Sunday, September 5, 2010

U.S. Open Thoughts, Part 1 of Something

Note: I'm writing several parts to this, so, uh, this is the first.


There is a sense in which hoping for an upset is asking for too much. You hope for an upset and think about how that might come to pass and then in envisioning the whole thing expect how it will come to pass and if you reach the point where you have expectations you will inevitably be disappointed when they are not fulfilled. So any upset that just misses—how do you feel? Somewhere between disappointed and appreciative, I suppose.

***

There was a pretty famous picture of a New York playground—I think it was Rucker Park—when Dr. J (or was it Earl Monroe?) showed up to play: there were people in trees, hanging on fences, packing themselves into every vaguely human-shaped space that was available. And while this wasn’t quite the extent of people’s reaction on the grounds of the U.S. Open, it was fairly close, and that’s how I found myself balancing precariously on the small iron fence that separates the walkway from the flowers and trees that decorate its center, during the matchup of Ryan Harrison versus Ivan Ljubicic this past Wednesday. This was a pretty common tactic: you boost yourself up, hang on to a branch—and have a better view than the rest of the people below, who have been assimilated into the blob.

This idea, however, as you may have guessed, was poor from the comfort perspective. For one, balancing on an iron fence is unexpectedly taxing on the legs—it feels, by the end, as if you’ve taken about two hundred jump shots or so and by the end the existence of your calves seems strictly theoretical. The other fatiguing part of the day was the heat, which was hot. There was not a lot of subtlety about the heat: it wasn’t muggy, it wasn’t dry heat, it was simply ubiquitously and penetratingly hot. It was the kind of heat that it was a good idea to move around a lot, but I was there for tennis and you can’t exactly move around a lot for watching tennis, and it’s rarely a good idea to stop watching an interesting match—not only is there the obvious problem of not watching something good, but there’s the problem of losing your spot, which inevitably happens in these situations.

And the match—at least the point I got to it, in the fourth set—was very interesting. Harrison is an 18 year old American and was up two sets to one at that point; Ljubicic is a Croat and fairly highly ranked. (You could tell the former point: there were a number of Croat fans rooting for Ljubicic, shouting about this and that and wearing various clothing with the red-and-white checkerboard of the country. At the time I thought this was a particularly nationalist fanbase, only to discover later that the Brazilians were more numerous and much louder.) It was in some ways an ideal matchup to hope for an upset: Ljubicic’s game is fairly bland and his appearance—well, with his shaved head he looks like an actor who never got his callback for the latest James Bond villain; he was constantly worried and tight-faced. (BOND: Do you expect me to talk?!? LJUBICIC: No, Mr. Bond. I expect you not to foil my plans. Please?!?) Harrison, throughout most of his U.S. Open experience, rotated through three basic emotional reactions to events: squinting, a little bunny hop after won points, and a modest fist pump at important points.

So it was 2-2 in the fourth set and Harrison was given an opportunity to break after Ljubicic was sucked into net and gave a short, weak reply that sat up. Harrison approached quickly, and while the crowd murmured in anticipation, finished professionally, giving him the break and the momentum. (The crowd, as you’d expectd, saluted him.) After a hold, Harrison found himself with three break points (nonconsecutive) of which he missed them all. And the disappointment from the crowd is the unfairness of upsets: had, say, Rafael Nadal missed the same opportunities you’d simply say fine—just hold your serve and things will work out. But upsets are simply the unexpected seizing of unexpected opportunities and an opportunity to go up two breaks in a potentially decisive set against a top-fifteen opponent in your first U.S. Open singles match is the quintessence of unexpected—so you could almost predict that Harrison would drop his serve in the next game, with nerves getting the best of Harrison.

These things happen in potential upsets, and you get disappointed even while knowing it’s a respectable effort. What wasn’t expected—again—was Harrison coming back and breaking Ljubicic on the strength of a well-rounded, well-worked game and then holding himself. The post-match denouement was done, from the spectator’s perspective, in pantomime: we saw everything that you don’t see on TV, while hearing nothing you hear on TV. So the ESPN sideline interview was an exercise in create-a-caption, with Harrison beaming, hands on hips, and you could almost supply the happy clich├ęs for him. They never show the loser, do they? Ljubicic walked off the court, pinched face and all and I wondered, briefly, whether he was crying. As he left, fans asked for his attention and his signature. He denied the autograph seekers.

****

Harrison has an interesting game, as we learned in his second-round confrontation with Sergiy Stahkovsky. If Ljubicic seemed to conform to the visual stereotype of a James Bond Eastern European villain, Stahkovsky played to the type of rascally Cold War Russian athlete: whiny and full of gamesmanship. Stahkovsky also contributed his fair share of inexplicable unforced errors and poor decision-making, and these things did not endear him to the Grandstand crowd, who were predisposed to root for the American anyway.

For my money, the Grandstand is the best of the courts at the U.S. Open. For one, it’s an actual stadium as opposed to the bleachers of the outer courts—it’s therefore better by default. Unlike Louis Armstrong, the Grandstand has character (amusingly, it takes its character from Armstrong literally overlapping it). Unlike Arthur Ashe, the Grandstand has an interesting character: the edge of Louis Armstrong overlaps the Grandstand and shelters half of the court in shadow. This is interesting architecturally and makes the entire stadium intimate: there are people watching from the railing at the top of Armstrong and people packed close and tight to the court. So it was the best place to watch the Harrison-Stahkovsky match.

Like his first round match, Harrison was presented with unexpected opportunities—he battled back from a fifth-set deficit (down a break and acting tempestuous—he threw his racket three times and generally entered the pissed-off tennis player temper tantrum cycle; odd that this match would distress him so much more than the Ljubicic match, which presented similarly daunting obstacles.). Unlike the first-round match, Harrison did not ultimately seize them: given triple match point in the fifth-set tiebreaker, he was unable to close out the match. (Disappointingly?)

Losses tend to magnify faults more than victories do, and accordingly this loss magnified some faults: decision-making, for one. Harrison was wasteful at net, squandering several good opportunities (to be fair: Harrison won the majority of his points when he approached net, as compared to a minority of points overall); Harrison also made several bad unforced errors. Harrison has an aggressive mentality, but such a mentality in sports often outraces judiciousness in young players. And the oddest flaw: there was some disagreement, in the people I talked to, whether or not this was true—but I noticed it and believe in it so I’ll just say it’s true. Harrison was very good covering the court side to side but looked slow moving up and down. That’s not a flaw, you’d think, that would get corrected by experience.

At any rate, the hype has already begun for Ryan Harrison, as American tennis seems to have hit a dry spell. Some have argued that the paucity of major-contending American players (as compared to the past) has to do with globalization, which surely has something to do with it, and some have argued that it’s simply cyclical, which surely also has something to do with it. But something must be said also that Americans aren’t very good at developing athletes—at every sport in which Americans compete with the rest of the world, Americans aren’t as efficient at turning young athletes into skilled ones. America still produces the best basketball players, but it has the advantage of millions of passionate, skilled basketball players who overcome the disadvantages imposed by the screwiness of the AAU circuit. Relative to their size, you’d have to say a country like Spain does a better job of producing basketball players. Soccer, of course, is similar to basketball in the sheer number of kids playing the game, but lacks the same cultural knowledge as basketball, which results in only a decent number of players (put it this way: the U.S. hasn’t produced an elite player—even by accident! Millions of kids play ever year and not even one, by accident, has gone on to play in a non-goalie position for an elite club.) And tennis—well, it’s an expensive sport to play at the elite youth level. Much of the population is therefore excluded by default, which is the unfortunate epitaph of so many dreams in this economy.

So while Harrison may or may not be a success—the hype is surely premature (after a particularly odd decision, one guy I was watching the fifth set with said, “This kid ain’t no prodigy)—it’s not hard to avoid the conclusion that there are many more people like him that should have been just as good, just as the same conclusion is hard to avoid in so many parts of our country. At the end of the Ljubicic match, I saw the pantomime and found I could write so many possibilities in and thought of so many possibilities of the future—of all the ways things could turn out: would Ljubicic never remember this match and Harrison only remember this match when they looked back? Who is to know? It is too early yet.

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