Of young American tennis players, it can be said the most aesthetically pleasing game belongs to Jared Donaldson, who advanced to the third round yesterday with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Marc Polmans.
The shock news from the William H. G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Washington’s Rock Creek Park was the knock-out of Gael Monfils at the Citi Open’s first round by an unknown Indian qualifier. The tall Frenchman, known for his extraordinary, acrobatic and risk-taking play, even looked rather groggy at the end, flailing at the Dehlian’s sharp serves and flatfooted before his aggressive volleying.
Still, long-term, the American interest lies in rising young aces like Jared Donaldson, Tommy Paul, both of whom advanced yesterday, Reilly Opelka, who was already out, Frances Tiafoe, who is not playing, and — no need to start a phone book, though we could — others. There must be. Others. Or we are goners and must concede that tennis knows no borders. Which always was part of its charm anyway, so no matter.
Monfils, Parisian by birth, six-four, ex-top 10 and currently No. 16 in the ATP rankings and defending champ at the Washington (aka Citi Open) tournament, is often described as the most talented tennis player of his generation (he is 30), or the greatest player who never won a Slam, or other such left-handed compliments (he is right-handed). He is a fantastic athlete who often runs out of gas and goes lunar. In this match, he played alternately brilliant and sloppy tennis, but the key was that the 25-year old Yuki Bhambri, who is from New Dehli and earned a place in the Citi Open draw by competing successfully in last week’s qualifying tournament, owns a mean serve and volley game and it worked against Monfils, who by the middle of the third set had to bend over and catch his breath after almost every point.
Bhambri’s pin-point volleying appears to have a capacity to run opponents into the ground. In real fact, Monfils got him every time he kept the ball deep in the court; Bhambri had trouble reaching those. He has movie star looks. Indian tennis is often described as a subsidiary of Bollyhood, for the sexiness of its male and female players and the unending soap operas they get involved in. In his first round match, Bhambri beat Stefan Kozlov 7-5 and then the young American, who belongs to Donaldson’s generation, went down 0-2 and called it a day.
Quitting is a local habit, with pols and officials reflexively looking for the tall grass during normal working hours, but in tennis this year it has become an alarming trend. Nick Kyrgios topped the day, or night, off with a resignation in the second set against American Tennys (yes) Sandgren, who next faces Germany’s young superstar, Alexander Zverev. Bhambri goes up next against Guido Pella. If his fearless volleying works against the Argentine star, he faces either an Austrian or a South African. They all speak a kind of English, however, and several TAS stringers on the scene possess command of exotic languages.
Capital city though it is, Washington is gracious to visitors and not only Monfils but many others, including Yannik Noah and Ivan Lendl, have won its renowned tennis tournament, now classified an ATP 500 event, which is second to the Masters 1000’s.
But it ain’t over till it’s over and down in the draw the Yanks are rising too.
Jared Donaldson hits from either wing with precision, nicking baselines and sidelines with a regularity that unnerves opponents. He favors fast low shots over the net, a speedy, hard-swinging pace. He has the feet for this kind of game, nimble, light. He keeps moving, fully expects to hit his target every time, shakes his head when he goes long or finds the net.
When you take risks, as Donaldson does, you have to expect to lose and therefore you must be ready to rally and regroup. This happened in the first round here, when he blew a big lead in the first set tiebreak to Dudi Sella, a superb defensive player. Donaldson turned the page, came out swinging after the break, and stayed on his program, took the next two sets smoothly, 6-4, 6-3, as Sella wilted under the barrage.
Sella uses a one-handed backhand, which he hits with a grace and reliability that is sometimes compared to better-known one-handed backhanders like Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet. Donaldson uses the more popular two-hander, but he hits down the liners with it that are remarkable in their velocity and accuracy.
The advantages of Donaldson’s all-around speed — feet, swing, pace — came out with striking clarity in the second round. Marc Polmans is the same age and shape as Donaldson, 20 and a lean six-two, but notwithstanding his evident talent, his game is far more limited. He swings hard. The ball comes back to him at the baseline. He swings hard again. This is fine, as far as it goes.
An experienced player like the 32-year-old Sella, who lives in Tel Aviv, can undo such a game by varying his shots — the spin, the bounce, the placement all contribute to driving the baseline power man to distraction, at which point he starts making errors, and when he makes errors he hates himself, and then he makes more.
Donaldson meets a challenger like Sella on his own, Donaldson’s, terms: choosing his own variations. Sella moves him around, he moves the tenacious Israeli around even more. Sella places his serves shrewdly, Donaldson hits his serves harder and aims for the sidelines and the T. Sella goes for cross court shots, Donaldson moves in and cuts them off with volleys.
The big swift groundstrokes are the basis of his game, but he needs more. At his age, the Rhode Islander must know he has some years to go before beginning to come into his own, but he is working on it, and it is a pleasure, an aesthetic pleasure, if you will, to watch his progress.
How far the progress already made will take Jared Donaldson at the Washington Citi Open this year remains to be seen. He will be facing Jack Sock in the next round, and Sock, who is 24, is a good example of just the kind of progress the younger player has embarked on.
Sock, who ran for president last year and, for better or, arguably, for worse, concentrated on his career rather than his alleged political ambition (he did not make a singe campaign appearance), is a natural. If he were not a tennis player he would be a first baseman or a quarterback. He is fast, athletic, powerful. A Nebraskan, he lives in Kansas City, has a grinning good nature and the most dangerous forehand in American tennis. And he has evolved: only two years ago he was often cited as a representative of the miseducation his cohort was receiving in a rather nebulous region vaguely referenced as “the Florida academies.” The great sin of this school, if it really existed, was to instill in players a fanatical devotion to the “baseline power game.”
Maybe so. You can surely argue that many young players today prefer to stand back and hit very hard. It is true they are strong, and face strong opponents, and strings and racquets and shoes and power drinks create a certain bias for ground-stroke attrition.
But the point of education is to know how to keep evolving. Sock a year or two ago recognized the limitations inherent in the way he was playing. He began following his serves to the net. His whiplash forehand, an extraordinary shot no one seems to have replicated, is still the basis of his offense, but he is far less dependent on it.
A good example of what young Americans are up against took place at the Citi Open a couple hours after Donaldson’s win over Polmans. Ryan Harrison, another alleged representative of the “baseline power game,” was outplayed by a veteran, Marcos Baghdatis, once considered a contender for the highest ranks and now, at 32, merely a great player. Wily like a Levantine rug merchant (he is from Cyprus), gritty, with deep court sense, he is one of the toughest players to beat because he always finds answers to his opponents’ strengths.
He found Harrison eager to slug it out. The Louisianan (now Texan), winner with Michael Venus of the men’s doubles at the French Open a couple months ago, has come back from serious injuries that would have derailed a less committed player. But yesterday he seemed stuck in two-move plan: one, hit hard; two, hit harder. It scarcely even matters where you hit. Just keep doing it. Baghdatis let him do it. Except when he tripped him up. The match was over in an hour, 6-3, 6-1.
TAS will be back with the latest, when it happens. Tennys (he is from Tennessee) Sandgren and Tommy Paul are still out there, and Donaldson or Sock, one of whom will be facing the ace-serving Milos or the shot-placing Marcos. Capitol Hill is down the street, a different kind of theater, bleak and grim. Much better here, where east meets west in a tangle of strings and smashes.