Matthew Ebden advances toward the net with a combination of grace and calm that always makes you forget how fast he is moving. It appears there is no place on the court he cannot reach with time to spare, time, that is, to choose his shot (actually he has prepared it even as he running — gliding to the naked eye) and put it exactly where he wants it, which is where his opponent is not.
This is a winning formula on the fast hard (plexipave) surface on which the match is played, but it does not necessarily work. Ebden’s opponent may be as fast as he is, which in this case he is. But if you picture the first young man as a cheetah, absolutely certain of knowing exactly where his feet will carry him, the other one, Phillip Simmonds, you draw in your mind as a panther, slightly more prone than the smaller cat to misjudge his own leap in relation to the object — a yellow ball, slightly larger than a baseball — toward which he is leaping.
Between Simmonds the American and Ebden the Australian you had a clash of two superbly athletic tennis men, tall lean and hard without being avowedly muscular. The contest had to be one for control of the position. He who positioned himself better to more efficiently determine the position of the ball on his opponent’s side of the court would prevail.
“It was a stronger match than yesterday,” Ebden reflected after the match. Saturday it had taken him three sets to dispatch another young American, Mitchell Frank, with, it seemed, more trouble than it had previously taken Simmonds to put away Olivier Sajous, who is from Haiti.
“But you did it in straight sets,” it was put to him. Tiebreak, followed by 6-3.
Raw scores can deceive. Although Simmonds, an attractive local player who has not quite broken into the top ranks, faltered visibly in the second set, Ebden said, in effect, that he could have, almost had, and in fact for a while did, give him real trouble on the court. Ebden had in front of him a player who could run as fast as he could, which means he could not rely on his accurate cross-court shots; the other fired them back with ease. But Ebden has an all-court game, with deadly accurate net tactics, honed in doubles play at which he excels (he won at Newport and Atlanta last month with Ryan Harrison and Alex Bogomolov, Jr., respectively, both of whom are in the draw at Washington).
It is this ability to adjust to the opponent that makes a difference; because, in terms of “mechanics” (as they say; downhill racers and sailors tend to say, “technically”), there is only a little difference between any two players on the pro tour. (A downhill ski race, to continue the comparison, is routinely won at two or three hundredths of a second’s worth of difference.) They can all do similar feats with a tennis racquet. They can serve (put the ball in play) on a dime, literally. They can catch a high lob (a pop fly, though usually sent up deliberately) and put it away at high velocity anywhere on the other side of the net. They can hit high bouncing balls and low bouncing balls and flying balls.
It is how they combine these several and other skills with “a certain mental toughness,” as a famous British player once put it, that allows them to get the ball into a position where it will cause the other fellow to either not reach it or hit it poorly — into the net or out of bounds. It is really a very simple game.
The Legg Mason Tennis Classic gets under way today at Washington’s Rock Creek Tennis Center on 16th Street, N.W., following the weekend qualifying mini-tournament in which Mathew Ebden and 23 others competed for six slots in the draw. One of the so-called ATP-500 series (winner gets 500 points), the Legg Mason Classic leads up to the U.S. Open at the end of the month in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. Other tournaments in this series are held in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and places in between. It is the American season, played in hot weather on hard courts before demanding spectators.
In addition to points the winner gets, if I understand correctly, a Lexus automobile (I have to check on this later this week, so watch this space), as well as prize money, over a quarter million for the winner, which ain’t peanuts though it may soon be if the dolts in the domed building down the street cannot get their act together.
It is also not unimportant in terms of training for the U.S. Open, due to the similarity of climatic conditions (quite warm) and playing surface (the hard surface, fairly fast and quite even). The atmosphere is neither as electric or noisy as in Queens, but it is a step up from what players have experienced in the clay and grass seasons, so you may argue that it begins their mental (and physical) preparation for the year’s last “slam.” This carries more weight than might occur to the ordinary spectator’s naked eye — some great champions, including Bjorn Borg, never managed to feel comfortable in New York and never won the U.S. championship.
With a draw of 64, the ATP-500 tournaments take place over a single week. Some players, trying for more rating points or money or glory or simply for the love of the game, enter overlapping tournaments, which necessitates a certain amount of scrambling. Thus Mardy Fish, the highest-ranked American player at the Washington tournament, played the final at Los Angeles Sunday afternoon. Benefitting from a first-round bye due to his rank, he will be on one of the 16th St. courts later in the week.
About the same time Fish was engaged in Los Angeles, Rajeev Ram took the court against Wayne Odesnik. Children of immigrants, they are pursuing their versions of the American dream. Rajeev (as he is usually called), who grew up in Colorado and had a successful (if brief) career as a leader of the University of Illinois tennis squad, is tall and supple and, not unlike Phillip Simmonds, puts you in mind of a powerful swift cat. He has a power serve and he usually holds it. Odesnik is not a power server, relying on an accurate, shotgun forehand to push his opponent behind the baseline and force him to hit long or into the net.
Which this time did not work. Rajeev stayed calm, or at least calmer. He held serve. That is his basic plan, he says: hold serve, meet the opponent stroke for stroke, wait for him to make a mistake, you only need to break his service once.
The Legg Mason folks have been stand-up guys on this event for many years now; it is not Wimbledon (over a hundred years old), but after 43 years it has got some history, by American sports standards, where teams and events pop up in towns you never even heard of. Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi are among the legendary winners here. The defending champion is an Argentine of Armenian extraction — Argentina, land of immigrants — named David Nalbandian. He received a first-round bye too, and may meet the American James Blake, if the latter gets past Tatsuma Ito, who is Japanese and polite, quiet.
The Legg Mason firm agreed to sponsor the tournament after the Washington Star pulled out after, I believe, only a year. The once great paper, which had been founded before the Civil War, was coming apart financially and a tennis tournament, as such, was not going to save it.
It was a missed opportunity, because this was the beginning of the tennis boom. Whether the tennis boom created the conditions that made the Open era possible, or the instauration of Open tennis enabled the boom, I cannot say. I do not know. However, Allen Drury, unless I missed something, does not have tennis even as a prop in any of his novels, and Charles McCarry has a brief — albeit important — tennis scene in only one novel, The Tears of Autumn, but it is in Saigon, not D.C.
Somehow it seems significant — but of what? — that two of America’s finest contemporary novelists, who happened to be inordinately concerned with Washington shenanigans, did not view tennis as a significant part of the décor. Perhaps they were just old enough to identify tennis with the clubs and private schools where it was cultivated prior to the tennis boom (though Don Budge and Pancho Gonzales, as well as Althea Gibson, learned the game on public courts), and felt the only sport Washingtonians take seriously is politics.
At any rate, it was a fortunate thing for the city that Donald Dell, who is from Bethesda, and Arthur Ashe, who grew up in Richmond, both felt the Classic was needed here and insisted on making it work. Dell, who founded Pro-Serv to represent players and organize tournaments after a career that included captaining the U.S. Davis Cup team, was — is, rather — with Mark McCormack usually credited with inventing modern sports marketing. Arthur Ashe was a major player of the 1970s.
The tournament gets underway formally on Monday after 4 p.m., a concession to the weather and the fact that some Washingtonians pretend to work during the day. Rajeev Ram and Matthew Ebden are on the program, competing for a chance to go against Nikolay Davydenko, who benefits from a first round bye. With their comparable serve and volley games, it will be speed and skill and mind, in proportions no one can exactly measure.