You cannot say the better man always wins in a sports competition but it is usually the case that the man who played better wins. This is one of those themes you hear all your life in locker rooms and bleachers and bars, and it comes down to that, the man who plays better wins. Which is why Rod Laver (known as the Rocket from Rockhampton when he emerged as the leader of an incomparable generation of Australian aces) observes that brooding gets you nowhere. If you lose a point, forget it and focus on the next point. If you lose a set, put everything you have into the next one, and if you lose the match, well, there is always another match, and it is there for you to win it.
Tim Smyczek, down 2-5 in the second set tiebreaker in his match yesterday against Grega Zemlja, which is a Slovak name (he is from Slovakia), put the last flub behind him and came back, only to lose it at 8-10. Still undaunted, the qualifier from Milwaukee stormed off his chair to take the last set 6-1: never look back. He has a whiplash forehand, a fantastically fast return of serve, and a first serve made to demolish the toughest defense, and he will need all three plus his rocket movements — with his small stature he does rather remind you of the great Rocket from Rockhampton — when he meets Tommy Haas in the next round.
Another good piece of advice is: keep your eye on the ball. The reason good advice often sounds like a cliché, or rather the reason many statements that sound like clichés are actually fine advice, is that most people cannot follow good advice. You would be amazed.
Apart from keeping your eye on the ball and staying on your toes, the most oft’ quoted advice in tennis is the rule first enunciated by Bill Tilden — whose writings are, to this day, to tennis players as Aristotle’s are to Richard McKeon’s students — to wit, “Never change a winning game.” In baseball we say, “Don’t choke.”
The Laver corollary to the Tilden rule is, “Don’t change a winning game,” which simply softens it a bit in recognition of desperate measures by your opponent. You may be winning, but what if he comes up with something to trip you up? You need a variant, a plan b, not necessarily a drastic revision, but you know. That is what Rod Laver means. You must be prepared for the little adjustments as well as the big ones. That is sound advice. A lot of people cannot do this. Many people cannot change a winning game even when their opponent gets wise to them. In fact, they cannot even change a losing game. You would be amazed at the propensity of otherwise sensible people to persist in folly, not to mention keep hitting the ball to the other guy’s forehand when he has amply demonstrated he cannot hit a backhand. Also consider the Republican Party.
This came to mind in the soft warm air of the summer afternoon at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center’s Stadium Court, a superb piece of architecture that holds many lessons about winning ways, the first one being: do not get the Feds involved! This is all the more remarkable inasmuch as this place is located at 16th and Kennedy Streets in Washington’s NW, a pleasant elegant neighborhood of spacious homes that borders on Rock Creek Park.
This stadium is a testament to the notion that yes, free men built it, without help from people who spend their time thinking up ways of spreading wealth around by playing Robin Hood: they just decided it would be the right thing to do. They — William FitzGerald, Donald Dell, Arthur Ashe and a few others — had been running a tournament here since 1968, and it was fine tournament with, in the 1970s, most of the top players stopping here on the way to the U.S. Open. Year by year it was improvised, however, because there was no permanent facility, and the reason there was no permanent facility was that the land here was owned or managed by the Park Service, which hates change, so things always had to be restored to the way they were. Meanwhile, the powers that be in the sports world were saying that to be a full-fledged tournament on the professional tour, the Washington Star Invitational, as it originally was named for its first sponsor, needed a permanent home.
So these men, who loved tennis and were using to proceeds of the tournament to fund a private charity, the Washington Tennis Foundation, soon to be renamed the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, to give kids from poor neighborhoods a place to learn the sport and, not incidentally, do their homework and stay safe, leaned on some of their political pals with clout on the Interior Committee and got them to lean on the Park Service, and then they put up their own money — Mr., later Ambassador, FitzGerald in particular, a lot of money — to build this stadium, which is a jewel not only because it is so pleasant but because you cannot find a seat — in an absolute pinch you can fit nearly 10,000 here — from which you do not have a clear and fine view.
That is the stadium, now the center piece of the appropriately named William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center. But what got me thinking about changing your ways, was that the defending champion here, Alexandr (he spells it this way) Dolgopolov, Ukraine’s most famous tennis athlete, simply could not change his ways — and they were losing ways. He was screwing up, and he seemed incapable of doing anything about it.
Now in tennis no one is incapable of doing anything about anything. It is not as if you are trapped inside a North Korean prison with a ball and chain, where you would be forgiven if you said you cannot break out. This is a free activity — professional sport — in a free country, and yes you can. You can spend your own money and build a stadium and create an organization to help educated inner city kids, notably kids from Ward 7, the inner city of Washington’s inner city. And you can change a losing game plan.
Dolgopolov has a beautiful, superbly athletic game. He is of average size, moves like a ballet dancer, springing at lobs, swooshing seemingly impossible-to-reach down-the-liners right back to the baseline, and he has one of the most difficult first serves in the game, wherein he tosses the ball very low and kills it, rendering it literally a shot out of nowhere.
Only his first serve was not working. Moreover, his swift power forehand was not steady. And finally, his backhand was steady, but not much of a threat, he was slicing it to give himself time to get into position, but instead of getting into position, he was just letting his opponent, Somdev Devvarman, get the jump on him time and again.
Devvarman, who is from Assam, India, and played for the University of Virginia, was sticking with his winning game. His winning game consisted of running everything down and maintaining a steady pressure of hard ground strokes into the corners. It worked because — another of Laver’s pieces of advice — if you show your opponent his favorite shots will not faze you, it gets him worried. And when he worries, he loses. Dolgopolov simply could not build up momentum, and he reacted by acting as if it did not matter, he was bound to prevail. But he did not. When he was down a set and suddenly found himself 2-6 in the tiebreaker, it was too late to change. As Devvarman pounded out the last power shots, you wondered if the man from Kiev was thinking, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
If he wasn’t, he didn’t get it. Meanwhile next door — so to speak, because from the north side of Stadium Court you have an excellent view of Grandstand 1 — Jack Sock, the all-American from Nebraska, was sticking strictly to his winning game, and it was working. He was hitting enough aces to keep Igor Sijsling off balance, and he was wearing him down with his deep forehand, hitting the baseline like mortars. Some were going long, but not enough to validate changing the game. Sock took the first set 6-4 and then Sijsling, who is from Holland, began netting ordinary shots, exhausted — certainly a tip off to Sock this was no time to change.
Ryan Harrison applied the same principle to another former title holder here, Australia’s enduring champ Lleyton Hewitt. Leading in the second set after taking the first, he could have relaxed his forehand cannonballs. The common thinking is: I am winning, let him beat himself. Instead, he came at him even harder.
Dolgopolov and Devvarman, Harrison and Hewitt, Smyczek and Zemlja, Sijsling and Sock — there will always be time, over time, to assess their games, with awe and wonder at their prodigious talents, and argue about which of them is the better player. There will be the record books to go by, how many did they win, how many big tournaments did they conquer, and there will be the memories of the skills they displayed on the courts. But winning matters on the day it happens, and on those days you have to acknowledge, the better man won.