You can say that the first week of a major in tennis represents the triumph of hope over percentage: the world is wide open, anything is possible, the bold will be rewarded.
You can then add the sobering reflection that the second week, in the thick of which we find ourselves at the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, Queens, represents the triumph of percentage over hope: the world has doors that slam on you when you thought they were unhinged.
Maybe you were unhinged, intoxicated with your own dreams.
Actually, top level athletes learn early in life to be realistic. Sam Groth belongs to a cohort of young Australians who are reviving the great expectations for producing champions their countrymen used to take for granted. His mighty service is the fastest in today’s tennis. Referring to his inability to crack Roger Federer, he said without a trace of rancor that his second-round opponent, whom he met on a mildly windy evening at Arthur Ashe Stadium, is quite simply the best in the world, implying you would be mad to think you can get more than a few shots past him. Which does not mean he did not give it his best, and it is a mark of Federer’s greatness that he does in fact, bring out some of the best tennis in others. It happened again in his next match, against Spain’s Marcel Granollers, who made him go to three sets.
You need a serve, and you need a few other things as well to beat the man who dominated this event five years running between 2004 and 2008 and who has an even chance—even with Novak Djokovic, who has reached the final in each of the past four years, winning it in 2011—to win it all again this time. Federer, as it happens, is himself the owner of what tennis writers call a “big serve” Casual observers, seduced by the Swiss master’s graceful classicism, sometimes overlook the fact that he hits 125 mile-per-hour first serves at will, places them up the middle or in the corner with the accuracy of a sharpshooter. He actually out-aced Groth, who was, withal, able to pull off some great serve-and-volley’s in the course of winning a respectable twelve games spread evenly over the three sets.
Federer’s improvement—if the word does not sound absurd—following what for him was a disappointing 2013 season gave his Nike sponsors the idea of marketing a t-shirt on which “Betterer” is written in bold letters. It is paying off handsomely, judging by discreet glances at U.S. Open fan attire. Federer himself clearly put enormous and sustained effort into putting last year’s problems behind him. Each adjustment required hours, days, probably weeks, months, of intense work. There was a chronic back problem. There was the matter of tactics to counter the ever-evolving games of his expected and new opponents. There were some experiments with his racquet and strings, resulting Wilson developing a new model for him (this is not a placement ad, and to prove it, this may be the place to mention that Novak Djokovic, whom Federer may well meet in the final in a few days, plays with a Head, as does Andy Murray, whom he could also meet. Rafa Nadal, whom he will not meet—he is on the DL—uses Babolat.)
All the work and all the adjustment, and more, come together to solve a simple, and therefore enormously difficult, question: How do I insure that I am in charge, that I dictate the way most of the points are played, that, in sum, I impose my game?
Federer has done very well this year, winning the classic Western and Southern (the Cincinnati Maters) three weeks ago for the sixth time, battling Novak Djokovic in a five-set final at Wimbledon that could have gone either way (but, it is important to insist, as a classy guy like Federer does, did not: he always credits the winner for the win). The value of working with Stefan Edberg, a legend of the 1980s and early ‘90s with a breathtaking backhand and a superb net game, cannot be quantified but you can see the results, and Federer expresses his respect and gratitude often, especially on court: Federer always has gone to the net, and this year he has done so with an Edbergian precision and speed that render any match of his worth watching.
Roger Federer represents the “percentage” against which the hopes of the first week of the tournament must be revised. He is the reality, the standard. There are others: his countryman Stan Wawrinka, the perennial almost-there Czech star Tomas Berdych, the Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, and Gael Monfils. Monfils, however, beat Gasquet in three relatively easy (though rain-delayed) sets on Sunday, confirming his own steady improvements this year and his countryman’s weaknesses due to injuries. The next day Murray, the 2012 champion, beat Tsonga in straight sets. Which was a bit of come down for the winner of the Rogers Cup, Canada’s nationals, a few weeks ago in a remarkable string of four wins in a row over higher-ranked opponents, but the Murray has a habit of dimming French hopes.
Against such players (and some others), a mighty generation now in its early twenties is trying to break through. Among these are the Canadian Milos Raonic and the Bulgar Grigor Dimitrov, worth far more than their weight in gold for the next few years of pro tennis with their sharply contrasting games. Dimitrov, who beat the Israeli number-one Dudi Sella rather soundly in the second round, is all over the court with elegant shots and lighting athletic prowess. Raonic is a tennis thinker, a man who can use one of the most powerful serves on the Tour with surgical precision, not only in placement but in the type of spin he puts on it.
Although the Yanks are once again knocked out cold in the first week in the men’s singles draw, we have every reason to take stock and renew our belief in the rewards of hard work. There is a cohort, sixteen and seventeen-year olds, who arguably should not be playing at this level so young, but are showing that if they stay in the sport they will rise. Stefan Kozlov, Wimbledon juniors finalist, only played doubles, losing in the first round of the men’s while partnering with Rubin Noah and the third of the mixed while partnering with Christina McHale. His pal Noah Rubin, who beat him in the Juniors final at Wimbledon, was knocked out soundly in the men’s singles first round, as was Jared Donaldson.
Donaldson found himself with Michael Russell, a popular veteran, in a second round doubles against the best doubles men in the world, Mike and Bob Bryan. The upstarts were, predictably, crushed by a Bryan machine that was working with the upbeat tempo of a Brian Wilson number. Young Donaldson simply could not find anything to match to the Bryan’s lightning shots, bouncing through his feet and off his racquet, but he showed courage and clever ideas of his own. He is only sixteen, the execution will soon enough follow.
This was a little like what happened to Sam Groth and his friend and doubles partner Mike Guccione, who put on a splendid display of classic Australian tennis that fell just short in each of the two sets they played against Bruno Soares and Alexander Peya, the number two-ranked doubles team, which goes to show that international understanding (they are from Brazil and Austria) is possible, notwithstanding hate and bigotry.
Meanwhile, the young, flashy and high-talent team of Michael Mmoh and Francis Tiafoe, two other American sixteens, after a dramatic first round win over more experienced players, the Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili and the Dominican sensation Victor Estrella Burgos, collapsed against the solid, smooth, and tactically almost flawless game of another American team, Rajeev Ram and Scott Lipsky. These two went on to win a thrilling match against another great team, Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, known to Washington tennis observers as past doubles champs at Citi Open, the venerable tournament held at the FitzGerald Center at 16th and Kennedy Streets.
Losing in singles has given Americans a chance to work on their doubles games, an often under-rated sport. It is not impossible Lipsky and Ram will find themselves in a semi-final contest against Mike and Bob Bryan, who beat Tim Smyczek and Bradley Klahn, known for their sunny dispositions and humor as well as the nice runs they usually make through draws.
If there is a Cinderella run this year in doubles, it is the one by Americans Taylor Townsend and Donald Young, who came from behind to reach the quarters in the mixed doubles draw, in still another thriller against Australians Ashley Barty and John Peers. It was a great match, in which the young Americans (eighteen and twenty-five) showed their usual grit and skill, plus strategic choices that eluded them in their short singles-draw runs.
If I may get opinionated for a moment, questioning the participation of sixteen-year old kids in major tournaments does not reflect an aversion to teenagers. I fully expect them to sometimes act silly and arrogant and brash and reckless and maybe even impolite. It is the way they should be, or let us say the way some of them inevitably will be. If you want to know about teens, and you have not got to know them at home or in high school, go see Rebel Without a Cause or The Left Handed Gun, and hold your fire.
These kids also compete in the Juniors. My problem, and my criticisms of their being in the main draw of the Open, has to do with their long-term evolution. I wonder whether their coaches or the programs they are in are pushing them too fast. It is true that Boris Becker—Djokovic’s consultant coach—won Wimbledon at seventeen. It is true Michael Chang won at Roland Garros very young. It is true as well that Mozart was six or something when he composed his first symphony. So?
Anyway, we are going into the second week and despite a brief rain storm on Labor Day—symbolically, it must mean something, but that is another issue—the Open is as grand (and crowded) as ever. The ladies will forgive me if I have not broached their draws, but not to worry. They are doing fine.