American Girls
by

The Japanese girl falls behind right away, on serve at 15-40 in the first game of the opening set, visibly uncertain and, admit it, kind of awed. She is hitting her vigorous long groundstrokes and it is clear right away what she is trying to do, keep the ball in play as deep as possible and hope it works.

It worked the other day against the American teenager, just make sure you get one more ball over the net and eventually they will make a mistake. Determination, grit, fortitude. You really should not speak of Kurumi Nara as a girl, for at 25 she is a leading force in tennis and an accomplished pro. It is just that she is so little — five one — and so lovely with her round good-natured face and frank smile

Miss Nara is a strong tennis player, with a serious following in Japan and beyond. Asian tennis is rising. The Japanese have been a presence on the international circuit since after World War I, and they bring their energy and courage and, as in other areas, attention to detail, to the sport.

But the girl on the opposite side of center court at Philippe-Chatrier Stadium, is the French Open’s top American, and in this storied place, if you beat an American, you better be ready to meet another American.

The American on the other side of the court lets the lead slip and Miss Nara holds, 1-0, fighting off a break point and then getting a point with a long ball to the baseline and following it up with a drop shot, clever.

She holds again, and the American girl, a clear foot taller and much faster and stronger, lets her concentration dip by the tennis equivalent of a couple nano moments and makes two lazy mistakes, a shot over the baseline and one into the net, to get broken, 1-3. So she steps up.

You notice that the biggest champions are not infrequently slow out of the starting blocks; it is not unusual to see them drop the first set and then take over the match. Venus Williams, typically, double-faulted on her first service. She has to warm up, get used to this court again, even if she knows it about as well as anyone playing in this year’s Internationaux de France, the grand slam of clay on the classy grounds of Roland-Garros.

For sure you cannot refer to Venus Williams as a girl. The reason you sometimes do is that people watching contemporary tennis have seen this tennis ballerina on Tour since she was a girl. She broke in at 14, cute braids and all, started her great run at 19 or 20, and here she is, in the striking outfits of her own design, simultaneously the grande dame and the eternal child of the sport in her time and place, joy and humor, intelligence and strategy: the standard.

She played at the Suzanne Lenglen stadium in the first round, beating another representative of the rising might of Asia in tennis, Qiang Wang. The setting was fitting: if anyone merits to inherit the French legend’s honorific, la divine, it is Venus Williams. The deep court intelligence combined with the grace of a dancer and the power and speed of an athlete describe both women.

She is in excellent form now, and at 36, she is as dominant as ever. And her sister Serena, against whom she played a final in 2002 on this very court, is not present this year. That final was the closest Venus got to winning the French slam, the only one she has not won.

She wants it, naturally. With no hint of gluttony or envy, but because it is there. That’s what champions do.

With Venus Williams, you do not see the screeching intensity of many on the women’s tour (including Serena). Indeed the noise got to the point where the WTA felt it had to deprogram the younger generation from this habit, which came into the game around the turn of the century. You still hear the uuumphing and growling — among men, too — and Venus herself will let go a gasp or a modest shout when pulling off a power groundstroke. But the noise has lowered a few decibels, and with the big-screeching Maria Sharapova also out this year there is a quieter, retro sound on the courts during the women’s matches.

Miss Williams is as intense as they come. She is ferocious with her astonishing forehand volleys, running into them at the service line, leaping like a long jumper and zooming the ball cross court for a clear winner, beyond reach. Beyond, especially, the reach of Kurumi Nara, who as the match progresses is increasingly wrong footed as Venus gets comfortable, chooses what pace to impose, and finds the range and spot she wants.

She increases the pace now, hits so fast Miss Nara can only look as the ball whizzes by her. Here we see what, we hope, Miss Anisimova is seeing, if she stayed around a little with her coaches to watch and learn. With a power counter-puncher like Kumuri Nara, you cannot just hit back with equal or even superior power.

That is what young Amanda was doing the other day, with breathtaking facility and form, but it was not enough. Miss Nara is a follower of the original Roland-Garros ace, René Lacoste, the man who said, “Make sure the last ball over the net is yours.” If you can do this — and mind, it is an art in itself — there are countless players who will wither, lose their nerve, or otherwise go to pieces. No matter how hard and fast Amanda hit it, Kumuri answered with the first law of physics, f = ma.

Venus knows: hit the ball where Kumuri ain’t. This is, if you need another classic comparison, what Lacoste’s contemporary Jean Borotra did, and what their nemeses, Fred Perry and Don Budge, did even better. It’s Roger Federer’s game. It’s the all-court-all-offense close-the-point-fast game. It is the Williams game: power, position, put-it-away. It is why Venus is a five-time champ at Wimbledon, fastest surface among the slams.

And it works on clay, you just have to adjust. Which she knows.

It seems the obvious thing to say, yet it is worth repeating, the young learn from the masters, and the Williams sisters have been the reference and the model for a generation of American girls.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands, poster child for high energy and good nature, actually about the same age as the sisters, is on a roll, hanging in through two tiebreakers to beat the great Petra Kvitova (returning from a knife attack by a madman last year) and move with Venus into the third round.

Jennifer Brady fell to French star Kristina Mladenovic in a long nerve-wracking three setter on Chatrier in which it felt as if there were more breaks than holds. The French No. 1 for sure was favored, rendering all the more unseemly a rather shabby display of gamesmanship which probably unnerved the younger American toward the end of the match, and here too, Venus and Serena have much to teach.

However, in a burst of joy and will, the kid from California, 18-year old Catherine “CiCi” Bellis, took out the normally solid Dutch champ Kiki Bertens (18th seed) in straight sets.

CiCi is a phenom. Small and slender, she relied on iron nerves and classic baseline form to overpower the bigger, taller, more experienced Kiki. Kiki is nice, has the blond fresh-faced prettiness of a lowcountries farm girl, and she is awfully good, but, even if she was visibly having a bad day, she got outplayed, no question. CiCi lost her second set lead and they ended with a tiebreaker, where she jumped to 4-0, nearly blew it.

It was a tiebreaker for the head-case books. At 0-4 Kiki finally got a point as CiCi shanked a forehand service return, then she netted two in a row from the baseline. With just one point to go, CiCi suddenly went into a goof-streak and let Kiki get to 5-6. At which point Kiki lost it again and netted an easy shot from the service line. She was so mad she hit a ball over the wall on Court 2. But that is not gamesmanship, the match was over. She is a fine athlete and she will get over it. And CiCi, no doubt with Amanda and some others, will keep moving forward.

To return to our story, back on serve in the first set, Miss Williams breaks at three-all to go one up, then saves a break point and proceeds to send a big shot up the alley that Miss Nara cannot reach, getting the ad. Which she converts and it’s 5-4. Then she puts on a masterful demonstration of change up and variety to break again, this time at love: 0-game, set. This is called dictating the points.

And observe that nothing said in this space today is to take anything away from either Miss Nara or Miss Animasova. The whole point of being a master is that you learn to master. Yourself, the other guy (or girl), and the spin of the ball: the famous Bill Tilden axiom. You can do whatever it takes, and you do. Against a counter-puncher it does no good to stand on the baseline, you have to remove a brick from that stonewall on the other side and make it crumble.

As happens in the next set. Venus is in full form now and with her flying forehand volleys, her easy shift from a smash to a “soft-hands” tip over the net, she quickly runs up a 3-0 lead. Kumuri holds, but it is all but over now. Venus in turn holds easily, breaks again at love, hold easily one more time, as Kumuri hits a final service return long, just the kind of shot she is supposed to never miss.

6-3, 6-1, match, and Miss Williams was so sure of herself she was unfazed by two bad line calls, which can be unnerving. Instead she challenged them both, got them reversed, and got on with it.

That’s a champion.

 

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