With Czechs and Germans, normally, you think of craft outwitting brawn. It is a reassuring thought but a false one, seeing as how historically in that part of Europe brawn crushed craft. In tennis power prevails for a time -- Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg -- but then craft returns, John McEnroe, und so weiter. But do these Big Think notions belong in the sports pages? Or am I in awe of the way Mr. Tyrrell has got on one of his Big Idea kicks lately (the end of liberalism and the return to Coolidge). However, I still am waiting for him to launch a draft-Boris-Johnson movement, the lord mayor of London being the rare conservative politician willing to stand up to the wets in his own party, and he is a fine tennis player and newspaper man. Anyway, apart from all that I thought I would mention that the Czechs, in tennis, play hard ball.
Brain or brawn, power or control: what the Czech player Radek Stepanek was doing, on the first day of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic here on 16th St. N.W., was brainy brawn. It would be nice to see some of this quality downtown but there seems little chance of that until it occurs to someone with guts to employ the RICO act against the rascals conspiring in that domed building against the public good. Stepanek, a slight man with hard upper body muscles and good instincts in his feet, was up against a big serving German, Philipp Petzchner, whose serve-and-volley game is a beauty to behold when it works. Stepanek fell back on brains and unnerved his opponent with bull's-eye returns that the other could not do anything with. And when the opportunity presented itself, which is to say whenever he served and, in the last set, whenever he returned a serve, he went for brawn.
People forget that the classic reference in German tennis, Gottfried von Cramm, was not what we would call a power player, and the term does not really apply to the reference of a more recent era, Boris Becker, whose serve-and-volley game was part (and parcel) of an all-purpose, athletically superior endurance strategy (much like Cramm's, at that). But when you think of Czech champions (however Americanized), Martina Navratilova or Ivan Lendl, you think of relentless power intelligently applied.
At any rate, it was not a great day for Germans. After losing the first set tiebreak, Stepanek, who is in his early 30s and shrewd, settled down to a power game when he served, and a chess game when he was receiving. He also showed marvelous agility on the court, capturing the long rallies (of which there were not many) by surprising Petzchner not only with his ability to catch whatever down-the-line shots and drop shots and lobs the German sent him, but by the ease with which he gave as much as he got. He took the second set with a classic hold-and-break-once plan, and then got his man all tangled up in brain games in the third set, 6-0.
Meanwhile nearby, a young Luxembourger named Gilles Muller was taken apart by Igor Kunitsyn, and while I realize the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is emphatically not Germany, it is at the center of the neo-Carolingian political culture that the Germans, at their own expense, and believe me it ain't coming cheap, are striving to sustain out of loyalty to the idea of a European Germany not a German Europe. Tell it to the Greeks, Kamaraden, see if they are grateful. There are no Greeks in this tournament. Muller and Kunitsyn are about the same age, late 20s, and rank, up there between 50 and 100, but it was the same thing, the intelligent application of power against naked power, and naked does not cut it. Well, the Germans got that right in Libya, at least -- sorry, out of school, for more on that refer to Mr. Babbin on this page or Amb. Bolton somewhere in the neighborhood.
As to the Americans, the question was how well James Blake would play, he being the main man for our side on this first day of the tournament in the absence of the bicoastal Mardy Fish, on his way back from flaming out in the final at the Farmers Classic Tournament in Los Angeles on Sunday, and the creaky or cranky, take your pick, Andy Roddick, who withdrew.
Blake is an attractive tennis man, persistent, tenacious, with an excellent serve-and-volley game and solid from the baseline. Not afraid to acknowledge a certain fallibility on the mental side, he is one of those players of whom you always say he would be one of the best if he could hang in there at crunch time. A little younger than Andre Agassi and a little older than Roddick and Fish, and a past champion here, he certainly answered the question positively in his late evening match against a young Japanese unknown, Matsuma Ito, meeting him stroke for stroke once he got going and delivering a remarkable demonstration in service aces.
This followed an easy win by Donald Young over a tough but unsteady qualifier from New Zealand, Artem Sitak, but another American, the qualifier Rajeev Ram gave up with a health issue in the middle of his second set after being overwhelmed in the first. The one-sided match nonetheless showed some strong and spirited baseline play from Rajeev during the short time he seemed to be feeling well. His opponent, Matthew Ebden, whose smooth, classic strokes, unerring volleys and astonishing speed cannot help but bring to mind the great years of Australian tennis, goes up against the seeded Nikolay Davydenko next, probably Wednesday, and that, my friends, should be a classic.