By Skip Schwarzman
Background: I am an ex-USPTA teaching pro, fortunate enough to have worked for and learned from Mr. Frank X. Brennan, Sr., coach of Billie Jean King. I have taught in Philadelphia, Switzerland, England, and the Jersey shore. I am right-handed, would rather hit a volley than a groundstroke, and am old enough to have kept my racquets in presses. As a professional stringer, my first string job was on a Chris Evert Wilson. It took me six hours.
It’s hot on Wednesday, 80º already as I pull out of Philly. Richard Thompson is playing on the stereo and I’m on my way, driving up to the Open. After a stop in Brooklyn to pick up friend Rolo Tomassi, I arrive at Flushing having made good time. Three hours.
We immediately walk by the new practice courts. Simply put: they’re great. Not only are they accessible, and using the bleachers above them gives a view of the practice courts and match courts immediately adjacent, but the practice courts’ schedule is also posted, so you can plan on when to see your favorite players.
I walk by the first court and see the back of a female pro. “Hmmmm, from the back that looks like Azarenka. And, yeah, that looks like Sam Sumyk talking to her. I wonder is that Vika?”
As I walk away I hear (sic) that it is, in fact, Azarenka. “Aiiieeeeeoooooooo……”
TV does the WTA players a disservice: similar to watching the NBA (stay with me here), the stature of the players is not conveyed on television. Generally speaking, the female pros are taller and more physically imposing than they appear on TV.
Feliciano Lopez vs. Ivan Dodig:
I am eager to see this match, not only because of the players (all-court style, lefty vs. righty), but also because the Grandstand, one of the great spectators’ courts in the pro tennis world, is due to be taken down in the next few years.
If you haven’t been to the Open, make an effort to go and see a match on the Grandstand before it’s gone. It’s a fabulous court; big enough to suggest grandeur, but still intimate.
Both Lopez and Dodig are quite comfortable coming to the net, Lopez especially. Prediction: we’ll see more lobs in the next few years, and more offensive lobbing, as the trend towards more net play means more players hang tight to the net. Dodig hits two gorgeous topspin backhand lobs, looking to push Lopez back.
Sadly, a fifth set retirement ends Dodig’s US Open chances. Lopez’s successful summer of 2014 continues. As someone who plays a lot like Lopez (and who only wishes they were left-handed), I’m happy to see him advance.
As much as I enjoy what I see of the Dodig/Lopez match, it makes me wonder what the components are of a compelling match. Star power isn’t enough, nor is lopsided shotmaking. I decide that competiveness is the key, along with reasonable consistency of shot production; No. 35 vs. No. 31 can be compelling without a celebrity quotient, as long as most points don’t end early due to poor shot selection and misses.
Leander Paes/Radek Stepanek vs. Simone Bolelli/Fabio Fognini:
Make no mistake about it: Paes and Stepanek can volley, in extremis. It is beautiful, and beautiful in its simplicity, a lesson in a completely different geometry of play than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing. They put on a clinic of how volleying can be something that you do with comfort, as a matter of course. They are nothing less than amazing.
Shades of playing styles past: Paes moves in and hits a forehand slice half-volley with extreme prejudice. It simply does not come up off the court more than four inches. Fognini needs a shovel to get it back over the net, whereupon it’s promptly knocked off for a winner by Paes/Stepanek.
What is it about Fognini’s walk that exudes attitude? I think it’s a combination of his last gen. huge shorts, not being particularly tall, and his toes being turned out slightly. Anyway, there’s always been an air of, “Yeah, it’s me …,” to his presence on the court. He and Bolelli aren’t winning, but they’re having a good time.
Paes and Stepanek reflex back three volleys in a row off rifle shots hit at them when all four players are at the net to win the point, and the Italians can only smile at each other. “Who are these guys?”
Paes hits a forehand pass down-the-line off Bolelli’s serve to the deuce box. Actually, redirects it is more accurate, as it has almost no pace and a pretty high trajectory. Nonetheless, it catches Bolelli by surprise and flies straight and true down the tramlines. But, does it land in, or juuuuusst long? The Italians show that club tennis machinations work everywhere: they completely force the call with great gestures of, “Yup, it was out. Hey, of course it was out! C’mon, not even close…..” It’s kind of fun to see, actually.
Jerzy Janowicz vs. Dusan Lajovic:
There’s a lot of encouragement being yelled to him from Janowicz’s team. The question of coaching comes to mind: for tennis to really know that it’s not happening, every umpire would have to be fluent in at least 37 languages. Who knows what they’re calling to him in Polish?
I was at the (in)famous US Open match between Gael Monfils and Novak Djokovic when they were both young, the match where Nole took multiple timeouts for his breathing. I speak French. Monfils’ coaches weren’t coaching, they were telling him what shots to hit, explicitly. I don’t believe we should make coaching legal, but some official recognition of what goes on wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
(And for the record, I’m not saying Janowicz was being coached. I do not speak or understand Polish.)
I am glad to have the chance to see Janowicz in person. It confirms my opinion of him from television: at 6’8”, he’s the first big man about whom you can say he moves well without putting a virtual asterisk by it by adding, “…for a big guy.” He moves great. It’s astounding, really. Mentally? Eh, he’s never met a ball he didn’t want to crush (drop shots notwithstanding), so his game has issues, but he can certainly be potent when he executes.
Of Lajovic, who I also wanted to see after his Davis Cup debut, I’d have to quote the French phrase I learned: he has trop de coupe droite (too much forehand). I leave it to you to understand his backhand from that analysis.
I’m typing notes to myself on my phone. Autocorrect fixes the spelling of Novak Djokovic’s last name. That has got to be a sign of having arrived, right?
Andrea Petkovic vs. Monica Puig:
As close to an upset as you can get, 7-5 in a third set breaker, with multiple mini service breaks in it.
For the entire match they hit laser beams at each other – the contrast between the heavily spun groundies of the men and the so-flat-you-can-read-Wilson-on-the-ball-as-it-goes-by strokes of most of the women is never so apparent as it is in this match – but late in the third set, Petkovic hits a lovely underspin backhand to Puig. It draws the error, all by itself. The common belief that today’s pros are doomsday stroking machines, who can tee off on anything that doesn’t rock them on their heels, just ain’t the case.
We leave without stretching the day to the very end of the session’s matches, covered in a fine US Open patina of suntan lotion, a bit of sweat, and New York air. All in all, a pretty fine day.