A wonderful week in the wide world of sports was about to conclude yesterday with the clash in the final of the Citi Open between the artistic and bold Ukrainian No. 2 seed, Alexandr Dolgopolov, 23, and the steady, hard-hitting German Tommy Haas, who is considered a veteran at 34 and who derailed a nice run by the No. 1 seed, the American Mardy Fish, in the previous day’s semi-finals. Dolgopolov played sensational tennis all week, carrying on his broad shoulders the honor of his country, which is somewhere to the southeast of the Vistula River and northward from the Black Sea. Faraway in another time zone his compatriots, competing in tennis as in other sports, achieved notable successes in fencing and rowing.
Americans had a very good week in that distant time zone, impressive and at times dominant in such different disciplines as swimming, basketball, and gymnastics. The disappointments of bright and pretty and talented youngsters at the Citi Open, which takes place annually at the William H. G. Fitzgerald Tennis Center at 16th and Kennedy Streets NW in Washington, D.C., point to rising strengths as well as weaknesses. We are still the top country, leave aside strong showings by the Chinese which must be considered next to suspicions of cheating in such top sports as badminton, as well as in swimming. The Brits are doing well, which is bully for them since they are the hosts of the extravaganza over there, and their successes should not distract from their responsibility for partaking of the extreme hyping of sports and all that implies for trivializing what sports mean in relation to society and the soul.
Our leading young hopes, Misses Sloan Stephens of Florida and Vania King of California, did well, and the spectators at the Rock Creek Center, as the Fitzgerald facility is also called, appreciated their grace. They are very young and very pretty and very talented and by all evidence dedicated and they will continue. It is good that the great states of Florida and California — which must go red in November, excuse me, that was uncalled for — are producing such good tennis players, who put up courageous and dignified fights against strong opponents. Seeded 3rd and 4th, they lost in the semis, as expected.
What is expected to happen usually does, when the expectation is based on more than pure hunch, as is the case in the statistics-minded and history-rich wide world of sports. It made sense to assume, in that other and distant time zone, that the tennis competition would conclude with match-ups of the best participating players, as they did, in both draws. Serena Williams, the acknowledged best player in her group, called the Women’s Tennis Association, WTA, won with a radical decisiveness to which the victory the next day with her sister Venus in the ladies’ doubles added a powerful and closing exclamation point. Notwithstanding her embarrassingly lopsided loss to Miss Williams, it made sense for the runner-up to have been Maria Sharapova, who has been having a generally excellent year.
Similarly, looking at the record of the men’s group, the Association of Tennis Professionals or ATP, suggested the final was bound to involve Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic, three of the top four this year (the fourth, Rafa Nadal, did not participate for reasons of health, to his chagrin). Federer played a marathon match in the semis, going to 19-17 in the third set, but the resulting fatigue may not be the explanation of why he was rather easily beaten by Murray yesterday in the final. After all, Federer’s defeated opponent in that very long match, the Argentine champ Juan Martin del Potro, was fresh enough to beat the mighty Djokovic yesterday for the third position. The expected happens — the mighty and exuberant Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob, won the gentlemen’s doubles for the U.S. team, strengthening the case for calling them the best doubles team at work today, but there is always the possibility of an exception, as per, for example, St. Louis’ post-season run to the baseball championship last season or, to consider another field of endeavor, Harry Truman’s win over Thomas Dewey, a competition today’s Republicans ought to keep in mind.
If they want to win.
Surely one of the reasons for sports’ wide appeal, both for ordinary participants and for fans of the individuals and teams at the top level, is that it clearly puts in focus the issue of wanting to win. In many areas, this is not always as simple a matter as it might seem. A political leader may put principle before the imperative of winning; a businessman, too, may choose not to compromise his values, standards, or principles even though doing so may put him at a disadvantage in relation to his competitors. Journalists are aware of this sort of dilemma. “Winning” for some of them may mean adhering to certain criteria of accuracy and detail that may be of only marginal interest to their employers and, perhaps even to their audiences.
What, in short, is victory worth? What is the best way to define it? Success in the market place (of political ideas, of consumer goods) is one way to define victory, and it is a sensible one. But it is a complicated one, always somewhat inadequate. Sports, by contrast, are stark, straightforward: everyone agrees on how points are counted, and victory goes to the side that gets the most.
It may be to our credit that we instruct children and adolescents — and even young adults — that “winning is not everything,” that sportsmanship and grace and generosity toward one’s opponents are also forms of winning, perhaps more important than getting the real actual top prize. You cannot keep real facts from kids, and it would be silly to try to tell them that, for example, Virginie Razzano, a very fine tennis player but in another category altogether from Serena Williams but who nevertheless managed to beat her in a match earlier in the season, is a “winner” on a par with Miss Williams simply because she showed great fortitude (she played through a serious leg cramp) on that day, as well as grace (thanking her coaches, the champ she was privileged to meet and beat, and all that sort of thing, admittedly corny but, in fact, very true, especially when we realize how scarce it is.) Nevertheless, kids — and adults — should think about what kind of winner Mlle. Razzano is, and appreciate it.
Making the question of winning a complicated one is a worthwhile part of education. A team, or an individual, ought to benefit from realizing that the quality of a victory matters. How a victory was achieved, how one treats one’s adversaries (during and after a contest), how one regards oneself, as a member of a group and of society — all these matter. What one does with one’s position as a winner matters. None of these issues are new, nor are they peculiar to sports. On the contrary, the notions of sportsmanship are derived from religious or moral ideas about the meaning and consequence of success in typically social activities such as business and politics.
Philanthropies, foundations, owe their existence to the feeling or sense of obligation businessmen have to “give back” something either to their own communities or to the larger society. Professional sports associations and teams, as well as individual pro athletes, engage in philanthropic activities on this principle, that as you give so shall you get, and if you got, you should surely give. The motive may be selfish or it may be disinterested; what matters is that it be taught, transmitted, perpetuated.
Washington has not produced a great many champions in tennis (the city may have a championship baseball team this year, but most of the players on it did not learn the sport here), but it does have the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, which for over half a century has made a difference in the choices of kids who have come under its aegis. Basically, the foundation, which is located at the Fitzgerald Center and which is one of the beneficiaries of the revenue generated by the tournament that is held here, helps kids do well in school by offering them an after school study-and-sports program. There are institutions like this elsewhere, of course, but this one has been quite good, at least with the kids it has reached. To reach more, it is building a new facility in Ward 7, one of the poorer parts of Washington on the border of Northeast and Southeast. Individuals and institutions are contributing to the costs — giving, with or without the thought of getting something back, if only a few kids from this city with a sense of honor and decency and self-improvement. Willis Thomas, Jr, long-time program director, insists winning is not necessarily forming the next Andre Agassi or Serena Williams (who with her sister is a patron of the WTEF), but of getting kids through school and into college.
Logically enough, to return to the notion of what to expect — what you put into something is what you get out of it — Miss Stephens and Miss King were stopped logically enough by the two finalists, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Magdalena Rybarikova. The former was seeded no. 1 in this tournament, but the latter was unseeded.
Miss Pavlyuchenkova, who is 21 and comes from Moscow, which is to Russia as London is to England but not as Washington is to our great nation, beat Miss King in three emotionally draining sets under heat so intense that she required medical attention. She later was heard to question how people can live in such weather. The reality is that until the advent of air conditioning people dealt with the Washington summer by slowing down considerably, as the Southerners who used to set the tone of the city would put it; and it had no perverse consequences on the national well-being because they had very little to do anyway and now they had even less and no one noticed the difference. The Republic was far healthier then, public policy wise, with some important exceptions such as the race question. One of the best things that could happen to America would be the removal of air-conditioning from the halls of Congress and the surrounding federal offices, obliging the rascals to curtail their hours of scheming against the public interest. Miss Pavlyuchenkova suffered terribly, required ice packs to be placed on her shoulders and legs. But she fought back against a strongly rallying Miss King and in the decisive third set broke the courageous Californian on her final service game.
Against expectations, Magdalena Rybarikova was progressing through the draw against better known players and seeded ones. Against Sloan Stephens she maintained a steady game of cross court driving shots — the kind the legendary Bill Tilden said should be the foundation of the women’s game — and skillful net play that rattled the young Floridian in a way she was not able to overcome, as she had overcome her previous opponents. The tall svelte Slovak princess, unknown and unseeded, used the same tactic against Miss P. in the final and overwhelmed her with an embarrassing score, making her feel no doubt as Miss Sharapova felt after playing Miss Williams.
Unexpected but pleasant, too, because they were so full of grit and guts, were the victories in the doubles draws, in both groups. On the women’s side, Shuko Aoyama and Kai-Chen Chang easily disposed of Irina Falconi and Chanelle Scheepers, which does not suggest an American-South African team cannot measure up to small Asian bundles of energy and cleverness. And yet, another American-South African combo, the basketball sized team of Sam Querrey and Kevin Anderson, could not overcome the British-Filipino dynamo, Dominic Inglot and Treat Conrad Huey (who is from Washington). Neither of the doubles teams that won was seeded. And for what it may signify, the men’s doubles winner pocketed over $74,000 to split, while the women got $11,000. But winning is its own reward and in London no one got a payday, except the fat cats of the managing board, which is led by a Belgian stuffed shirt — albeit himself a former international class athlete, notably in ruby union — named Jacques Rogge, who could not give the time of day to the widows of Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists, nor could he find anything to say about his board’s Greek affiliate banning a athlete from this sporting event for saying something that may have been stupid but in any case was none of their business. You have to wonder about sports bureaucracies and their inverted sense of what matters.
Typical Washington summer weather — erratic thundershowers — delayed the final on the men’s side, but finally Alexandr Dolgopolov wore down Tommy Haas in three sets and became the most famous Ukrainian in Washington, and possibly in Ukraine. Ukraine and Slovakia — Slovakia has earned some merit in shooting and canoeing in that other event, which befits its essential rural Central European character, as a tiny nation — should be thanked for reminding us, as we suffer under the yoke of imperial politicians who think they are pharaohs, that you can be small and poor and still good, at least in tennis.