It never pays to complain about the weather, but we complain anyway. In competitive sports, if you do not like the conditions, you can quit, or you can tell yourself the other fellow has to deal with the same ones and get on with it. This is the traditional attitude at the Washington Open, which occurs in a season when even the politicians for whom this town exists take a break from making everybody else sweat while working their own grift.
The outer courts here are all directly exposed to the sun. There are some shaded sections on Court No. 1 and Grandstand No. 1, but they are small sections. There are shaded sections in the mighty ten-thousand capacity Center Court Stadium, and if you must, you can take a break and go sit in one of the restaurants installed on the grounds for the duration. Anyway, as players and fans left for the night the storm came, announcing cooler weather. It will be only about 90 degrees today, Wednesday, and tomorrow; then the thermometer will head up toward 100 for the semis and finals on the weekend, which is fine by me, because sports is supposed to be a metaphor for life.
Having secured his place in the main draw with his win in the qualification rounds, Ryan Harrison, a Shreveport native who lives in Austin, proceeded to take apart a visitor from France, Stéphane Robert. The latter put up a fight in the first set of their match on Grandstand 1, but wilted in the second. What was interesting was that Harrison, who at 24 has one of the most elegant and classic forms among the younger American players but has struggled with consistency and mental stamina, played his game all the way through, rarely losing control of the point. He hits smooth clean groundstrokes, aiming for the corners, changing pace at will, moving in gracefully, almost too gracefully, to attack at the net. This was effective against Robert, a strong but somewhat inconsistent journeyman.
Harrison and Dennis Novikov played in the doubles qualifying round on Sunday against their compatriots Brian Baker and Austin Krajicek, who came from behind to prevail in three gritty and thrilling sets. They lost their match in the first round of the main draw, against veterans Lukasz Kubot and Alexander Peya, but in the first round of singles Baker held his nerve through two close sets, both decided by tie breaks, against Australia’s Sam Groth. Novikov lost to Ernesto Escobedo in the singles qualifying round, and Escobedo in turn lost a terrific, hard-fought match against Donald Young on Center Court yesterday.
You cannot watch Baker, Young, Harrison play and not feel some puzzlement about the state of the sport in America these days. They all have superb form and a gift for clutch play; but they have a tendency to falter in the late sets or the later rounds of tournaments. You can say there is no mystery here, they run up against stronger, more consistent players. But stronger and consistent how? Where? In the feet. They do not get exactly where they have to be exactly when they have to be there.
Easy to say: and no doubt other observers will dispute this. But if you look at the sport’s top players, the top 10 or even the top 20 since few Americans have been inside either group lately, what you see is a superior ability to move. Call it gliding or dancing or something else, the best players have an ability, innate or acquired or both, not just to be fast but to be simultaneously fast and focused: to use speed to get the rest of themselves, arms, shoulders, hips, just where they should be so that the contact with the ball is just so.
Simple. And hard as anything. But it is a piece of what the puzzle, or “mystery” — the failure, not to put too nice a word on it — of American men’s tennis today. And the Citi Open is a good place to confirm or dispute this theory. John Isner (ATP rank 16), Steve Johnson (25), Jack Sock (27) all are in the draw, playing today or tomorrow, along with many of the younger hopes such as teenagers Frances Tiafoe and Reilly Opelka (both eliminated but giving strong accounts of themselves) or near-teens such as Novikov, Escobedo, Jared Donaldson, and Bjorn Fratangelo, who won a tough and high-octane three-set match against fellow-American Alex Kuznetsov in the first round and fell to still another compatriot, Sam Querrey (who beat Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon a few weeks ago) in a close three-setter yesterday.
Move your feet to get on the ball and so you can put it just where you want it. Sports is sports, but this sounds a lot like the old cliché about getting your act together, which is, after all, the meaning of life and nowhere more possible than in our great republic.
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