Strong pitching beats strong batting, right, but then why do the Yankees need Mark Teixeria in the lineup next to A-Rod and a few other big bats, when they have C.C., winningest pitcher in baseball.
This topic went around and around forever at Murphy’s saloon on Third Avenue, but it falls flat in Washington, where we do not see a lot of strong pitching except when the Phillies are in town and we have lost sight of what strong hitting means since the local geniuses let Adam Dunn go. Which is okay, no one expects a reincarnation of John McGraw to run any sort of team in Washington, which is a strange, bizarre, woebegone city where sports are concerned, and I do not expect to get any good answers as to why this is so, now nor later.
Though if you want to know, the simplest answer is that Washington is a strange, bizarre, woebegone place all around and you can count on folks here wrecking whatever they set out to do and then creating a commission to fix it and instead making it even worse.
However, if pitching beats batting — except that with the Yankees you have the special circumstance that they are big sluggers too, it never hurts — then in tennis, which is a different kind of sport admittedly, you can say that a shrewd game of motion and variety beats the power-from-the-baseline game.
At the Legg Mason aka Washington Tennis Classic on 16th Street yesterday this axiom was given a textbook demonstration in the match involving Kolya Davydenko, whose slight build belies iron muscles and some of the fastest feet on the pro tour and who vaguely reminds you with his pale blond hair and his fair skin and intense eyes of Ivan Karamazov, although I will take that back because who wants that kind of burden on anybody and say instead he makes you think of your typical scheming thinking intense Russian (which proves Ukraine, at least the part where he was born, is a mere geographical expression).
Off court he can be pleasant, funny, sociable, but on court his eyes are like a shark’s, seriously, like Vladimir Putin’s, the Russian vozhd. No Mister Nice Guy. He hits. With power. To the corner. To the other corner. To the baseline. And again. He wears you down. And he hits fast, because his feet are moving all the time and he is fast. Strong batting beats strong pitching, this guy does not do anything but swing.
And in the first set, in this by far the most interesting match played so far at this Legg Mason Tournament that does not seem to be attended by a lot of Washingtonians, judging from the license plates in the parking lots, he showed what this means. He kept his opponent off balance not by tactics but by sheer power. You are receiving these bullets again and again way in the back of the court and they are coming so fast you cannot advance from the baseline and try to gain the initiative, and Kolya takes the first set without sweating, though actually that is not true: it was humid, with rain on the way — there was in fact a brief rain delay in the first set — and it was making everyone perspire, though not in that warm and comfortable and definitive way that it did last week when there was a real heat wave, the kind that, in the days before air conditioning, made Washington function. Because those who could take the heat took care of the Republic’s business while those who could not — who did not have the character — stayed home or fled North.
Against this all-offense-batting-beats-pitching style a young Australian — young is relative in tennis, Davydenko is only 30 — Matthew Ebden, was trying to find his all-court defensive offense, and he could not. And then he could. Down 1-5, he began serving aces and mixing his tactics where previously he had been unable to do anything but return baseline mortar for baseline mortar, eventually losing the point. Because with Kolya, if you hit deep, he returns deep, and like the great baseline men of yore, Borg, Lacoste, he will return longer than you will return. Eventually you will not. In addition to which, he saw clearly, as everyone else did — the Grandstand court was packed on both sides because everyone knew this was it, we were finally going to see some really high level competitive tennis after two days of so-so play, he saw clearly that something was wrong with Ebden’s backhand. Matt Ebden usually has it, there is nothing wrong with his backhand, or any other hand. He is just as fast as Kolya, or faster, and normally, as a rule, cannot be fazed. But Kolya was finding his backhand and it was fazing him.
He came un-fazed fast enough at 1-5 to save face but not the set, but you might say the new, winning approach — he was returning everything and forcing Kolya to the net with McEnroe-like drop shots followed by the most breathtaking passing shots down the line, some kind of Joe Namath his arm made you think of — went on until he was up 5-4 in the second set, controlling everything. Classic: the no-break set through nine games and now for the break. But it did not happen.
The all-court chess player — actually, Matt is physically bigger, more athletic-looking than Kolya — was at the moment when you break serve and gain the set. Keeping up this strategy, he would have cruised into the third set and onward. But — well, you can read about it.
Offense beats defense, batting over pitching? You wonder. Watching Nikolay Davydenko, who for ten years has been consistently near the top but not quite there, you wonder about aggressive play. Accused of tanking, and then cleared, in the wake of a betting scandal in 2007, Davydenko is the kind of player who never sees a tournament he does not like. Consistently reaching the middle range — quarters, semis — he can do quite well for himself, high ATP rank, plenty cash. To do this you have to be consistent, like a slugger. Strike out quite a lot, as much as you want, so long as the big hits keep coming.
Everyone thought Matthew had found his zone and was at least going to force a decisive third set, because he was doing everything right: winning service games on aces, drawing Davydenko to the net with graceful drop slices followed by graceful passes, cutting down Kolya’s speed by hitting so deep most of his long shots seemed to be hitting the baseline.
If you keep slugging, even C.C. will eventually yield some hits and some runs. This was the best match of the tournament so far, and it was fine that it could be played and finished before the rain returned for good. It was more important, because it showed that tennis is still being practiced by thinking players who try radically different strategies against one another and, doing so, make the game evolve, than the controversies — from the past — over banned substances and the subsidiary controversies over what should be said about same.
An American named Wayne Odesnik was given a long suspension last year for showing up in Australia with banned substances in his suitcase. Some tennis men spoke harsh words, suggesting he should be banned permanently, but he was back in the circuit here as a qualifier, and got as far as the first round. He makes good moves that surprise his opponents from time to time, but he has not got the consistency of either the slugger or the tactician, at least not yet.
Well, he did not disgrace himself and, if he can keep up the good work, he will advance into deeper rounds in forthcoming tournaments. So why bring up the past? Why not talk about Davydenko-Ebden and the strategy of the game and how to win and the meaning of it all. Because it is sexier to talk about drugs? Drugs have been around a long time; they were discussed intelligently in Michael Mewshaw’s ’80s classic, Short Circuit, about the formative years of the modern professional tour (i.e., since the 1967 beginning of the Open era).
But do drugs really matter? If someone wants to kill himself, it is between him and his family and his God. And the law. It is a criminal issue, if you are involved in illicit drugs. But is it an issue for the sport, as such? Whose concern is it if Babe Ruth ate lots of hot dogs and Joe DiMaggio sipped coffee before games? Or that Pancho Gonzales had a horrible diet and smoked heavily? You go up against all kinds of players, some follow this regimen, some follow that one. You take them as they are and you beat them or are beaten by them. Finally what matters is how they played the game, not what they ingested before the game. Matt had Kolya 5-4, but when he had a chance to break him he sent balls flying over the line in a way that was downright surprising. It is how you play the point and keep your nerve. Whether the stake is a set of tennis or the annual budget of the United States.
I was glad it rained. That was selfish of me, it causes all kinds of distress and disappoints the fans who came to see the late games. They have terrific drying machines at the Rock Creek Tennis Center. Of course they are not much good if the rain keeps coming. We needed it, after the July dryness. But I was glad I had an excuse to leave. You do not often see matches like the one between Kolya Davydenko and Matt Ebden. But I am sure they will show us more.