Janko Tipsarevic has an elegant and powerful forehand with which he places shots just about wherever he wants and that is what he does all afternoon on the legendary court at Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens. All of New York City seems to be here. All of New York City in fact is not here, it just seems that way, although in a few hours it is going to be clear that only part of New York City was here, all of New York City turns out for the next huge match here, the Novak Djokovic-Juan Martin del Porto quarter-final of the men’s championship in the U.S. Open. And it is a fine match, the first tough one Djokovic, the Serb superstar, has played thus far. But the match Tipsarevic has got into, it is not a fine match merely. It is a match that will be a legend, that will be called a classic, a match for the ages as the cliché has it.
They stay at the baselines and probe each other’s ground strokes, aim at the corners and begin the dance, making each other run from side to side, attack at the net, setting up volleys they will put away. They are fantastic returners, Janko’s opponent in particular, you cannot send him a serve he will not whack back with the force of a hurricane. How does he do this? He is fast. He has fast hands, fast feet, good eyes, and very steady arms. He returns shots to his left with a two handed backhand that sends the other man scrambling. And then does it again.
Tipsarevic is intent, hard as steel, an arm that must be like a iron rod, a piston, a crowbar; no, it is a human arm, well trained and exercised and all-too-human, capable of error. The eye, the arm, the coordination: sometimes the mind wills and the arm does not obey. Even here. Even in these conditions: excellent mind, superb body, years of schooling to put the rubber ball with the fuzzy surface inside the confines of a rectangle 78 x 27 in such a way that the other person — the opponent — return it (within the confines) over a net three feet in height.
And now he is in the match of a lifetime, on the great show court of New York, in front of a large crowd — 20 thousand at least — many of whom are shouting “Let’s-go! Jan-ko!” And he is winning.
The reason he is winning is that he has just won the third set and is therefore leading 2-1. He lost the first set, 3-6, but came back to win a tiebreak in the second and took the third cruising, 6-2. The scores of themselves can scarcely reflect the grit and grind that has defined this match, which, as the fourth set begins, has been going on for two and a half hours.
Janko Tipsarevic is simply fantastic. He places shots on the baseline and in the corners, he serves aces — half as many as his opponent in this match, but when he crucially needs them — he drops shots gently over the net. It is a class act. Cool and somber, with the frames of his glasses matching the colors of his suave orange and black outfit, he looks, now that you think about it, like a Spaniard, like a grandee, like a caballero.
The man facing him, as it happens, is a caballero, if the term has any meaning in democratic-monarchial Spain. David Ferrer, no less than Janko Tipsarevic, is a class act. He looks almost like a hard guy — a rugby player, perhaps, a construction worker (which he was for one week, reportedly), a thoughtful, mother-hen teacher worried about his charges (his mother’s career, reportedly), a man who cares and delivers. He walks a little hunched over, heavy shouldered, locks falling over his forehead, he has intent eyes, a rather attractive guy in a mensch sort of way. And the fastest feet I have seen at Flushing Meadows. And many other places.
When you talk about feet in tennis, you talk about Roger Federer, the fastest man in tennis. Well, Ferrer is like that. He never sees a ball he cannot reach, and usually, he reaches it before it even bounces. That is a bit of an exaggeration, more applicable to the master, in truth — notwithstanding his collapse before the mighty Tomas Berdych the other day — but it is not inaccurate. Janko Tipsarevic is awfully fast, but David Ferrer is even faster. Fullbacks, these guys could be (I must make a point of asking Mr. Hillyer or Mr. Pleszczynski, sports authorities, why there is not more cross-over in sports, why, for example, Michael Jordan did not succeed in baseball), and the more they fly over the court, the harder they hit the ball, in the Sisyphean task of getting the ball to go faster than the other guy’s feet. It don’t happen. And it don’t happen more with David than it don’t happen with Janko.
The fourth set, Ferrer cannot afford to lose, so he does not lose it, 6-3. Now the decider, and both men play every point as if the match depends on it. They do this all the time, but they do it even more now. The games go to deuce. They call medical time-outs, Ferrer for his foot, Tipsarevic for his thigh, injured in a spill mid-set in the fifth, taped up, but continuing to bother him. They issue challenges to the line referees, win quite a few, argue with the chair ump. Absolutely everything is fair now, this is war — notwithstanding everything I have said and continue to say about the vapidity of war-metaphors in sports — everything except cheating, these guys are class acts and they play to win. They never quit. The fifth set is amazing. It takes us into evening. It goes to deuce on every game, practically. It ends in a tiebreak.
If Ferrer has a weak point, it is his backhand. Janko knows this, aims for it. But the man of Valencia has a backhand when he needs it. Especially on the return-of-serve, arguably the best in professional tennis, the Ferrer backhand must be seen to be believed, it comes back so fast and so hard. He is the most amazing clutch player in tennis. There is no such thing as a shot he does not run after. You can ace get sometimes get a ball where David Ferrer cannot reach it, and you can ace him — in tennis, eventually, you can get anything on anybody. But usually he will return. And the ball will be in play. And he will put it where you cannot reach it.
In the end, though, it was not the tiebreak that did it. By the tiebreak — I mean the fifth set tiebreak, at about four hours and a half of play, Janko Tipsarevic, who like many young men of Belgrade reads Dostoevsky and ponders the great questions, was more exhausted than David Ferrer. Until the very end, it was blow for blow. But on those last points he could no longer, made his own errors. What really did it was Ferrer’s breathtaking recovery from the two-to-one hole, his ability to regain the momentum by working as hard as the other fellow and then a little harder. He came back from 2-4 and by the time they reached 6-6 in that last set, Tipsarevic, who is no quitter, knew he was at a distinct disadvantage. Even a Ferrer’s inability to get his first serve in during that last segment was not enough to stop him. But he said it and he meant it: “Janko too deserved to win.” It was a match of champions.
When you think of Spanish tennis, Rafael Nadal comes to mind, one of the great players of all time and the all-time leader of victories on clay, culminating thus far (he is scarcely at the end of youth) in his record seventh championship this year at the pinnacle of clay-court tennis, the French Open. In fact, Ferrer lost to Nadal in that tournament. But Spain has a history in this sport, going back at least to the great Manuel Santana, a champion of the early 1960s (U.S. Open, 1965, among several others). There is Sergi Bruguera, more recently Albert Costa (French Open 2002) and Juan Carlos Ferrero (ditto ’03.) It is true today’s generation is especially strong, with Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco having made runs here and quite a few others, including girls, I mean women.
The Serbs are strong too, despite tennis having come to this backward and mountainous Balkan country only lately. Spain, a Mediterranean country, has a climate propitious to tennis education. Serbia, an Adriatic country, is only slightly less favored in this regard, but they have less money, which translates into fewer facilities. However, thanks to the European Union, many countries without tennis facilities now can develop them, using funds loaned — kissed goodbye is more like it — by German taxpayers.
But look at it this way: is it better to have a European credit crunch, or to have countries only recently freed from tyranny in the social-welfare oriented Europe of today? Would you rather have men like Janko Tipsarevic and David Ferrer on the tennis courts or in the secret police? Mind, they might be dissidents, freedom fighters — or emigrants to Western Europe and America. But energies and skills such as they have must be directed somewhere. Tennis may well be an answer. To what exactly, I shall have to check with Mr. Pleszczynski, who ponders these kinds of questions, but you know what I mean. It is an interesting fact that championship caliber tennis players these days are emerging in recently liberated oppressed nations. Whereas the countries where democracy is well established and which a few decades ago produced most of the high octane tennis talent, Britain, France, the United States, Australia, eh? I ask you.
At any rate, I am delighted Spain and Serbia have joined the ranks of free nations. And as the second men of Serb and Spanish tennis proved today, they are in the big leagues of sports, enriching an international culture, and for this we should thank them.
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