Late on a quiet muggy overcast Monday afternoon in Washington, Leonardo Mayer, another tall big shoulder, slightly hulking Argentine with a helmet of brown curls kept in place by a white band topping a strong lean face (the better known one is Juan Martin del Potro, but he is not here today), is hitting big service winners and thereby is making life uncomfortable for Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, a Spaniard who is tall too but has a more erect posture and a crew cut which combine to make him appear slimmer than his rival, who is seeded behind him in this tennis tournament, they are numeros doce y trece and neither wants to go home early in the week.
Their determination shows in their serves. A tennis pro always puts a lot into his service games and expects to hold them, but when you see him going deliberately for ace after ace, you know he is worried about being broken. He is lacking in the certainty that his follow up, his rush to the net or his crunching the return-of-serve into the opposite far corner will not work. Mayer and Garcia-Lopez are serving like demons. Mayer is getting the better of it with his tremendous power, he arches way back and comes down on that little old yellow sphere like a hammer and Garcia-Lopez cannot see it. Or he sees it but cannot get his racquet on it. Or he gets his racquet on it but feebly and Mayer is waiting at the corner, the net I mean.
But Garcia-Lopez has a serve too. It is not quite as hard but when it works it goes where no man expects it. This corner of the service zone or the opposite one. Or down the middle. It is a mystery shot. It works like crazy. They cannot break each other. These young men, who are almost the exact same size, 188 centimeters and 80 kilograms of muscle, are going to have showdowns in the tie-breaks. That is how their sets are going to end.
From the seats in the stadium court at the Rock Creek Tennis Center, formally the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, it is clear they are going for the tie breaks. When they get their racquets on each other's serve, usually the second serve, and get into a rally, they play elegant Latin ball, long deep hard shots across the courts and to the corners and they move nicely but not swiftly enough for that kind of game. Maybe it is the torpor of this muggy day. They are tall and lean enough though muscular and they probably can move more swiftly, but they await each other's mistake instead of provoking it. Maybe this is why they are top-100 but not top-ten champions. Mayer maneuvers his way to the net seeking an opportunity to put a volley away with a smash, but Garcia-Lopez knows that play, keeps the ball low, passes his man with deft shots. No, they will win on who ends with the decisive serve, who manages to break and get ahead in the tie-break. In the tie-break you must break once out of two and then hold twice, then you have it. These are Latins.
Corona, a Mexican beer manufacturer, is one of the big advertisers of this tournament; you can see many employees of the tournament staff moving about the grounds wearing smart polo shirts with the Corona label; walking billboards they are, polite. It must be because down the street is a Mexican neighborhood. If you go down 16th Street, where the Rock Creek Center is located where it crosses Kennedy Street, you are soon in Mt. Pleasant, once a quiet somewhat seedy neighborhood of genteel middle classes just on the north side of poverty. It was for years in gentle decline and then Mexicans arrived and Salvadorans and Guatemalans, driven al norte by the hope of change -- change from their violence-plagued lands and the poverty that ate at their souls and their morals and destroyed their families. Some said the poverty and the violence and the hopelessness were due to el imperialismo yanqui and others said that is not so. No one has ever explained satisfactorily why these Indians and Creoles and Africans and, in the land of Leonardo Mayer, Italians, Scots, Irish should collectively be referred to as Latins, whose civilization was overrun by Germanic hordes millennia ago.
This is a famous old tournament that comes at a high point in the exhausting and exhilarating North American summer hard court tennis season. You do as well as you can here, you travel on to the famous old tournament at Cincinnati a couple weeks later, you are getting revved up for the all-time all-time, the mighty U.S. Open, the mightiest all-time, equal in rank (and ranking points) and fame and glory as the great tournaments in Melbourne and Paris and London, the other all-timers known as slams. If you win them all you have a grand slam. But only Rod Laver, the Australian champion, has done that in the modern age, the post–World War II age, on the gentlemen's side of the tennis tour, that is.
The Legg Mason firm was the official sponsor of this tournament for the better part of the past two decades but this year it is ceding the honor and the bragging rights to Citi, the financial institution, often blamed with dubious merit for the poverty and despair in Latin America, along with many other yanqui and anglo financial institutions. The Argentines in particular have it in historically for the Brits, but as the late great Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel showed with wit and science in his classic The Latin Americans, you can see that they really had themselves to blame for being as rich GNP-wise as the norte-americanos at one time and then falling behind into misery and letting themselves be hustled and damaged by demagogic regimes that made them even more miserable, not to mention killing many of them. Too much the snob, the Argentines tended not to emigrate to Mt. Pleasant where the immigrants often are of indio background, smaller in stature than Mayer and Garcia-Lopez. But they all drink Corona.
The Latins -- if such they are -- have done well here. Guillermo Villas, Juan-Martin del Potro, David Nalbandian are all past winners. But so are Andre Agassi and James Blake, Arthur Ashe, Andy Roddick, Jimmy Connors. Blake is here, Roddick is with Del Potro somewhere else. Blake held on into the night and won his match in three sets against Pedro Andujar -- another Spaniard. It was not a great night for Spaniards. This happened hours after Leonardo Mayer and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez resolved their rivalry, at least for the time being, and only a couple hours after the Frenchman Florent Serra spoiled things for Bryan Baker, an American (North) favorite who had a great run in Europe, reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon, and this was after five years of being sidelined by injury and illness, an inspiring tale of fortitude and never-say-quit, but who so far this summer has not adjusted well on the hard courts of his native land, despite having learned his tennis on them.
Sports will do that. With no disrespect for the Frenchman -- French historians used to claim their nation's genius comes from the blend of Latin and Germanic, for example a man of the south like Charles Pasqua serving as a minister to a man of the north like Jacques Chirac serving as president -- Baker has the finer game. He has the more reliable serve, a beautiful shot that combines power and aim, and a remarkable repertory of ground strokes, an elegant forehand and a stunningly tough backhand that seems to come out of nowhere to smack his opponents' smashes right back at them, and he has a touch that reminds you of John McEnroe. But it was not to be, the Frenchman held on and wore him down through tough strokes of his own and finally got him to lose his control, sending shots out of bounds that should have been winners.
Citi is including a WTA (the ladies' professional tour) in this year's edition of the Rock Creek Classic and Miss Sloan Stephens had a good start and will likely find herself playing an East European in short order. Other American dreams are carried by Vania King and Melanie Oudin. These are fine young champions, short but skillful, talent-rich. Mardy Fish, one of more highly ranked Americans world-wide, will make a run as well, and there is the power-serving Sam Querrey and the feisty Jesse Levine; the Yanquis are not without promise. The heirs to Rod Laver have the elegant Matthew Ebden, but a lurking power lies in Alexander Dolgopolov, from Ukraine.
The winner stands to take home a quarter million clams, a bit more than the winner on the ladies' side, who will get $37,000. Well there you have it. That says it all. But Miss Stephens is a ball of teenage fire and I plan to ask her whether she is still mad at that rude Frenchman, Gilles Simon (who is not here), who claims that makes sense, free-market-wise, the prize-money inequality, and whether this has anything do, in her view, with him hitting a tennis ball at her when she was a little kid and he was a rising junior and they were both at the IMG Bollettieri tennis camp -- the academy of champions, but I assure you this is not a placement ad -- or another venue for the very young players, working hard to learn the sport. You would think he would have apologized by now, he being a Latin and all. But the chivalry vs. the macho, you never know with those Latins which wins out and it is a known fact they consider women inferior, but you should not generalize about these things.
WASHINGTON IS HAVING a fine sports summer what with the Nationals the best team in baseball except for the Yankees and the Reds, but those are not better but only as good. The Rock Creek Tournament and then the Cincinnati Tournament and the Open at Queens' Flushing Meadow and the National League pennant race and the Yankees beating Tampa and Boston and Texas in the playoffs, those are events of note. Mr. Tyrrell observed a few weeks ago that he was not attending another summer sporting event in London, due to his low regard for athletes he considers pampered and sportswriters he considers morons. I resist these generalizations and I am disappointed because I was hoping Mr. Tyrrell would get me an in with the mayor, his friend Mr. Boris Johnson. He and I entertained the hope Mr. Johnson would run for president (he is American-born) or might yet be induced to run for vice president. I had hopes that notwithstanding his sour feelings about the sporting extravaganza in London Mr. Tyrrell might finagle a way for me to accompany him to tea with the mayor, a fine tennis player in his own right and a former magazine editor and journalist who writes a column -- like Ed Koch, come to think of it -- expounding eminently sensible views as well as shrewd tennis commentary. He is also a bicyclist.
My plan was to say that if Mr. Koch was not going to get on the ticket and with the governor revive the great Reagan Coalition, then maybe he would. He has youth, vigor, intelligence and he defeated a notorious leftist multi-cultural man, Ken ("Red Ken") Livingstone, in the race for the city's top office, and this in a general election where the Tories led by David Cameron -- who qualifies as a "wet" in Brit political parlance -- were clobbered. Mr. Johnson is one of those pols whom people call by his first name, a rare distinction, a sign of having the magic. He is the man for our ticket, but the governor was assailed for opening his mouth as he passed through London last week and criticizing the sports events in which Mr. Johnson has, after all, invested quite a bit of London's prestige, so you know the current may not have passed well despite the two of them being of the conservative persuasion.
Probably the governor should have held his peace, and moreover it is difficult to see how his other alleged mistake, referring to England as our old friend and specially related ally of Anglo-Saxon historical tradition which we share, should have caused a ruckus in England on the grounds it was insensitive to all the new Brits who come from faraway non-Anglo Saxon lands. I, personally, cannot see how calling my own country a land of the English-speaking world and of the Anglo-American culture (don't know from these Saxons but you can check out that issue by re-reading Becket or seeing it next time it is staged in your home town) should be offensive to the Corona drinkers down the street. They are welcome to Guinness and Dogfish and Sam Adams, to the language their children are learning, and to the political norms that, as Carlos Rangel demonstrated, are a hell of a lot more effective, in promoting freedom and prosperity, than the feudal clans and caudillos, the cruel tyrannos who made them flee to a land of hope and liberty.
Also, if I had a chance to have a word with the mayor I would ask what is the point of all that extravaganza and do the English want to outdo the Chinese in making a travesty of what is supposed to be a lean, true, and real celebration of youth and beauty and sports and talent and endurance and hard work. Just because the Chicoms made a ridiculous spectacle does not mean the Brits have to. Having a famous pop star sing a maudlin song (he was reported to cry during the perf) instead of Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory is a serious blow to one's confidence in the homeland of the English-speaking peoples. Since when do the fine young athletes require more than a fine and clean parade to set themselves on the way to athletic glory?
Land of Hope and Glory, fortress of the free,
How may we extol thee, praise thee, honour thee?
It may not have been any of the governor's business to criticize the folks who came up with this show, but it sure got it off on a queer foot, if you ask me. Clean and lean and let the best man win. And woman. There are some athletes who have foregone the famous old Rock Creek tournament in pursuit of London gold and they cannot be faulted. Tennis was one of the original sports in this ancient and quadrennial sporting event. It was removed from the program in the early 1920s due to certain disagreements between participant nations regarding eligibility. Monsieur Philippe Chatrier, a Frenchman devoted to sports excellence after whom is named the center court at the legendary Roland-Garros stade on avenue Gordon-Bennett in Paris, brought tennis back in the 1980s and that is why neither Roger Federer nor Miss Serena Williams, winners of this year's magnificent tournament at the All-England, are on the draws at Rock Creek. They were comfortable in London so they stayed on. Maybe they will turn up in Washington next year. But even without them, or Juan-Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick and Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, the sports world can revel in this great week in which youth and talent are celebrated without needless frills or arguments about empty seats as there are in London and we are reminded that, thanks to God who protects small children and our country, 16th Street need not be the scene only of insidious federal subversion of our ancient liberties.