American Triumph in Washington Tennis Tourney
by
Jessica Pegula (YouTube screenshot)

American teens Cori Gauff and Caty McNally won the ladies’ doubles at Washington’s storied Citi Open on the weekend, while a New York native Jessica Pegula took the singles trophy, her first in a Tour-level event.

The men were not so successful, our side being eliminated in the round of 16 in singles and failing to get through the quarters in doubles.

With sold-out sessions and record attendance nearing 80,000, the week was a triumph for entrepreneur and investor Mark Ein, who grew up nearby and served as a ball boy at the tournament.

Ein insists he wanted to make Washington a major tennis destination and has no plans to leave the Rock Creek Park location at 16th and Kennedy streets, NW, despite the restrictive federal regulations for expansion and improvement of the site. With can-do optimism, he points to enhanced eating and cooling opportunities for fans, which doubled non-ticket revenue during the week. He credits his staff with superb professionalism.

While retaining a five-year option to buy out tournament owner and beneficiary Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, the new top manager and visionary, founder of Kastle Security and owner of the World Team Tennis League Washington Kastles, assures that he shares the WTEF’s goals and purposes.

A 60-year-old charity dedicated to keeping kids out of court by putting the on the court, WTEF helps get kids through high school and into college (with sports scholarships) and more basically turns boys and girls into life champions: individuals of good character and morals, patriots — like Arthur Ashe, who founded the tournament with Donald Dell and worked for several years with WTEF.

Citi itself, apart from its sponsorship of the tournament, raised $50,000 on the grounds for the foundation during the week. WTEF should earn several millions from the tournament profits, supporting its campus (classrooms and tennis courts) on East Capitol Street and its outreach program to District schools, among other activities.

The Citi Open’s success represents a case for the efficiency of the profit motive over statist welfare. Useless — except as a soporific — as are all such abstractions, it remains a valid reproach to make to the gasbags just over the 16th Street horizon. Washington’s tennis classic is a healthy reminder that not all solutions to social questions come from Washington, even when they are found in Washington.

Meanwhile, the tennis itself was at its usual high level. Andy Murray returned to the Rock Creek courts and the landmark stadium (built thanks to the largesse of William H. G. Fitzgerald, like Ein a Washington private investor) despite a lousy experience last year and came with his brother Jamie, and they played perhaps the most exciting doubles in a week during which doubles were given pride of place. They lost to the eventual winners in the second round, but their coordinated offense, based on covering the net and holding it like a fortress against the invading host, underscored what we miss when we pay scant attention to this underappreciated version of the sport.

As it happens, the doubles final in the ATP draw was played by two essentially defensive teams, great veteran players all four of them but not as inspiring as the Murrays. Southern hemispherians Raven Klaasen and Michael Venus took the trophy in three sets (two plus one super-tie-breaker) and Old-Worlders Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau got the finalists’ award early in Sunday’s first match at the Stadium.

The women’s doubles final had been played before a totally packed John Harris Grandstand the previous day, but it is likely that were it not for the hazards or mishaps of scheduling, they would have packed Stadium Court no less fully. The vivacious, lively, aggressive game of the American teens overwhelmed the Magyar-Mexico duo of Fanny Stollár and Maria Sanchez, who never seemed to know what was coming.

Actually, it is not so simple. Cori Gauff and Caty McNally — who had just lost a tough singles semifinal — showed the virtues of what the mighty Bill Tilden, one of the inventors of the modern game, described as disruption. To Tilden this is the real key to winning, because at the top level everybody can play well, technically. What matters is taking charge of the point by making the other side lose its sense of where the point is going, if you follow. Misses Gauff and McNally were superb with their varied groundstrokes and volley smashes that played havoc with the other team’s baseline plan. As both teens had been disrupted successfully in the singles draws, there was the satisfaction of lessons learned as well as the pleasure of their first WTA tour win.

With admirable discipline and resilience, New York’s Jessica Pegula broke — disrupted — the groundstroke blitz of the fierce Camila Giorgi, who by all evidence had no plan B, perhaps due to Plan A having been formidably successful all week. Miss Pegula earned her first WTA title, well deserved after returning from injuries and rehab.

The big event, however, had to be the men’s singles final, with two top young players having rolled over all opposition to get there. To be sure, Nick Kyrgios had a tough semifinal match against his contemporary (and doubles partner earlier in the week) Stephanos Tsitsipas. They played an entertaining three sets, almost too entertaining at times, but Kyrgios was in charge even when he was in trouble, acing or drop-shooting or out-slugging his capable and hyper mobile opponent.

Control, or dominance, is not the same as dictating. Teaching pros talk of dictating the point, by which they mean keeping it where you want it. This is so, but one of the most interesting qualities of Kyrgios is his ability to let his opponent dictate and while staying in charge by means of, again, disruption, to which he adds ruthless control. Disruption plus control trump dictation, that is the idea.

This axiom was even more in evidence when Kyrgios met Daniil Medvedev, another “next-gen” (this is ATP hype for the rising cohort) star. Tall (six-six), lean, a year younger than Kyrgios, the Muscovite appears almost frail from afar, such as upstairs in the press box that is most of the time nearly empty. It is named for the legendary Charlie Brotman, unfortunately absent this year. The fact is Medvedev is strong as an ox, fleet as a cheetah, agile, armed with a classical style made of superb forehands, totally reliable two-handed backhands, and a serve  as unbreakable as Kyrgios’s, if less breathtaking. The Aussie hits his first serve in the upper 130 mph’s, and frequently hits his second the same.

Medvedev’s is, in fact, comparable to the Tsitsipas game (who uses a one-handed backhand), but whether because he was worn out from the effort to beat the tall blond Greek, or was impressed by the gravitas of a championship match, Kyrgios modified his tactics against the Russian. The array of tricky shots mixed with whiplash power was supplemented by a steady reliance on serve, big groundstrokes to the corners, and some of the most deft drop shots and adroit net play seen all week.

No less than Tsitispas, Medvedev can meet most of this, and in fact was most of the time better than Kyrgios at it, roaming over the court to reach and put the ball out of the Aussie’s reach. But he is not as agile as Kyrgios at the net, and while he retaliated with his own untouchable drops once or twice, more often it was he who had to scramble forward to catch one of those little sinkers and push it over to a Kyrgios waiting to volley it into the open court.

The match, however, was decided by the barest margin. Neither man ever came close to breaking the other’s serve, in fact never had a break point. All depended on the “mini-breaks” in the two tiebreaks, and here Kyrgios showed magnificent clutch when he had to, coming from behind both times (2-5 the second one) with aces and passing winners.

Thus went another great celebration of life and youth and giving your all for the sheer beauty of it. Mark Ein has his work cut out for him, but he is off to a fast start, and were I a betting man I would say he will be making his own money and making tennis popular even as the rascals down the street are throwing ours down the drain, and with it the security of the Republic.

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