Fifteen minutes into the match, with the score 5-0, you might be forgiven for thinking that at least you would not be sitting on a bleacher on a 90-degree day without any shade in sight for much longer. It was about two-thirty in the afternoon. There was no breeze.
But there was fight in the down-side of the doubles match on Grandstand 2 at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, home of the Washington tournament, currently the CitiOpen per its principal sponsor (past magnificos include the Washington Star and Leggs Mason).
It is a fine tournament, one of the oldest on the professional Tour and lately upgraded to the 500-level. Created by Donald Dell with help from Arthur Ashe in the glory days of American tennis, it benefits one of the city’s major non-federal institutions, the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation. It is an indispensable stop on the North American hard-court circuit, which culminates at Flushing Meadows, Queens, with the U.S. Open.
So it is 0-5 with Austin Krajicek serving for his side, the other half of which is Brian Baker. He holds at love, causing a ripple of surprise among the perspiring observers in the bleachers. Ryan Harrison, perennial young hope of American tennis, serves for the set and is stymied by his first double fault (also the first of the match). Baker-Krajicek capitalize, getting the next two points with volleys from the net at Harrison’s partner, Dennis Novikov.
The world being the way it is these days, it may be necessary to note here that all these young men are Americans, and some are children of immigrants. We melt kids in a big pot and produce fantastic tennis players. True, the United States Davis Cup team just got whipped by Croatia, a small country far from Queens, but it is not the end of the world. We have a lot of young stars rising, several of them are in this tournament, and surely we will hear about them this week.
They will not make up for all the horrors we will also hear about, and they shouldn’t. Sports are no antidote for terror and murder in Louisiana and Texas and the south of France. Athletes cannot protect us from tyrants and political gangsters. Sports can be a respite, an inspiration, but surely not an escape. We turn away from political horror shows to catch our breath; but the world is still with us.
Baker holds, as he and Krajicek again move to the net together and hold their nerve. On serve now, Novikov loses his with a double fault at deuce, and suddenly it’s 4-5, Krajicek serving to tie it up. Baker is the steady hand here; at 31, after several strong-willed recoveries from injuries that would send most athletes into retirement, he is the embodiment of technique systematically, but gracefully, applied. He attacks the net fearlessly (as indeed does Ryan Harrison on the other side), and his partner visibly improves from mimicry. Their steady play wears down other side’s stronger pace. Their shots are shrewder, aim for holes in the back court, go into their opponents’ feet.
Tennis is a sport of many moods, physical and mental, and the resulting swings in momentum can be sudden and deadly. The lopsided score at the beginning of the first set was not unusual — it was almost unheard of for a doubles match. Doubles is usually extremely close, with a single break of serve making the difference. Baker and Krajicek were unable to catch up in that first set, but they had righted their craft, while getting their opponents’ out of balance. Over three sets (the last a 10-point “super tie-break,” a recent ATP innovation designed to increase fan interest in doubles), this makes a difference, because the most important part of momentum is consistency, the opposite of mood swings.
It was a qualification match for the main draw in the Washington tournament, which begins today and runs through what promises to be an extremely uncomfortable week, with temperatures hovering between 95 and 100 degrees. Things may cool down a bit during the evening sessions, but the afternoons are the hottest hours in summertime Washington. Tennis players are fit and strong. Maintaining control over all the parts that go into hitting clean shots, you turn that fitness and strength into a kind of geometric ballet, but the timing has to be just so. Not so, and balls fly out of bounds or into the net.
Players who make the cut for qualifying draws are fantastic athletes, and yet there’s a space that stays between them and those who consistently enter the main draws. You watch qualification matches long enough, and you begin to see how narrow is the gate into true excellence — in this or any other activity or endeavor. This, of course, is part of why sports fascinate, beyond their aesthetic value.
Brian Baker, who is having a decent if not spectacular season, played with the steadiest form, gradually getting his partner into the rhythm they needed to work effectively together. Their strategy was to seize every opportunity they had to advance together to the net and out-duel the other side from that position. There were several spectacular ricocheting shoot-outs, with increasing intensity, aptly, during the third set.
Ryan Harrison played a convincing match in the morning against Amir Weintraub to qualify for the men’s singles draw; Novikov, perhaps smarting from a loss in singles to Ernesto Escobedo, put in many impressive points, but lacked his partner’s clutch brilliance. Resilience — what tennis players call percentage — kept the Baker-Krajicek keel even finally, as they battled back from two mini-breaks during the final set and then held off still another comeback when they took the lead.
They will be up against some of the Tour’s top doubles players during the week and there will be more thrills amidst the humid heat of Washington.
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