Southern Gentlemen
by

Nashville’s Brian Baker went down with class and honor yesterday at the Washington Open tournament, a clutch return of serve giving the match to Ivo Karlovic of Zagreb in a tie break and dashing the American’s hopes to take the match to a third set. Earlier on the same Grandstand 2 court at the Rock Creek Tennis Center, Shreveport’s own Ryan Harrison gallantly blocked repeated assaults from the man from Belgrade, Viktor Troicki, to prevail in two close sets.

Louisiana over Serbia, Croatia over Tennessee, but the battle continues on our home ground, as the federal Park Police insures security, aided by unarmed contract civilian labor, suffering in the heat. These are the legendary grounds of the H. G. FitzGerald Center on 16th Street, at the approaches of Silver Spring, far away from the gasbags a mile or two to the south, and yet too close. Those are the stakes, this year: how far, how close?

The genesis of this tournament takes us back to the 1950s, when a handful of tennis-playing local bankers and businessmen, who took time off their work in the private sector for discreet, unselfish service to their country when asked by quiet men in gray suits, organized a charity to benefit dead-end kids.

The Washington Tennis Foundation proved to be quite a hit, took on larger ambitions and, thanks to two champs of the time, Donald Dell and his friend and Davis Cup team partner Arthur Ashe, turned itself into the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation. For several years it was presided by another Washington banker, H. G. FitzGerald, who took the lead in getting the stadium built, and got it done despite the interference of federal regulators and neighborhood cranks.

Ashe’s role was to promote the combination of school work and sports, an extension of the original group’s slogan, “keep ’em on the court and out of juvenile court.” His friend and junior doubles partner Willis Thomas, Jr., serves as athletic director still, while Dell, who became a lawyer and one of the pioneers of sports marketing, still runs the tournament that he took from a neighborhood charity-and-fun day to an indispensable stop on the ATP and WTA circuits.

Which is why the likes of Brian Baker and Ryan Harrison are out there in the kind of weather they grew up with and still inhabit. The great days when Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe played and won here are memories, living memories I should say since the WTEF, which gets the lion’s share of the tournament’s receipts for its programs, does not entirely neglect history from its curriculum. Americans have not been winning much in recent years, but John Isner, currently the top ranked American and No. 1 seed here this year, has been a finalist several times and yesterday stopped a vigorous and spirited Australian player, James Duckworth, on the stadium court, while Harrison and Baker played nearby.

Down 0-3 in the first set’s tie-break, Ryan Harrison stayed calm and stuck to the plan: keep Viktor Troicki moving from one side line to the other to open a chance to hit to his feet and as close to the baseline as possible. Troicki tends to let the shot come too close, scooping it up instead of moving sideways and hitting it clean, and it sails long. This is kind of odd, actually, because Viktor Troicki hits hard deep groundstrokes whenever possible. Seeded tenth, he got a bye into the second round while Ryan Harrison had to battle his way through the qualifying tournament and beat French veteran Stephane Robert in the first round on Monday.

Troicki has good feet, but yesterday Harrison’s were steadier, and the Serb repeatedly found himself cramped and swanking his shots. When they both stayed steady, the baseline duels were elegant, choreographic, the backhand slices changing the pace, the sudden forehand cannonballs, the graceful movement toward the net, the search for angles.

Troicki was broken at 4-4 in the second set, giving Harrison the opportunity to avoid the drama of the tie-break in the first, which he had to come from behind to take. Harrison won the ninth game with a perfect drop shot at the net, a revenge for the same play by Troicki on the game’s first point. The Serb then made a brilliant move against what looked like a sure passing shot, but he then gave the Louisianan a match point when he netted an attacking volley. A short rally followed on the next point and Troicki netted a routine baseline forehand.

Ryan Harrison is having a good tournament, which is encouraging in a year of recoveries from injuries. In the realm of comebacks, there is probably no story quite like Brian Baker’s, whose match against the big-serving Ivo Karlovic followed the one between Harrison and Troicki. Some years back, it was widely assumed Baker would take up where Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were leaving off and join Andy Roddick in the leadership of American tennis.

No comparison really works in this sport of loners and mental cases (this is not said pejoratively), but it might have been Roddick playing Sampras to Baker’s Agassi. In fact, Baker has a beautifully tactical game, marked by what tennismen call “soft hands” at the net, the perfect touch, and a look-back at John McEnroe might be more apt. However, Baker suffered an endless series of injuries requiring more surgeries than anyone should have to bear, and he had to drop out of the Tour for most of the decade. He came back in 2011, was injured again, and still refused to quit. Now 31, lean and lanky at six-three, one-seventy, Baker regularly demonstrates why never-quit is no cliché: it got him through the ordeals of his 20s.

Among many other things, Baker’s courage is a cautionary tale for the young. Success takes time; reversal is not final. In this regard, one can expect — or at least hope — the alleged “next-generation” youth of tennis will do as well as their baseball contemporaries, several of whom are in Washington this week for the Nationals-Dodgers series.

Taylor Fritz, the tall Californian with the big serve and powerful forehand, met his match yesterday in the form of Alexander Zverev on the same center court where he had outplayed Israel’s Dudi Sela on Monday. This time it was the 18-year old who got outplayed, by a 19-year old who, after prevailing in a tight first set baseline contest, dominated the second.

Visibly exhausted by the big blond German with the relentless forehand, Fritz shook his head, shrugged, dropped his arms, hit careless returns, stopped running. His talents are unquestionable: a huge serve to rival Zverev’s, a power forehand when he lets his feet get him to the ball on time. He will grow, of course. In the meantime, one cannot fail to be impressed how once again the Washington Post, through the agency of a reporter who should be writing for People magazine not the sports pages, produces moronic tripe that is the very opposite of what the subject requires.

They do it every time. Does it jinx the young players? You would have to ask them; but being hyped up — the Post did this, to take another example, to Frances Tiafoe, a contemporary of Fritz’s with no less promise and at least as much work to do — can only distract from practice and the diligent study of the sport’s history.

This means reading, viewing archival films, and watching young-old pros like Ryan Harrison and Brian Baker, observing their class and steel.

Their opponents’ too — there was something about the officiating on Grandstand 2 that was more than a little off from time to time, but at least it appeared to be spread evenly. There were only muted complaints, and Troicki in defeat and Karlovic in victory showed respect and generosity.

The latter finally wore Baker down with his service — even his second one rarely sails below 120 mph. Karlovic, who is six-eleven, relies on power. Rather than chess, he plays a simple game of serve and volley. The truth is, he cannot stand long at the baseline: like the big genial Australian Sam Groth, whom Baker beat on Monday, he can get one or two good groundstrokes down the line from the back of the court, but then his timing will fail him or the more adroit Baker will aim for the feet or hit to the corners and throw him off.

What worked against Groth, however, failed against Karlovic, who refused to be un-nerved and surprised everyone by closing out the second set tie-break with a perfect down-the-line forehand to return Baker’s last serve and take the match. It was the first time he tried that shot.

The show goes on, with Harrison meeting his compatriot Steve Johnson later today and Jack Sock, the popular Nebraskan with the whiplash forehand, up against Britain’s Daniel Evans, surprise winner over Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov yesterday. There is more — including a smaller women’s draw — and it is far away despite being so near.

 

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