Tuesday, September 13, 2016

U.S. Open—Stan the Man...in Black Socks

Tennis is as much about personality as it is about performance. We like one player or another ... just because. Many fell in love with Roger Federer due to his suavity—not to mention his skills on the court. And many took to Nadal because of his boyish determination. Murray developed a small following due to his Scottish working-class grimacing and grit. And Djokovic ... I'm not sure the fans have ever really warmed to him much.

I had the pleasure of watching quite a few matches during the U.S. Open, due to the fact that I have some free time and the matches are broadcast for free online at www.ESPN3.com.  Even the top matches, normally reserved for paying subscribers to ESPN, could be viewed free if you were willing to hear the commentary in Spanish or turn off the sound.

Taking advantage of this avenue of ingress, I got to know an entirely new tier of athletes, including the Australian Kyrgios, whom I would call "the slouch." It's well-known that he doesn't really like to play tennis and would quit if he happened to win a three-million-dollar jackpot. 

The Canadian Roanic was forced to retire early in the tournament due to illness, but I had already pegged him as a rising force—a clean-cut, good-natured player with an odd, wavy head of thick black hair and a strangely robotic serve who was dedicated to improving from match to match. (He's currently ranked 6th or 7th in the world, so there is nothing astonishingly astute in my assessment.)

The match between Nadal and the unheralded Frenchman Pouille was a masterpiece, or an agonizing slog. Most of the crowd expected that the ever-tenacious but aging Nadal would somehow pull it out, and he was ahead 4-2 in the fifth set, but Pouille hung in there and won the final tie-breaker 7-5. He never faltered, never lost his nerve, and in the end, he played the better match.

Pouille lost in the next round to fellow-Frenchman Monfils, a goofball if ever there was one. I didn't see that match. But I did watch Monfils lose to Djokovic. Hot and humid, both players were exhausted by the third set. Monfils had decided to counter Djokovic's all-embracing skill-set with slice backhands and other disconcertingly tame responses, and he actually won a set by such means. 
But Djokovic adjusted his game and cleared the table in four.

Coming into the final, Stan Wawrinka had played roughly twice as much tennis as Novak Djokovic. Was that good or bad? Djokovic was the obvious favorite, but Warinka had one remarkable statistic in his favor: he rarely reached a final, but once he had done so, his record was 10-0.

Wawrinka is a sort of bizarro counterpart to his countryman Federer. He isn't suave—though both players use a one-handed backhand (like me). He sports a three-day beard. His nose is red, his shirt is a garish purple, and his shoes and his socks are black. Ugg! In short, he looks sort of like a flat-footed clod. But by all accounts, he's very modest—a true gentleman—and he displayed that noble character in his acceptance speech after winning the match.

So, Wawrinka ought to be the Everyman tennis hero. He's won three slams, the same as Murray—though also the same as Adrian Quist, James Anderson, Gerald Patterson, Norman Brookes, Gustavo Kuerten, Jan Kodes, Jaroslav Drobny, Arthur Gore, Wilfred Baddeley, Ellsworth Vines, Jack Kramer, Neale Fraser, William Johnston, Malcolm Whitman, and Oliver Campbell. (My first "good" racket was a Wilson 'Jack Kramer.')

Wouldn't it be nice if even more journeyman players broke into the ranks of the Grand Slam elite?

But watching the matches more closely on ESPN3 reminds me that nothing is given, nothing is assured, and the numbers you read in the morning paper—6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2—are far less than a skeleton of the energy expended on EVERY SINGLE POINT. 

The players on the court know this.

In the U.S. Open final, Wrawrinka won by three sets to one. But in the aggregate,  he won only one more point than Djokovic, 144 to 143. The clincher lay in break points—where you have the opportunity to win a game when your opponent is serving. Wawrinka won 6 of 10 (amazing). Djokovic won only 3 of 17 (very poor indeed).

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