Frances Tiafoe was sure he had the break as he made a great save, catching a deep cross court ball on his deuce side, if memory serves, that he was sure the Russian would not retrieve.
They were playing on the recently renamed for John Harris court, named for one of the founders of this tournament 50 years ago, with Donald Dell and Arthur Ashe. It was packed, close to a thousand people like sardines, and it was warm — hot even — and the audience was partisan.
Daniil Medvedev, a ruthless Russian with height, speed, and long arms, retrieved Tiafoe’s great shot, however, hit it back into the open court. The prematurely celebrating Marylander watched, flatfooted and demoralized. Having been routed in the first set, he had little left in the tank after that, or in the mind, or in the heart. It was that bad.
You could say Russians are cheaters, but you would be wrong. You could say the French are quitters, but you would be wrong about that, too, as was demonstrated in the next match on the same court. The popular-though-infamous Benoît Paire, who had an epic meltdown at this very same place almost exactly a year ago when he blew a match against Marcos Baghdatis (it cost him not only a few broken racquets but also a hefty fine when he went after the trash cans), stood firm and cool-headed against the mighty John Isner serve and broke him in the 11th of the first. It was all over for our side after that, last man standing and all, the big man went down.
Donald Dell, the legendary player, Davis Cup captain, lifelong sports entrepreneur, and manager of this tournament until last year, was blunt and brief, as usual. “When Arthur and I [were in charge; he meant the early 1970s, and he meant more than just this tournament; they were among the leaders of American men’s tennis], we had 44 Americans in the top 100.” He let the listener hang on that, trying to quickly count on the fingers of one hand — a hand broken in two places and I can’t count good — the current number.
Andy Roddick won the men’s draw here in 2007 (as well as on two earlier occasions), and Kei Nishikori, who is Japanese but learned his tennis in Florida where he still lives, took the trophy in 2015, the same year Sloane Stephens won the women’s draw. The repeat defending champ is the Russian-background German Alexander Zverev, who is absent this year.
Dell is no longer in charge at the storied Washington Open, currently the Citi, where Andre Agassi and many other legends once trod. His successor, Mark Ein, has a mission. If not here, where will American tennis return to dominance? If not now, when?
Ein has made, to the naked eye, two major innovations so far: he has improved the “fan experience” with air-conditioned eating and drinking spaces; and he has urged high-level players to partake of the doubles draw as well as singles, on the principle that this adds to the fun.
The doubles idea may work out, for the shortened game (no ad’s and a 10-point tiebreak in lieu of a third set) has acquired some interest in recent years as audience attentions spans flag. Some observers question whether indulging in the attention deficit disorders of our fellow Americans is wise.
As it happens, a crowd-pleasing clash between two of the best doubles teams was in the works, but both were beaten in the quarters. The meeting of the Murrays, Andy and Jamie, and the Bryans, Bob and Mike, will likely occur sooner or later. They both fell short on Friday afternoon in tiebreaks. It will be interesting to see if the sides that bested them draw good crowds over the weekend — they ought to if the sport’s the thing, for they are excellent, as are the Australians Alex de Minaur and John Peers, who beat top-seeds Juan Sebastián Cabal and Robert Farah, Wimbledon champions this year, and thus are also on the weekend program.
Though the men faltered, one of America’s top teenage prospects, Ohio’s own Catherine McNally, had on Thursday made it into the quarters with a gritty win over New Jersey’s Christina McHale, who, if nothing else, fearlessly played her characteristic big-groundstroke game to the end. On Friday Miss McNally proceeded to out-duel the charming and crafty Su-wei Hsieh of Taiwan — free China! — who gives a whole new meaning to the comparison of tennis with chess, always three moves ahead of her opponents. Miss McNally overcame her tricks with groundstroke drives and determination and energy. She also has a shot at the women’s doubles, as she and teen phenom, Cori Gauff, were on the way to winning their semis match as we were filing.
Jessica Pegula beat Lauren Davis for a slot in Saturday’s semifinal against the young Russian Anna Kalinskaya, and Miss McNally will face Camila Giorgi, whose rocket groundstrokes overwhelmed Zarina Diyas’ shrewd tactics Friday evening.
American gals, showing us how to get the job done! And why not?