Serve and Volley

Crossing the Desert

American tennis wanders near palm trees and sands.

By 3.10.14

UPI
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In one of the most anticipated matches of the first week of the Masters 1000 tournament at Indian Wells, California, the doubles team of Roger Federer and Stanislaw Wawrinka beat the legendary Indo-Pak Express team of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi in three sets, largely due to sensational return-of-serve shots by the ex world No. 1 (presently No. 8). Wawrinka (presently No. 3) did his job as well as you would expect of the man who beat Djokovic and Nadal, both, at the Australian Open a few weeks ago, but it was Federer, fresh from his triumph over Tomas Berdych in the final at the Dubai tournament (Bopanna and Qureshi took the doubles trophy), whose lightning reflexes at the net and absolutely uncanny sense of where to put the ball, drew the oohs and aahs, perceptible even on TV, of the capacity crowd at Stadium Two on Friday afternoon.

The Swiss champs are, to be sure, natural draws. Federer is regarded as the dominant player of his generation, but he had a disappointing 2013 and there was talk in tennis circles of a changing of the guard. There is a changing of the guard. It is normal. Even the most durable players, such as Pancho Gonzales and Martina Navratilova, cannot keep going at the very top forever, and even while they are cruising at the top others are in the running. The question with regard to Federer concerned how well he would recover from his worst year since 2002. Having achieved just about everything, was he still psychologically hungry enough to sustain the mental hardness needed to win tournaments? And despite his famous physical regimen, which made him the most fit and least injury-prone top 10 player of recent years, would his body finally soften up a little, as shown by some back problems that he reported last season?

Indian Wells is a Masters 1000, with a draw of 128 (96 players, 36 first-round byes) and nearly two weeks of competition. Apart from the number of starters and a slightly shorter schedule, the difference with the majors, a.k.a. slams, is that the matches are best-of-three in singles, and in doubles the third set is played as a 10-point tiebreak.

The abridged format in doubles is one of a number of innovations that the tennis establishment is trying out to see if the doubles game can acquire a larger fan base. The idea seems to be not that the audience has limited patience for doubles, but rather that the shorter matches will attract singles stars who otherwise would prefer to save their strength for their preferred (and more lucrative) format.

There is no doubting that watching Federer in a doubles match is a thrill. As they say of sequels in literature or movies, it can be appreciated as a self-contained story or it can be viewed as part of a continuing epic. Federer always has been a strong net player — he never abandoned the serve and volley game he admired growing up, even as most players were learning to win from the baseline, and he deserves much of the credit for its recent, albeit limited, revival.

John McEnroe, who was a great doubles player in his time, disparaged the doubles game recently, for reasons unclear even, apparently, to himself. (“Why we are even playing doubles at this point is a mystery to me,” he said.) He seemed to be suggesting that it was a game for slowpokes and non-endurance types who cannot take the high-endurance singles game. You do not need as much leg speed in doubles as in singles, but your hands and nerves must be, I think most players would agree, faster and steadier in order to sustain and win at the net game, without which you cannot win at doubles. Play for play, doubles is a faster-paced game than singles, with short distance shots volleys whizzing across the net.

It requires tremendous accuracy of placement, arguably even more so than singles. You must hit it not where one guy ain’t, but where two guys ain’t, two guys who know how to cover a court together.

The “soft hands” and quick reflexes that make a great net volleyer and the seemingly effortless ability to hit a dime on the other side of the court from virtually any position are the skills that characterize Federer’s game, as they characterized McEnroe’s. However much sportswriters like to say that doubles is “a different game,” it does not mean you need different skills to win at it. Is half-court basketball different from full-court? Of course — superficially. But down deep? Down deep, it is the same.

It is all one. But leaving aside these deep questions, it was wonderful to see how well Federer and Wawrinka played together. They were sharp as razors (sorry about that one), took the first set with classic mastery, putting shots down the alley and volleys into the holes. They flubbed the second set tiebreak and looked vulnerable in the first half of the 10-point “third set tiebreak” (as I believe the innovation is called), with Federer making untypical errors. He put volleys into the net and gave the mighty Indo-Pak Express easy set ups.

The Swiss, who won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics, are aiming to bring the Davis Cup to Switzerland this year. The Cup is the one major trophy Federer lacks. Winning the doubles rubber (match) in a Davis Cup tie goes a long way in securing a best-of-five tie (series). Opportunities for practice are precious, as the Swiss have a fair shot this year at taking the Cup from the Czechs — assuming the defending Cup holders are at the Challenge round (final). (And sorry about these archaic Davis Cup terms; and truthfully, it is not really a Challenge round inasmuch as the current champions since the Open era have had to compete through the draw along with everyone else. And also, the term tie means a match in ordinary tournaments, though it is seldom heard outside the lands of the former British Empire.)

In his second round singles match, Federer got into some trouble in the second set against an energetic and sharp Paul-Henri Mathieu (a Frenchman), and toughed out a tiebreak 7-5. He relied on his serve to restore balance when he fell behind 4-5, 0-30, hitting two aces and a winner one right after the other. He appeared satisfied at the end, unlike his disgruntled opponent, who shook hands with his head turned away.

The first week of matches at the Indian Wells Masters produced no big surprises, which is unfortunate if you watch tennis with a patriotic lens, because these days no surprises means American men go down like bowling pins. Tim Smyczek, five-nine, went down before the mighty Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov, a player whose energy makes him look bigger than he is (six feet, very slim). He can be wildly unpredictable but his control this week was fine; the question for the off-day is whether he can take an aggressive game to Rafa Nadal in the next round and do what the sensationally talented Radek Stepanek (one of the reasons for the Czechs’ Davis Cup successes in recent years) very nearly pulled off against the defending champion.

Stepanek — but I was reporting on the Americans. Smyczek, who is from Wisconsin and has a cheerful, courteous sense of sportsmanship and grit to match, beat fellow-American Jack Sock in the first round and it has to be said, mean as it sounds, that the young Nebraskan with the mighty whiplash forehands had it coming. Not to take anything from Smyczek, whose intelligent play sooner or later is bound to take him into serious contention, Sock has a habit of letting his concentration wander, and, given his talent and power, he pays a ridiculous price.

Ryan Harrison, who resembles the slightly younger Sock in some aspects of his game — the two early-20s have power groundstrokes, hard-charging serves with, arguably, insufficient follow-up to the net — kept his focus better but after taking the first set could not keep up with Italy’s Fabio Fognini, whose handsome but cold Latin features, perfect for playing Iago or Tybalt, turned to ice in the desert heat as he closed in after coming back like a storm in the second set and kept the pressure on in the third to win.

Meanwhile, Donald Young and Sam Querrey went down, as did Steve Johnson and Michael Russell, and the last man standing as we go into the second week is John Isner, who held off a strong challenge in the first set and went on to an easier second set dominance of Nikolay Davydenko, a 32-year old, Ukrainian-born former top Russian champ, now ranked about 400 but keep in mind that still makes him better than almost everyone else in the world. He has a deserved reputation as a rock solid baseline man, who converts bullet forehands and backhands into aggressive shots all over the court. Isner’s ability to counter Davydenko’s game with shrewd placements of his own (notably at the net) is a welcome signal to his fans that the American is carrying his 2013 season successes into the new year,

Well, this is an individual sport and all that, and, as students of the sociology of sports fandom will tell you, tennis audiences are not niggardly in their demonstrations of support for fine play wherever it comes from. And yet, we ask where are our young champions? What does their dearth say about us as a society? Does it say that we are engaged in other, no less challenging, endeavors, such as medical research. Perhaps. I hope so. Still, in any population a given number ordinarily are drawn to the joy and discipline of high level sports, so you wonder. After all, we have the youth, the climate, the teachers, the facilities, and, moreover, our girls are holding up pretty well, as most observers agree the successors to Venus and Serena Williams — who did not play at Indian Wells, due to an ancient perceived insult, but that is another, and a bitter, story — pretty sure to emerge from the current cohort, for example the very young sensations Taylor Townsend and Victoria Duval, though neither made it to this week’s rounds.

The Indian Wells tournament belongs to a man named Larry Ellison, one of the richest men in America. I can see why he likes Indian Wells. It is beautiful, well furnished with luxury eating places and hotels and homes that, I am sure, are expensive even by the standards of the 1 percent. Mr. Ellison is a genius, one of the architects, with Steve Jobs and a few others, of the techno-industrial revolution that has helped drive the exponential growth in wealth worldwide over the past 20 years.

If we as a society can produce such feats of enterprise and innovation, why can we not produce world-class tennis players? We do, we do — anyone who makes it to the draw at Indian Wells is world class in this sport, but the most recent American to win here was Andre Agassi in 2001. The comparable Miami Masters belonged to Agassi between 2001 and 2003, and Pete Sampras had it in 2000 and Andy Roddick in 2004. Since then, zilch. (Davydenko, if you want to know, won it in 2008.) The last time one of ours won a major — but it is too depressing. (Andy Roddick, 2003 U.S. Open.)

In these circumstances, it is vain to talk of upgrading Indian Wells to a place on the slam circuit, notwithstanding that its fans sometimes refer to it as “the Grand Slam of the West.” The four classic venues of international competition in this sport acquired their hallowed and preeminent status because they were the tournaments of which dreams were made. They came to represent the World Series, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl in their line of work. From the great national prestige with which they began, they acquired global renown. When Americans conquered Wimbledon, the Brits had to admit we were the top country at last, forget about Yorktown and New Orleans. When the Australians did, they got their honor at last back from the toffs who for so long despised them as a remote colony settled by riffraff. Has Indian Wells earned this sort of aura? To be sure, winning here means a lot; both Roger Federer (four time champ) and Rafa Nadal (three time and defending champ) can tell you so. But given the parlous state of American men’s tennis, making it a slam would be nothing other than a commercial gimmick.

Mind, I am an optimist. I believe — because I see some of them daily — that on the public courts of our cities and towns, the kind Don Budge and Pancho Gonzales, among other legendary American champions, learned to play on, kids are picking up racquets, encouraged by big-hearted organizations like the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation that work to keep them focused on school and sports. We are in the desert now, and I suppose it is a blessing, since every human endeavor requires, sooner or later and perhaps even from time to time, a desert crossing.

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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.