PARIS — From Court Six, you can see the sun beginning to set behind the Suzanne Lenglen stadium, and you may take note of the changing light and the coolness in the air as the warm afternoon turns to cool evening. It is the second day of the Internationaux de Roland Garros, also known as the French Open, and the match taking place here is the last of the day, in this small place snuggled between the legendary Chartrier and Lenglen stadia. Its dramatic intensity is appropriate for this year’s edition of this famous tournament, the most important of the clay season, one of the four annual “grand slam” events in the sport, and a major event in the social and cultural calendar of Paris.
It is 8:30 PM, the match has been going on for just over two hours, and the third set is about be decided by a tiebreak. It has come to this because the tall and lean Tennessean held his serve in the 11th game, staying icily calm despite briefly falling behind, won with a tape-nicking shot that infuriated his Belgian opponent. But the latter regained his composure and fired powerful service aces to even the score.
The American, Brian Baker, and the Belgian, Xavier Malisse, are old court acquaintances, but they have not seen each other on a court since 2005, when Malisse won their second-round match at the U.S. Open. Malisse, born in 1980, is a big fellow at six-one and a hundred and eighty, and he hits very hard. His first serve is a steamroller, as he showed in that 12th game of the third set, and he moves well, running down many of Baker’s slices and drop shots, which is probably why he was angry to have been caught flat-footed by that last one. Malisse is an awfully good player, but he has not made it to the top, and he is No. 80 in the ATP rankings (42 in doubles). Since that last meeting with Baker, he has made consistent runs into the second and third rounds of many tournaments, served the sport well, and, going on 32, he keeps going.
Baker gets to serve first in the tiebreak and hits a hard deep shot that Malisse returns with the power backhand that has been working well all evening. Baker attacks the net after an exchange of strokes and smashes back an attempt to pass over his shoulder, 1-0. What is important about this play is the tone of control and confident offense that it establishes. The second set too ended in a tiebreak, and Baker did the same thing, upped the tempo of what all along has been a game of deep rallies with advantages gained when the opportunity for a slice of a drop comes up. Baker has shown a deftness here that verges on artistry, but Malisse has been stubborn and resourceful in countering these tactical moves with attacking strokes down the lines. On the first tiebreak, Baker’s change-up surprised Malisse, and he raced to 7-1. Having won the first set, he is now up 2-0 and has a huge psychological advantage.
Brian Baker’s mental steel is what has made this match so gripping. It now looks like it may well end with this third set, as Malisse whacks a backhand way out of bounds in response to Baker’s return of serve, 2-0. But the straight-sets score is deceptive. The rare breaks have been broken right back. Despite a few games late in each set when Malisse got his big serve going and he won quickly, at love or game-15, the match has been a battle of both wits and brawn, as games go to deuce and back and forth to ad and back again for several points until one or the other finds the winning combination of slice, drop, or winner. But what has been most remarkable is Baker’s absolute refusal to flinch. Each time he gives away a point with a free shot into the net or a wild one out of bounds and you think, he’s got to be losing it, he gets it right back and dictates the next point like an old pro.
In a sense, Brian Baker should be an old pro, but he has the tennis resume of a young man just entering the Tour. At 28 he is a little younger than Malisse, but he has not played since 2005, when injuries overwhelmed him. He has had operations on both hips and ulnar collateral ligament restoration known as Tommy John surgery after the baseball pitcher. And these are only his major physical ailments. Brian Baker by rights should be a doctor (like his brother, uncles, cousins) or a lawyer (father), or a teacher (mother), a college or high school coach, anything but a contender for a tennis grand slam.
Anyone who enters a tournament automatically becomes a contender to win the final and remains that until his (or her) first loss, the only one allowed. In one of the run-up tournaments for Roland-Garros, the Open de Nice, Baker beat everybody except the defending champion, Nicolas Almagro, including Gael Monfils and Nikolai Davydenko.
As the visibility noticeably changes over Court Six, Brian sends a routine backhand return into the net, 2-1. But like everything else in this match and in this second-chance season, it does not faze him. He shows frustration immediately after a lousy play and immediately gets over it. A long rally follows, deep hard shots into the backcourt. Brian’s shots are surer and Xavier is the first to crack, it is now 3-1; but the roles are almost exactly reversed on the next point, and it is 3-2.
In the matter of returning, it is not comparable of course, because she never left the Tour and did not suffer medical disasters, but Melanie Oudin, who made an impressive run at the U.S. Open and won a lot of hearts in the process, came through with her first win on Sunday, overcoming a wobbly start to beat Sweden’s Johanna Larsson. Melanie’s slogan is “believe,” an oft-used sports trope but it has kept her going and, perhaps, getting back toward the top. Her mixed doubles win at the 2011 U.S. Open, with Jack Stock (who unfortunately for U.S. tennis is not at Roland Garros this year), showed the determination is there.
There is determination in Xavier Malisse, too, but it is fitful. Baker gets ahead 4-2 on a powerful return of serve down the line, but an inside-out by Malisse on the next point and an overhead smash after that evens the score. They seem to be so wired together in this match that they cannot help by play a winner and follow it with an error, each in turn. But at 5-5, Xavier puts an easy (for him, not the overwhelming vast majority of us) one into the net and Brian is serving at 6-5.
No one watching the tense drama on Court Six paid attention, but while this was going on Ryan Harrison, a promising American player, was losing a long match to one of France’s hopes this year, Gilles Simon. John Isner won earlier, and Andy Roddick lost his first round match on Sunday, so on the sports-patriotism side we are not doing too badly, especially if Brian gets that serve in.
As a matter of fact, Andy Roddick lost to Nicolas Mahut, a well-liked French player best known to American fans for his marathon against John Isner (which he lost) at the 2010 Wimbledon. (Somewhat improbably, they met at Wimbledon again the following year, and Isner won again, in a much shorter match.) This is disappointing for Roddick, but he has a poor record here, and has lost in the first round as often as not, if memory serves. What the Roddick-Mahut-Isner reference teaches, however, is that big serves ain’t enough. Roddick a good natured if sometimes mercurial Texan, started out ten years ago with a blazing service that seemed to be tennis equivalent of the home run for Babe Ruth.
Observe that Babe Ruth, than whom no one ever hit more home runs in a normal season — depends how you define normal, of course — also could do a lot of other things, including build Yankee Stadium on Jerome Ave. in the Bronx. But at some point, no matter what your degree of talent, you have to adapt, innovate, add to your repertory. Indeed, hitting home runs came after Ruth had earned fame as one of the great hurlers of his generation.
Even in the domain of the arts, you have to adapt. Consider Henry James — for many years he wanted to be a great playwright, and suffered bombs at the box office. Finally he began writing novels. It is a pity this innovation did not occur to J. Stalin, who could have used his experience as a police informer to write great nail-biting existential crime novels, for which there was at least one outstanding precedent in Russian literature that he must have been aware of, despite his seminary education. Instead, he opted for a career change that contributed directly to bringing hell to earth.
John Isner, like Andy Roddick, relies too much on his powerful serve. It is a mighty instrument of domination, but it is not enough. Mr. Donald Rumsfeld thought “shock and awe” might be enough to subdue the Arabs of Mesopotamia. You have to ask who was feeding him intelligence on that part of the world, about which he by all evidence was in the dark. Criticism should be tempered by awareness that he prevented our enemies from advancing out of their home ground and taking the battle to us. But this is about tennis, not war, and is merely an illustration of the adage that adaptation is all. John Isner has, in fact, adapted, knowing that a big serve, like shock-and-awe, is of limited value in the long run. Your opponent adapts, finds effective counter-tactics. You have to adapt in turn.
In a way, this year’s edition of this most classic of tournaments is indeed about adapting. Isner must counter-adapt to the adaptations his opponents, who are beginning to know him, have learned to make to his service. Melanie Oudin must adapt to the pressure that comes from coming out of a period of drought, and maintain the momentum her first round win gave her. Rafa Nadal must maintain his momentum, which thus far has made him the top clay court champion this year, though it was his old rival Roger Federer who won at Madrid, which required no end of adaptation due to the appalling experimentation the tournament organizers insisted on with their ill-adapted blue clay.
Federer mentioned the other day that the tennis balls are a bit of a problem this year, due to manufacturers’ adaptations. At the highest level, even small variations in the ball’s weight and texture, which the rest of us would not even notice, are felt by the players, so they must… adapt.
Anyway, Paris is balmy and Roland-Garros is spick and span and if you want a heart warming adaptation story, here it comes, it is 6-5 for Brian Baker in the third set tiebreak and he is serving for the match against a big-serving opponent and he whips one to the far left corner of the service box and — we’ll see Brian in the next round, the man nothing could stop.