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The Natural

To be young, gifted, and in fine form at Roland-Garros.

By 5.29.13

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“Then there was the bad weather.” Whether or not this is the most famous first line in American letters you remember it when it is cold and damp in Paris and you wish for some wool over your shirt and a glass with something hot inside it.

The rain came just when the boy from Lincoln, Nebraska, was steamrolling his opponent on Court No. 3, adjacent to Court No. 1 that they call the “bullring” and back to back with Court No. 2 where the big crowd was and where the gasps and the applause and the cheers were rising like waves every few minutes as first the girl from Serbia and then the girl from Russia took a point. They were not cheering the one or the other but the both of them for it was a fine match, as fine as the one the other day that put the lithe beautiful dark-haired Serbian girl against the lithe beautiful fair-haired Croatian girl and they slugged it out for three sets through the first match play of the first day of this tournament until the dark haired beautiful girl from Belgrade pulled it off. Now it was like that again with the Russian girl and the other Serbian girl.

But on the adjacent court the boy from Lincoln was rolling over a young man ten years older than he from La Roda and he was really rolling over him but not in a way that he could rest while he rolled. You usually cannot. The young man from La Roda had a great powerful forehand and knew how to use it and the games kept going to the deuce and the ad and back to the deuce and back to the ad.

They were both very good and they were both young and they both lived in the town where they were born and they both played right handed and hit the backhand with two hands and beyond that they were as different as you would expect a 21-year-old boy from Nebraska to be from a 33-year-old man from Spain. It was the last day of first-round play at the tournament and the only thing that mattered was getting to the next round but only one would do that and it seemed obvious the boy from Nebraska would do it until the rain came and then you had to think you never know because you never do know.

There was no question the rain delay was necessary. No sooner had the groundkeepers pulled the heavy tarp over the whole court and the court where the Serbian and the Russian girls were playing and the great famous center court where the French and Bulgarian girls were playing and all of the courts in the complex on the west side of Paris where the Internationaux de France are played every year, the world series of clay-surface tennis, that the rain came down in buckets and everyone said this is it. It was the second rain delay of the day and it would put back at least a third of the matches and what that would do to the program no one wanted to contemplate. But we said no it will not do very much of anything to the program. They will play as long as there is light tonight and they will commence earlier than usual tomorrow and if needed play late into the twilight again tomorrow and they will catch up on all the matches and the program will stay on track. The great Novak Djokovic will play tonight, after the French girl and the Bulgarian girl are finished. He will encounter the boy from Belgium. He will probably defeat him but possibly he will not. Such an accident has happened to him more than once within the past weeks and it can happen again.

That is why there was a grain of worry as we went under the shelters and waited for the rain to pass. The Nebraskan, whose name is Jack Sock and who has as natural a game of tennis as anyone in the American contingent at the Paris tournament and who came here as a qualifier, which means he had to win a few preliminary matches to be admitted into the draw, took two sets without a scare from the Spaniard. He played a stronger game, with a whiplash forehand that put his shots into the backcourt like bullets. He played a shrewder game, letting loose an ace exactly when he needed one and knowing exactly when to drop the ball over the net as if he were flipping a pancake. He returned the Spaniard’s service with the steel of a linebacker. He looked like one, or a receiver, big for sure but mainly fast, unimpressed by the split second needed to reach one of the Spaniard’s deep shots to opposite corners, shots Guillermo Garcia-Lopez knew how to make, for he had spent the better part of 20 years learning how to make them.

Sock moved over the red clay as if his feet had known no other surface and except on the rare occasions when he shanked a ball wild beyond the court, his misses always were a matter of millimeters and he shook his head as if to say you really have to be a dope to miss a line by a millimeter from 60 feet what is the matter with you. He was two sets up and leading in the third when the rain came.

WHEN THEY TELL YOU American tennis is not in a good phase they are thinking that our champions have not distinguished themselves. They have not won major tournaments such as this one, the Internationaux, or the Championships at Wimbledon or the Australian Open or even our own Open in Queens, New York. Our last Big Ten man is Andy Roddick and he retired last year after playing his last match at the Open in Queens. So they say who is there. They say Brian Baker is a tennis genius but he is cursed with injuries. There never has been a braver athlete but there is only so much a man’s body can take and with still another accident early this year the tall lean Tennessean with the soft hands, as they say of an expert volleyer, and the gorgeous attacking forehand did not come to Paris.

They point to the two tall men a few years younger than Roddick and they say they are improving. Of course they are improving. If you work hard and play hard you improve, and Sam Querrey started well here and defeated that Slovakian boy in straight sets and is waiting to go up against the Czech boy who beat one of ours in four. And the other tall player, who almost played basketball but chose tennis, John Isner, he did well too, dispatching the Argentine boy in three sets likewise and it is a shame that he next has to go up against his friend and compatriot the Louisianan Ryan Harrison, who himself did it quickly and coldly to that Russian boy who looked like a Dostoevsky anti-hero but defended himself well against Harrison’s relentless pounding. But maybe it is not a shame. It is not a shame if they play against each other. They will play against each other and learn to play better and stronger that way and they will emerge. Harrison and Querrey and Isner who did well and Johnson and Russell and Blake who did not but who gave it their best, and the ones back home who are waiting and working for their chance to be here next time. There is a future.

THE RAIN STOPPED and the French girl, who is from Corsica, and the Bulgarian girl resumed a battle to the end. They could not come to the end of each other. One got ahead and then the other. The Bulgarian girl played the game of graceful power the Slavic girls play. They stay back and hit and screech. Their aim is to push and push the other girl back and finally put a ball into their feet that they can only toss back or lob back and then they kill it. But the Corsican girl, who stands well inside the baseline and blocks shots coming at her like a grenadier before a charge of cavalry, would not give up. She was down 3-5 in the last set and she fought on.

The Spaniard is dejected and drags his feet at the end of the second set, and he takes a long time out, intestinal upset or cramps or knees or what. It is within the rules, but it is a way to break the winning player’s momentum. Sock fidgets, dances in place, moves his feet, legs. He is waiting in the cold damp and it is not pleasant, the other fellow is maybe having his calves massaged, his stomach pumped, who knows. These medical pauses are inside the rules but there are those who say the rules need changing. You win with what you have inside you and no excuses. If it is a true cramp or too much cheese and wine or beans and you cannot play you say so and you quit and lose. That is what some say should be the rule. You cannot throw an opponent’s momentum by claiming you do not feel well, they say.

But you cannot complain about the weather. You have to wait. Now they are back and the Spaniard breaks Sock in the sixth of the third to make it even and holds with a service winner to get the lead. Sock falls behind 15-40 on his service when he puts a volley into the net. He wears a t-shirt and a baseball cap and has the exaggerated grip to make a whiplash forehand spin and he is not showing any emotion at all. An ace and a service winner make things even again and another service winner gives him the ad. He is not showing any emotion at all but he is stepping a foot or two toward the center or away from it depending on where he wants to put his services and he hits another one that the Spaniard cannot keep with the boundaries and they are at 4-4.

The match is over a few minutes later, after a clean break followed by an easy hold which is to say a hold that looks easy but that took a lot of work. It took a lot of work to learn how to hit that final service that could only be returned in such a way that it gave Jack Sock the chance to hit it back again inside out to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez’s backhand, right up against the alley where not only it was his backhand but it was away from his backhand and he could not reach it and he did not and that is the match.

Photo: UPI

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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.