Americans Advance at Citi Open
by
John Isner (Rena Schild/Shutterstock.com)

There was a moment about midway through the first set when you might have thought Hurkacz had a chance.

He double faulted to give the American a break point, but the tall Georgian failed to convert. Instead, he netted the next return of serve and followed up with a soft return that the younger man — shorter, too — seized eagerly, with a big forehand into the open court.

This came after the American, who was no less than John Isner, had come out swinging with what looked like a clear and focused purpose of breaking the other fellow’s service and cruising on to set point. The fact that young Hurkacz — Hubert Hurkacz, of Wroclaw — toughed it out and kept the score on serve, suggested he might have a shot at it.

Wroclaw. That is a city of some significance to Mr. Wlady Pleszczynski, who runs this paper, and I have to tread carefully. Sure, he is born and raised in California, where he played tennis, baseball, basketball, rode in fast convertibles, partied on the beach. But you know, the roots thing. The ancestral loyalties. I cannot just come out and say the kid from Wroclaw, however talented, was out-matched, and embarrassingly. I have to practice the old fair-and-balanced.

Well, it happens to be so, after that characteristic lapse, Big John, who is from North Carolina and Georgia but now lives in Dallas, Texas, a great city for tennis, decided to win the match. He held easily, and then, with a lucky bounce off the tape and a magnificent cross-court forehand, he got the break he needed. He served out the set with a hold at love punctuated by a thunderous ace on the T.

At six-ten, Isner is taller than the six-five Hurkacz, but he moves much better. He moves around the court and catches volleys on the run as well as at the net with far more assurance than he when he broke into the pros a few years ago. He is faster and has more shots in his quiver; put another way, it is harder for his opponents to find a weak spot to exploit.

Isner broke Hurkacz in the third game of the second set and then followed a conventional game plan: just keep holding serve and do not expend energy getting another break. This is a respectable strategy, though of course it comes with the risk of a sudden reversal. Hurkacz has a strong, if predicable, flat serve, and Isner let it go, trusting his own ability to hold.

At 5-4, Isner lost a point on a flubbed serve-and-one, got back with a 139 mile-per-hour ace, and again fell behind on a missed half volley. Isner’s volleying has improved to the point at which he can almost be described as a habitual serve-and-volley man. He evened the score again when Hurkacz netted a shot from the baseline, pulled him into the alley to set up a winner on the next point, then closed the match with a perfectly executed serve-and-volley.

At 22, Hurkacz has time to develop the variety needed to advance into the late rounds at tournaments. Tommy Paul, who is from New Jersey and is almost the exact same age, showed this in his near-win against Stefanos Tsitsipas later in the day on the same Stadium court. In this case it was by no means certain until the end who would prevail. At six-one, Paul has a booming serve, but his strength comes from his explosive speed and his ability to scramble to the sidelines and return balls that to the naked eye look out of reach, and return them with power. The Greek, who just turned 20, is also the kind of player who never sees a ball that he does not believe he can reach, even if he must dive for it like a base runner. He came back from 3-5 in the second set, but the turn in momentum never affected the American’s determination and endurance.

It is well to say this, but meanwhile our side, despite a strong start on Monday, finds its ranks depleted. On Tuesday past champion Sloane Stephens lost to Rebecca Peterson (Sweden), and the bright young hope from Florida, Cori Gauff, found herself befuddled and outplayed by Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas, who put on a brilliant display of placement and point control. The bloodletting did not end there. Sachia Vickery could not keep up with Camila Giorgi, whose almost doll-like build belies her fierce game, which seems to consist entirely of hitting for the lines with as much power as possible. When it works, it works.

Another American teen, Hailey Baptiste, beat Madison Keys on Tuesday, only to lose in the last match on Wednesday. And in yet another all-American match today, Lauren Davis moved on with an inconsistent but ultimately successful three-set win over Sofia Kenin, who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia at age three months. Monica Puig, who plays under the flag of Puerto Rico but whom we welcome as one of ours — take that, Scott McConnell! — lost to Anna Kalinskaya.

Local hero Frances Tiafoe moved on in the men’s draw, though the explosive fresh talent Thai-Son Kwiatkowski, who in another era might have been known as Tyson Flowers, Mr. Pleszczynski pointed out to me, for he notices these things about the relations between language and assimilation and identity, saw his run cut short by the boundlessly talented Nick Kyrgios, who put on a show comparable to what the Harlem Globetrotters do in basketball, notably with shots between the legs.

But the day’s high point was, as on Monday, a doubles match on the Stadium court, with the brothers Murray, Andy and Jamie, taking on French veterans Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin. The latter team made it to the final at Wimbledon a few weeks ago, and Mahut is famous, with John Isner, for playing the longest match in the history of the Championships at the All-England Club. It lasted about a week, and no one remembers the score, except them. And maybe the umpire.

They played five sets in England, losing to the Colombian artists Juan Cabal and Robert Farah, but here they are limited to three — two regular sets and a super-tie breaker in the guise of a third. They definitely had a chance and they surely almost made it, but in the end, it was clear the mighty Scots had a more aggressive game and were in charge. They were always at the net, unbreachable, and they almost always found chances — rather, they set up chances — to put the ball away. The Frenchmen’s strong service games kept them in the match in the second set, which they took in a tiebreak. But they were most of the time on the defensive, countering the Scottish bullets, slices, crosscourts. Jamie Murray was all but impregnable at the net and sensational on the big overhead smashes.

When both teams were at in full force at the net, it was a fusillade of volleys, reflexes taking over until someone got his strings on the ball a split second late and put it in the net. It was a grand and splendid match. But the Murrays showed their dominance when they went from 2-5 in the deciding tiebreak to 10-5 and victory, with an overwhelming series of offensive crosscourt volleys propelling their final charge, topped with a big serve from Andy Murray himself, who scarcely six months ago was unsure his back and hip injuries would ever let him play tennis again.

You can keep playing tennis and you can play it in Wroclaw. And Dallas. And Washington, D.C. You can check it out. And since that other set of talented brothers, Mike and Bob Bryan, won their match, you can look forward, maybe, to a Sunday “Bunch a’ Brothers” final in Rock Creek Park.

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