More people globally know that Maria Sharapova won a tennis match against Laura Robson that included a combined 15 double faults than know that Sloane Stephens won a match against Michelle Larcher de Brito in which there were some crucial doubles too, but nowhere near as many. Although the matches were played on the same day, Tuesday, they were in different time zones, one of which is receiving more media attention. This is why the Sharapova-Robson event was known to have happened sooner and by more news consumers than the Stephens-Larcher de Briton one. The score was broadcast far and wide, and as you probably know due to the unbalance in the coverage of sporting events during this fortnight, it was kind of close, so you have to at least grant Laura Robson credit for grits and guts, English qualities par excellence in days of yore. At 19 she is just out of childhood and she was up against the ice queen who is all of 24.
On the same day Sloane Stephens overwhelmed Michelle Larcher de Brito by scores of 6-2, 0-6, 6-1, which is to say she was overwhelming in the first and third sets but was herself overwhelmed in the second. Miss Larcher stomped her feet, pouted, complained to the ump about a call, banged her racquet on the floor, got a new one (and played very well with it for a few points, which proves something), frowned, scowled, shook her head, and lost. If she had played the third set — or the first, for that matter — the way she played that second one, boy, she would have been happy. She could not err. She could not be touched. She was superb. She was calm and crafty and classy all at once. She was playing Russian lady tennis, the deep hard baseline game, complete with the two handed power backhand and the shriek. Blonde hair and all, she even looks kind of Russian, though at five and a half feet she does not have the height of the haughty ice queen.
(CORRECTION ALERT: I guessed they were light, but can I be sure I saw accurately? Eyewitness reports are often surprisingly inaccurate. Yesterday I reported that the Argentine champ Leonardo Mayer has a mop of curly hair and today, when I met him — I wanted to ask him about the pampas but decided it was not sporting to distract him from the doubles match he was about to play, so I muttered a banality about Washington’s great weather and how happy we were to host athletes from around the world at the William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center on 16th St., N.W. — I realized he has not a curl on his head. The perspiration, the head band, the way he tosses his head when he serves conspired to play a trick on my perception. The doors of imagination were opened, but I was mistaken about his hair. He wears his hair sort of like Novak Djokovic, if you want to know, in that Euro-crew cut style that differs markedly from ours, wherein we get the quarter inch to stand up straight, whereas they wear it flat and when it is wet with perspiration it looks like flying curls, at least that is my excuse.)
However, the hitch was that Miss Larcher had goofed up the first set, unable to find a rhythm against the American who is her near-exact contemporary, and then she somehow completely flopped in the third, losing her concentration and throwing tantrums. Whereas Miss Sloane, who lives in Florida — as do Miss Larcher and Miss Sharapova, despite, or perhaps because of, their Lusitanian and Siberian origins — stayed fantastically poised and cool, notwithstanding the humiliation of that second set thrashing. She came right back with a superb game plan, change-ups and cross-courts and keeping the ball in play during long points and betting that her nerves would hold out the longer. She was superbly efficient. She was one gritty girl.
The No. 1 seed on the ladies’ draw at the Citi Open, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, played a steady match in cruising past Bojana Jovanovski a few hours before the clash between the Misses Stephens and Larcher de Brito. If all goes according to plan, she should meet one of the hopes of the young American generation, Vania King, or even another of the American hopes, Coco Vandeweghe. If Miss Stephens stays on her steady pace and overwhelms Olga Govortsova in her next match, she will — but why speculate.
Professional tennis, as a popular spectator sport and a business, has evolved, as has major league baseball, since the inception of the open era in the late 1960s, and it appears the most visible current trend is to combine the women’s and men’s tours, whose structures are the WTA and ATP. The tendency is toward tournaments combining events of both tours, as well as toward greater equality in prize money. What this suggests is that women’s and men’s tennis attract comparable — maybe even overlapping? — numbers of fans. It was the case the other day that there were more spectators at the Stephens-Larcher match than at any of the others, even young Leonardo (no curls) Mayer’s doubles, which in fact was rather unobserved, a pity because he and a (North) American, James Cerratani, were edged by two other Americans, Drew Courtney and Steve Johnson, in a thriller that went to the tiebreak edge in both sets.
Since most players at these events compete in both doubles and singles draws, not rarely on the same day, the scoring system was modified to allow for the physical strain of the game. Some years ago men’s singles matches were changed from best-of-five to best-of-three (same as the women’s singles), and more recently the third set, if needed, in a doubles match is a tiebreak to seven points, with more as needed to win by two. James Blake and Tim Smyczek (American veteran and American hope, respectively) won a great one the other day, 10-8, with net rallies worthy of a fencing match. They played deep into the night, even as Miss Sloane and Miss Michelle were deep into their battle of wills and minds: as that is what it finally came down to, with their respective strengths, all other things being equal — but they never are — evenly matched.
The American women, in fact, are doing well in the doubles draw, with Chanelle Scheepers and Irina Falconi already in the third round and several other teams advancing. Miss Stephens, playing with a Russian young lady, Anna Chakvetadze, will meet the superb Czech sister team of Karolina and Kristyna Pliskova either Wednesday night or Thursday. American women are a riddle unto themselves, but when they get into high motivation mode, they can be stubborn.
That is one factor that goes into making a gritty girl, and the other is the ability to, as we say, step on the gas and get there. Tennis-wise, this occurs when they are losing as well as when they are winning. It took grit for Miss Stephens to collect her wits, return to her best moves, and regain the initiative after losing that second set without getting a single game. There were displays of grit and not-grit Wednesday evening. Americans Vania King and Irina Falconi battled though a nervous and error prone end-game (end match, rather), with Miss King finally keeping the edge on the last point of a tie-break. Coco Vandeweghe was gritty in her consistency, while her French opponent Aravane Rezaï showed non-grit, a.k.a. frustration, double-faulting to end the match. And there was a terrific battle of grit between Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a well-endowed young Russian with a killer serve and no fear of hitting deep and risky ground strokes, and a little known Hungarian, impressively aristocratic in her bearing, Melinda Czink — of whom we can expect much in tournaments to come — whose elegant grit finally failed against Anastasia’s skill and power.
There are in sum quite a lot of relatively untested players this year at the 16th Street Tournament, formally the Citi Open not the Corona Invitational.
(SECOND CORRECTION ALERT: An earlier dispatch noted the presence of Corona-logoed polo shirt-wearing grounds staff. This is not inaccurate as far as it goes, since the individuals thus described have their feet on the ground. But specifically, they are umpires, not the equally crucial caretakers of the courts and the grounds, which on the whole are, in fact, rather close to immaculate — which is more than a few players evidently think of the umpiring — and well protected when the thunderstorms, which must be taken for granted on 16th St. NW in summer, burst and hold things up for a spell. That the rule of (tennis) law should become a marketing platform for a producer and distributor of alcoholic beverages seems apt, when you think of the deluge of rules and regulations pouring relentlessly just a mile or two down the street from here.)
And that is one of the event’s charms. Many tennis fans, no doubt, are mesmerized by the unstoppable march of America’s greatest and grittiest player (on the women’s side) in that other time zone, as she advances to the quarterfinals in the London sports extravaganza. But watching these less experienced young ladies in the closer, more intimate setting of the Rock Creek Tennis Center (THIRD AND FINAL CORRECTION ALERT: We will check with tournament officials for the official and correct designation for this 16th St.-Rock Creek-William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center-Citi Open event) allows the admirer of the sport to combine the laid-back pleasure of a summer evening on a grandstand with the satisfaction of seeing how and by whom and in what conditions the game is played today. – #
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