The rain was expected after the muggy air and the downpours of the Labor Day weekend, one of which held up John Isner’s unfortunate match against Philipp Kohlschreiber, and the schedule was upset but the show goes on, the show never stops. This is New York City, the city that never sleeps.
Tricky things, these rain delays, the umpires and officials must decide how to juggle the program as fairly as possible. They made a call that must have pleased Maria Sharapova, the tall slender Florida beauty (by way of Siberia) whose season has been fine with a victory in the French Open that long had eluded her. Stopping the match, they stopped the momentum of the Corsican fireball, Marion Bartoli, who is having a good tournament and, in fact, played the last great singles match the other day, unless somebody intervenes, on the grand old Grandstand court, beating the charming but athletically mercurial Czech wonder Petra Kvitova in three. Miss Kvitova is the kind of player who is either all there or not there at all and unfortunately for her, after the first set she seemed out to lunch. It is too bad about the Grandstand, too, though, but the city never sleeps and creative destruction is the iron law of our promised city. There is a $500 million renovation-expansion of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center underway and surely they know what they are doing.
So Marion and Maria will finish their business tomorrow and right now at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the mighty, mentally liberated Andy Roddick, freed of all burdens by his announced retirement, is knocking out the giant of the pampas, excuse me the giant of Tandil, the mighty Juan Martin del Potro, whose booming serves and whiplash forehands terrorize all comers.
Except Andy Roddick. Andy Roddick is the revelation of this U.S. Open. At 2-5 with Delpo serving, he very nearly breaks for the set with some accurate baseline play, but not quite. Serving for the set, he hits a service winner to Delpo’s forehand, follows it with one to his backhand, gives him a point with an out of bounds lob, pushes him to the baseline, but misses a couple of baseline winners that give the Argentine the break.
And more. Delpo works his way back into the match, and when the returning rain causes another delay at nine o’clock, Roddick is 2-0 in the tiebreak. It ain’t over till it’s over.
Ferrer-Gasquet is over, the Spaniard having got far enough into match (two sets to love and leading in the third set) to wrap it up during the respite from the rain. One thing tennis teaches is that you cannot fret about what you cannot control. Accept the conditions as you find them.
Viktoria Azarenka, who is from a geographic expression called Belorus and has a mean forehand, eked out a desperate win against the defending champion Samantha Stosur, the last standing Australian after Lleyton Hewitt’s exit due to David Ferrer, the very man who is now fated to meet Janko Tipsarevic or Philipp Kohlschreiber, when their match resumes and concludes, probably on Wednesday. Richard Gasquet cannot complain. He played fine tennis. Ferrer’s relentless tenacity got the better of him, but so did Ferrer’s finesse, which grew as the match progressed.
Ferrer is a player who seems stimulated by having his back to the war. I lost count of number of times he came back from 0-40 to win a game. Although he grunts from time to time, it is nothing like the shrieking you hear from Miss Azarenka’s side, which frankly are distracting. Someone pointed out to me that distracting is the least of it; after all, a lot of things are distracting, including the jolting realization that you forgot to feed the cat. The thing is, this observer pointed out, these young champions are taught to make full use of all their senses in making judgments – critical ones – on where the ball is and where it will be in the next split second.
The shriek, which seems to be a specialty of the post-communist states’ tennis educational programs, impedes the other player’s ability to hear how the ball is hit and the direction of its likely trajectory. At this level, believe me, this can be critical. There is a movement among tennis pros to gradually phase out shrieking by instructing young players against making tactical use of their vocal chords.
On the subject of tennis education, the well-known tennis commentator, broadcaster, and writer Bud Collins, whose books are essential references for whomever would know the history of this sport, observes from his observation post at the U.S. Open that one advantage the mighty Spaniards have these days is that their small geographic space allows their young players to be constantly within proximity of one another and thus have very high levels of competitive training from an early age. They mostly grow up in southern Spain and along the Mediterranean coast. Their parents are frequently teachers, often former athletes of distinction. The young players do not have to leave home at an early age to play tennis with good instructors and very strong peers.
This is well worth pondering. The USTA puts quite a bit of money into tennis development, but it is spread over various project – building public courts; after-school programs to encourage kids to stay in school (tutoring plus tennis instruction). This is surely worth doing, considering the wasteland the federals and the unions have made of public education, but let us not get off point.
The point Mr. Collins was making, I think, is that to form champions in the U.S., you have to take kids at an early age out of family and community and put them in intensive situations, such as tennis academies, from which supposedly at age 14 or 15 they emerge, or may emerge, as contenders. But at what cost? Whereas in a place like Spain, due to geography and various other factors, the kids can stay at home and still benefit from extremely competitive tennis. In short, their lives remain more normal.
Surely this is so, and surely too, as Bud Collins would agree, the question is more complicated than this. What can be said is that we have here still another example of how we are losing a natural and sensible grasp of what education is and how it implicates parents, teachers, public authorities, and whoever else shapes the world in which children learn and grow.
It is altogether likely that if young players reached for a volume of Aristotle or sat down to compose a sonnet to their sweetheart during a rain delay, they would be better off and maybe even better at tennis. To be this way, they would probably not have been playing tennis “since age 2,” as the cliché has it. Tennis is difficult to master, it requires much patience, instruction, practice; but this does not mean a human being with an athletic disposition and good health cannot get the rudiments and then the higher skills in his teens and be perfectly competitive by their end with someone who has been playing “since age 2.” To think about this is to think about the state of American education and, in an election year, it may be better not to.