stature, five-seven or eight if memory serves, but he had the biggest, most powerful wrist and forearm in the sport and in fact (sportswriters made the scientific comparison) bigger than many a ballplayer’s or heavyweight boxer’s. Though of small stature compared to today's players, Rod Laver impressed everyone not only with his athletic prowess but his true straight manner, as Mr. Pleszczynski, who as a boy in Santa Barbara saw the champ in action, attests to this day. "He represents," our editorial director maintains, "the spitting image of the sportsman who is a gentleman."

I have studied Laver’s autobiography, which is witty and a great read, if not as deep as War and Peace or as wrenching to the heart as Anna Karenina. I usually reread Tolstoy in the summer, when there is nothing else to do in Washington except wish the politicians would all get lost while trying to find their way around their home districts and stay lost, and play tennis; also I allow as how this is the time we at The American Spectator believe in emphasizing our Country Club Republican roots by covering tennis events around the world as well as African tribal wars.

Is Matt Ebden one of Laver’s children? In some sense yes, of course, or why else would he be such a fine tennis player. But if you mean this in the sense that he will pick up the mantle and so forth, only time will tell. Meanwhile, Sam Groth is fighting it out with Rhyne Williams on the Stadium Court and they each take a set before the young husky and powerful Tennessean begins to crumble under the onslaught of Groth’s awesome serve and volley. If Ebden has a powerful and classic serve and volley game, you ought to see his mate Groth’s. Charlie Brotman, the admired announcer at the FitzGerald Center and near whom I am sitting up in the press box, is audibly impressed. The marvelous thing about Charlie Brotman is that after all these years -- he has been announcing this tournament in his mild and wise voice since its inception in 1969, in the days of Arthur Ashe and thanks to the faith and hard work of some real gentlemen and great Washingtonians -- they used to exist -- about whom more in a moment if you will permit this digression. The marvelous thing about Charlie, I was saying, is that after all these years he retains the love of this sport that brought him to this tournament in the first place. A less cynical man you will seldom meet, and among sports pros that is not saying a lot, that is saying something nearly unheard of.

Mr. Brotman, who also announces baseball and other sports, but baseball and tennis are his favorites, knows the lyrical beauty of the summer games with their long afternoons and evenings, their stormy weather, their bursts of mental and physical passion amidst the hot lazy languor. So what he sees in Sam Groth -- a virtual unknown, as most of the competitors in the qualifying rounds are, adolescent or young-20s, which adds to the summer beauty of the moment because they are bursting with the precocious eagerness of inexperience -- is the game as all fans wish to see it and so often do not for they spend most of their time watching experts whose expertise is so great as to be without the mad exuberance of youth.

Sam Groth is a mighty young player. He overwhelms the mighty young American from Tennessee in the third set with his breath-taking serve-and-volley, a serve so hard and well-placed Williams watches aces zip by more often than anyone can keep track of. This is very good news.

It is very good news that American tennis is on the path to recovery after some slow years. Williams and others his age, like Jack Sock, whose game his resembles and who will be in the main draw this week as a wild card, will learn to deal with these powerful Australian serve-and-volley men. And we can dream again of the days of yore, when Australia and America ruled the world. I mean the tennis world. I am sorry to say -- but never mind.

As a matter of fact, to refer again to Mr. Laver’s autobiography, a very fine sports book which has Rod Laver’s distinctive Aussie wit and the editorial help of the legendary Bud Collins, the era of national dominance in tennis may be over for a long time, for example until World War Three wipes out all the nations. (Or World War V if we go by Mr. Norman Podhoretz’s accounting, which however we do not.) Laver points out that even as he was at his very apex, the second Grand Slam (only player in history to have got that, all four majors in one calendar year) and other Australians, such as Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong and Ken Rosewall also were up there ruling the waves, I mean the courts, alongside him, it was already becoming not only multinational where it had been basically a four-nation sport, but it was getting to where young people did not see in the sport the same chance for upward mobility that it represented in the past. They had other opportunities, such as cheating at cards and going to college, which boys like Rod Laver and Pancho Gonzales never had.

The girls’ side is impressive too, and I can write girl without fear of being accused of political incorrectness or Weinerism because they really are girls, teens. They are sensational, and though they are not all getting through, the phenomenal Victoria Duval, for example, getting upstaged in three sets by the no less phenomenal Portuguese tennis princess, Michelle Larcher de Brito, in a classic of counter-punching baseline cross court three set girls’ tennis match, they are going to be around for a while and you can rest assured the lineage of Chris Evert and Venus Williams and Serena Williams is secure.

One of the finest things about this tournament is that it belongs to a kids’ organization, or more exactly an organization for kids. Years ago, several outstanding citizens who happened to be Washingtonians (to repeat myself, the two are not always mutually exclusive), Donald Dell and William H.G. FitzGerald and Dwight Mosley, teamed up with Arthur Ashe to create the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF). Although their idea of tennis as way of helping kids “stay on the courts and out of juvenile court” dated back to the 1950s, when they organized tennis camps and other activities in a fairly ad-hoc manner -- they were rich men, successful lawyers, bankers, but not politicians, they were private citizens, such as still lived in Washington back then -- it was in the late 1960s that things really got going. They came up with the tournament to call attention to the organization and bring it some revenue. It was the beginning of Open tennis and the sport was entering prime time, and notwithstanding sleaze, excuse me politics, as Washington’s main sport, the town, though small, had paying sports fans, as it still has.

We will have occasion to return to the WTEF later in this series on the CitiOpen, Citi having taken over the major sponsorship of the event from Legg Mason last year, but the important point now is that just as the qualifying rounds make hope spring eternal, so the WTEF eternally, or at least for the past 43 years, brings hope to kids and therefore, yes my friends, to all of us. The kids in the WTEF programs stay in school and go on to college, often with scholarships. They do not necessarily become qualifiers at this tournament, or at any other tournament, even though most of them become damn good tennis players. But they become qualifiers at something even bigger, which is life.

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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.