James Blake took care of Legg Mason Classic defending champion David Nalbandian in two easy sets Tuesday evening, sending forth the happy message that nice guys do not necessarily finish last and it is never too late to come back from a hole — a hole in a game, or in one’s career, as has been the case in Blake’s lately. This is surely good news for U.S. tennis, and (pardon these facile comparisons), for the American economy, presently taking a terrible shellacking from precincts directly south of the uptown 16th Street N.W. venue of the tournament, a Washington institution.
Actually, that you can come back from a bad spot — a hole — is part of what tennis teaches you, as do most sports. Losing the first set never means anything, except that you lost the first set. And since it is not over till it is over, you are not, objectively, in a worse place than your opponent: each point begins the contest anew.
Nalbandian and Blake are both past champions here — Nalbandian’s victory last year was the most recent in a long line of Argentine players who have done well on the Rock Creek Tennis Center’s courts, and he was favored against an attractive but erratic player whom everybody always thinks of as second-best. He played, as an alert fan, Patrick Rayner, pointed out, as if his racquet has been strung for someone with an entirely different style of play, unable to get his normally deep baseline shots over the net, while James Blake played a smooth strong steady game throughout, punctuated by the power service he used against Tatsuma Ito the previous day and the speed that, at 30, still marks him as an effective all-court man.
It was not a bad day for Americans, underscoring that we have not yet got to the level of Greece or Panama despite our politicians’ best efforts. The teenage phenom Ryan Harrison settled down after a spot of temper to take a decisive three-setter from Mischa Zverev — Germans are not doing well at all this year here — and another young phenom, Ryan Sweeting, showed strong stuff against a fellow-American, Alex Bogomolov, which gives him the privilege of going up against the tournament’s number one seed, Gael Monfils of France, probably on Wednesday evening.
You win some you lose some. Tim Smyczek, still another young American, lost by a couple of points, in three nearly even sets, to Grigor Dimitrov, a man to watch in case we are fated to have a Bulgar Bjorn Borg on the professional circuit in the years ahead. Dimitrov simply refused to be fazed by Smyczek’s relentless pounding of shots down the line, returning them like a machine, albeit one who, in the last games, looked exhausted.
Perhaps expressing the American predicament, a half-American doubles team, composed of Eric Butorac (USA) and Jean-Julien Rojer (Netherlands Antilles), won the hardest-fought doubles match of the day, over an all-American team composed of Scott Lipsky and Rajeev Ram, a nerve-wracking contest during which both Lipsky and Butorac seemed determined to follow every stroke of genius with an error. In the end Lipsky was more error-prone than Butorac and the contagion affected his partner while Rojer, on his side, kept his nerve and his team’s focus.
Say what you will, singles tennis is a sport for selfish brooders. They may be people who, off the court, are as capable of altruism and generosity as St. Francis or R. Hillel, but in a match they have to carry individualism to an extreme if they want to win. Never give an opponent an even break — or any break. In doubles, the game changes dramatically. Here, you must show generosity on practically every point, deliberately and intelligently thinking of how to set up winning situations for your partner. The whole idea of the serve in doubles, to take the most elementary example, is to force your receiving opponent to return in the middle — allowing your partner to answer with an unreturnable smash. If the ball stays in play, you have to hit in such a way your partner is protected from overpowering shots in his direction.
This creates an atmosphere on the court that is radically different from the one prevailing during a singles match. Doubles is a game of collegiality and comradeship, teamwork. It is why in English public (private) schools, in the days when these schools produced the men who ran England, and therefore half the world, the doubles game was considered a better pedagogic tool than the singles game.
With several experienced teams at the Classic, including the mighty Bryan brothers and the Indo-Pak Express of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi, the doubles draw promises to be lively. It is ridiculous to suggest that American congressmen take time to play some doubles, but it really would not be such a bad idea. If nothing else, there would be that much less time when they could inflict damage on the rest of us.
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