David Nalbandian won the fifth game in the second set of his third round match, mainly because his opponent, Rafael Nadal, lost a fraction of his intensity after one of his forehand shots hit the tape. The sudden change of pace turned a down-the-line winner into an opportunity for a smash, which the man from Cordoba did not miss. It was only a blip, though, and the Majorcan easily held serve and closed out the set by breaking at game-15, making it look easy.
Actually, it was not. Nalbandian broke Nadal in the first game of the third set, running him ragged with well-placed angles. At nearly 30, Nalbandian is not as old as the other athlete known as el Cordobes, the bullfighter Manuel Benitez who retired at 66 and is usually acknowledged as the most original and brave torero since another Cordovan, Manual Rodriguez, Manolete, was gored to death at age 30 by a bull in the Linares ring in Andalucia, more than half a century ago. The event was marked by three days of mourning throughout Spain.
Before that, there was Juan Belmonte. To be sure, there are the partisans of Jose Gomez, who insist the man they called Joselito was even greater. .
But that is on a different level entirely, though level of what exactly, I prefer not to spell out, due to the PC police, right as well as left, already being on my case.
Nalbandian, a former world No. 3 who fell to the American James Blake in the first round at the Legg Mason Classic at Washington’s 16th Street courts a few weeks ago, put up a brave and honorable show despite failing to win a set, and he made Nadal work for every point in the third.
It was not a good day for Argentines (Nalbandian’s Cordoba is the one near the pampas). The tall and big and mighty Juan Carlos del Potro succumbed to a small Frenchman, Gilles Simon, after an incredibly gritty competition on both sides that saw all of the four sets go the distance into tie-breaks.
Most significantly, however, was the win of Donald Young over still another Argentine, Juan Ignacio Chela, late in the humid and breezy New York afternoon (as my stringers report). Young is one of the hopes of what has been widely viewed as a flagging U.S. tennis scene, and there are signs — tactical play, staying calm, thinking two or three shots ahead — that he may be coming into his own after a precocious start in big-time tennis at 15 that was followed by years of bitter disappointment. Against the handsome Chela — if you like the Latin look — who is ranked 50 places above the 22-year-old Young, the power-hitting ear-studded Chicagoan stayed in control all the way. He is not likely to get a postcard from the pampas, “Hey Donnie, come down and visit and we’ll work out and hang out with the gauchos.”
The alarmist reading on U.S tennis is supported by some of the evidence: we have not produced any Grand Slam winners on the men’s side since Andy Roddick won here in ’03, and the second-tier tournaments have been dominated by non-Americans. In the Davis Cup, which we have not owned since ’07, we lost to a Spanish team that did not include Rafa Nadal earlier this year. And on the women’s side, we have the two of the greatest athletes in the history of tennis in Serena Williams and her sister Venus, and — nada.
Young appears to be emerging from a prolonged adolescence, which admittedly might be a symptom of the way tennis can wreck a promising career. If you take a pre-teen out of normal life and put him on a strict regimen of tennis, the chances are you will deform or even arrest certain necessary steps on the way to adulthood. You can see this in other sports, but at least in the team sports, there is some exposure to reality and socialization, if only because to play competitively you need the structures provided by high schools and colleges.
The damage done by professional tennis to immature adolescents was the subject of Michael Mewshaw’s Ladies of the Court, already 20 years ago. Although his reporting focused on egregiously dysfunctional situations such as the families of Jennifer Capriati and Mary Pierce, the underlying issues of support structures and sensible development, based on the axiom that it is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game that makes real champions, remain as salient as ever. More so, in fact: American schools and tennis associations are, coaches and teachers and observers often complain, not doing their jobs.
If this is true, it reflects a current American trend away from community and civic responsibility, a kind of generalized every-man-for-himself attitude which is not your traditional American individualism but a descent into social loneliness as a normal way of life. Personally, I am not one for the big think but I know the American tennis scene makes no sense. We have the facilities, we have the teachers, so where are our up and coming stars?
But maybe the idea of up and coming stars is itself a foolish and self-destructive idea. Mardy Fish a near-30 Minnesotan (actually resident of California) played superb tennis through the fourth round, the best of his career. On Monday he very nearly outfoxed the mighty Jo Tsonga, France’s great white hope — take that, PC — following the first-round loss of Gael Monfils, five exciting sets in which the swift and smooth Fish displayed a classically beautiful net game, charging more than 50 times to scarcely a dozen for Tsonga, who plays the contemporary power-baseline game, all the while staying steady in the backcourt and on serve. Okay, so Tsonga finally pulled it out, but maybe the Fish program has something in it: take a few years to learn your best game and then emerge. Melanie Oudin and Jack Sock, two fantastic teenagers, were knocked out early in the tournament but they are holding their own together in the mixed doubles and may well get it all, and just see where they are in their singles games in a few years. Manuel Benitez, el Cordobes, retired at — but I mentioned that already.
Actually, 17-year old Sloane Stephens did very well, losing altogether honorably to the tall graceful Serb Ana Ivanovic. She will be back and, one hopes, she will follow in the footsteps of the Williams sisters and inspire others to come with her. As it happens, although Venus Williams had to withdraw after a good first round due to an auto-immune disease, sister Serena breezed through the first week at the Open so masterfully that it is difficult to imagine a final next weekend without her. She made mince meat of Ana and if she does the same to the mighty Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, she will meet Caroline Wozniacki, who outlasted Svetlana Kuznetsova, who looks like she could outlast anybody, in a hard-fought three-hour match marked by many long graceful rallies, surely the most hard-fought match so far on the ladies’ side, indeed tough enough to make you worry — a non-PC worry, I grant you — whether we are not overtaxing these young women by expecting them to play so competitively.
Serena Williams — “a graceful cat,” my stringer reports, “who never sees a shot she cannot return somewhere even her most experienced opponents cannot imagine possible” — at 30 is at the very top of her game when she is supposed by the herd of independent minds to be, due to health issues the past year, including foot injuries and an alarming blood clot, in decline mode. In fact, with her power and tactical brilliance — those supposedly impossible angle shots — intact, the full benefits of her experience should allow her to prevail, and quite reasonably continue to dominate the game well into this decade.
Serbs — Ana Ivanovic being a case in point — are tall and lean and quick even as they move with a kind of noble grace, and the other outstanding Serb here, Novak Djokovic, will in all likelihood meet Roger Federer in the middle of the week, after the two of them dispose of Janko Tipsarevic (but what is this about Serbs?) and Juan Monaco (and what is this about Argentines?), with whom Federer was battling late Monday night or rather Tuesday morning, today, and they will do this with the same crushing mastery they put to work against Kolya Davydenko and Marin Cilic and whoever, though actually I was kind of partial to Kolya due to his fierce KGB look. I kind of miss the Cold War, because we were fighting for freedom against totalitarianism but now we dasn’t admit we are fighting for Judaism and Catholicism against Islam, whoops, I know Mr. Tyrrell has admonished me to shut up about politics in these tennis pieces, and so I will say no more, other than to note that the president socked it to ’em in Libya… Anyway, Federer, at 30, is playing extremely well, placing shots in that almost unworldly way wherever he wants from wherever he is at whatever velocity suits him, absolutely, totally in control of the match. But can he do this against Djokovic?
Djokovic overcame Federer and Nadal and earned his place as the top tennis man by learning how to give back everything thrown at him, and then some. He is quite possibly the finest returner since Bjorn Borg or, further back, René Lacoste. He plays a relentlessly defensive tennis and then springs into the first opportunity to wrong-foot you or draw you into a position against which he can pass a winner. He is not as sensational as Andy Murray, whom I have not mentioned but who has been having a great tournament, but he is, well, nearly unbeatable. He has a solid serve, which is enough against Federer or Nadal or Murray. Davydenko, known as the iron man because of his own relentless ability to throw back whatever is thrown at him — very Russian, I must say, and note that Serbs and Russians consider each other close cousins — could do absolutely nothing against Nole. It was as if the younger man were playing the Putin look-alike like — a yoyo.
Were I a betting man, I would put my money now on Serena carrying the American colors to the final. Donald Young and Andy Roddick, I would not write them off. Well, it is a fine tournament and there have been fine matches and there will be more this week and then there will be other tournaments. Before Manolete there was Belmonte, who killed many bulls in the arenas but died by his own hand, like a caballero, when he no longer could do all he wanted, all the things a man does. And before him there was Jose Gomez, some say the greatest of them all, Joselito, gored to death in a plaza de toro in Toledo. He was 25.
UPDATE/CORRECTION: With our eye off the ball yesterday, we missed American tennis star James Blake’s given name and inadvertently re-baptized him Donald. It was Mr. Blake, not the inexistant “Donald Blake,” who beat David Nalbandian in the first round of the Legg Mason Classic earlier this summer. And given how when it rains in pours, play was suspended today at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., due to heavy rainfall.
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