Serve and Volley

Bipartisan Sports

Our pols could learn from doubles tennis.

By 8.4.14

Katherine Ruddy
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Sam Groth serves for the match. Five thousand breaths are held as the shot booms off his racquet seven and half feet off the ground. Five pairs of eyes see it land across the net stretched across Washington’s legendary Stadium Court in Rock Creek Park. They belong to him, to his partner Leander Paes, who crouches near the net under the line of Groth’s serve, to the receiving player, Sam Querrey, and the linesman, and the chair umpire. The receiving player’s partner, Steve Johnson, is not looking. He stares across the net, ready for the return of the return.

The five men who see and hear the shot are experienced in split-second eyeballing. They know they must make decisions and stick with them despite their acquaintance with their own fallibility.

Groth surges forward with his shot. By the reckoning of those who follow this sport, he has the fastest serve ever seen, heard, or experienced. The experiences of his opponents today testify to this. They cannot return his first serve. They can return his second one, which he hits with less force. They even managed to break one of his service games; Groth knows his serve is loyal to him, but he accepts that even his mighty arm can be fallible.

He follows the serve in. He is a tall, broad in the shoulders, built like the pro football player he also is (one season). His style is offense. He follows his serve to the net, his eye never off the ball, his plan is to catch it on the fly and put it away in the space between the two defenders, or to send it right past them in either alley.

Anyone nostalgic for the serve and volley game at its most classic would be well advised to watch a few Sam Groth matches.

They were particularly enjoyable at this year’s Washington tennis classic, the Citi Open as it presently is known, because Groth is joined in the doubles draw by Leander Paes, one of the greatest doubles players of all time.

Since this is Washington, and since 16th Street NW runs by the Stadium, you can follow it a few blocks, make a left on Irving or Harvard, and soon you will be at North Capitol Street, from which you can see that dome of all wisdom. Make a right turn and proceed, at your own risk. It may be better to turn back to the FitzGerald Center, a far more civilized place these days than our federal legislature. There are lessons here for our public officials. They include decency, graciousness, acceptance of the world as it is… the one that comes to mind watching doubles, however, is bipartisanship.

The best doubles teams are bipartisan. If the term means anything, it indicates a complementary function, dissimilarities, or even opposites, working together to achieve a common end. At this level of tennis, both partners on a doubles team are, obviously, good all-around. But they have special strengths, just as they are likely to have vulnerabilities specific to themselves.

Groth, who is from Narrandera, NSW, Australia and is 26, is one of the best servers in the sport. He has one of the best net games, too. You can smash whatever you want at him, he is likely to get back, sometimes with the astonishing shot called “soft hands” that somehow gently puts the ball over the net as if it were precious china, leaving the opposing player stranded lengths away where he knows he cannot reach it.

However, Sam Groth is inconsistent with his ground strokes, and if you can keep him in the backcourt, he liable to put one out of bounds sooner than you, you being not you the reader but players like Leander Paes. Paes has shrewdly managed the game to prevent this from happening often, placing shots that give him time to come to the net, or conversely, covering the back so he can stay there. When they stand together in the forecourt they are like a stone wall and the only thing to do is lob — send a ball high over their heads, but this is a strategy of desperation because Groth can move backward and wait for it and hit it as he does one of his serves.

This is bipartisan tennis. Groth’s serve to Querrey, if it is good, ends the match and propels them to the finals, which is their goal.

Now take immigration. The strength of the national party, the conservatives, is that it insists on such old-fashioned concepts as sovereignty and control of the country’s borders. It demands that people come here, if they want to, in accordance with laws and rules and with the express desire to sign the American contract. The weaknesses of this party are its rigidity and befuddlement.

The strength of the anti-national party, the liberals, is that it feels comfortable with a global pop language, a culture which, though crassly superficial, appeals to and is understood by elites the world over. The liberals, in other words, “get it.” The trouble — which is their terrible weakness — is that they do not get how subversive and pernicious this “it” is. They also fail to see how unrealistic it is. With their like-minded types the world over, they blithely assume the world is going their way because they are so sure they are right: after all, they mean well, and that is the key, to them, to being right.

      No tennis doubles team could win with this kind of thinking. It is the kind of thinking that led the liberals who started the Tahrir Square revolt in Egypt — which their admirers in the American media called, with apt ignorance, the Arab Spring — to believe they were sure to win, because they felt so right. What happened was that an authoritarian political movement took over the country, until they were knocked off by the very men — the top officer corps of the Egyptian army — that the springtime Arabs thought they had got rid of.

On immigration, the liberals are multiculturalists. By contrast, conservatives are for diversity within a clear and cohesive national structure. Is it possible for bipartisanship to emerge from such contradictions?

In doubles tennis, the opposites reinforce each other. Groth hits the fastest serve on record, Paes plays one of the shrewdest, most intelligent all-court games ever seen in doubles.

Paes has won 14 Grand Slam events, putting him in the same league as the legendary Woodies, the Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, who dominated the men’s doubles game in the 1990s, and Mike and Bob Bryan, who dominate it today, though as it happens they lost here to the team Paes and Groth are competing with for a slot in the finals.

There is a happy shout as Sam Querrey, who is almost as big as Groth, though he does not play with the same serve and volley classicism, lets the ball go. Couldn’t see it, couldn’t reach it — ace! What a way to end a match! Groth and Paes are already jumping up and yelling for joy. But Querrey’s finger is raised to the sky, the signal for a challenge. He demands a hawk-eye review, he thinks he saw the ball bounced a millimeter over the line.

Good watching — the high-performance camera shows the shot to be just over the line. Groth goes for his second try — and Querrey, perhaps surprised at its meekness, nets it. The partners resume their celebration.

Bipartisanship does not always work. It fell a little short the next day, as Paes and Groth competed in the final against Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau, another bipartisan team (Dutch-Romanian) that seized its chances whenever Groth’s great first serve failed him. But the nice thing is that winning and losing reinforced all parties’ loyalty to the basic concept.

It worked for the women too, as a Canadian-Japanese team of Shuko Aoyama and Gabriela Dabrowski overcame their all-Japanese competition of Hiroko Kuwata and Kurumi Nara. Miss Nara went on to lose to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the women’s final, even as an all-Canadian men’s final saw the enormously improved Milos Raonic overwhelm Vasek Pospisil, who had a very good run up to that point.

In the closing ceremonies, Leander Paes gave his racquet to one of the little kids in the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, the owner and beneficiary of the tournament. It was a mere gesture but a handsome one, and typical of tennis champions. Paes, for example, makes huge contributions to youth tennis development in India. When you are bipartisan, you understand that the essence is in what you give. Give to your sport, give to your doubles partner, give to your country, and you will get what you should. What you deserve. What is right.

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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.