Half-Volleys: Stories from the US Open qualifications (Part 1)
Reprinted with permission by Jack Han
About the Author:
Jack Han is a business lecturer, entrepreneur, 4.5 level player and occasional tennis writer living in Montreal, Canada.
I met Jack Han (aka Samurai Jack) at the US Open and he shared some really great stories with me about Roger's Cup and his travels in the tour too. We were at Bolletteri's Hall of Fame induction night in NYC and enjoyed a few laughs as he belted out "Eye of the Tiger" like a champ at a Karaoke Bar in some Irish Pub in Manhattan. Good times =)
THE GATEKEEPERS: DENISE, MATTHEW AND GALE
I arrived at Flushing Meadows an hour and a half before the site opened. Players don’t usually like to practice at 8:30AM, so I wandered around the site until I came across the transport drop-off site a short walk away from the South Entrance. There, I met Denise, Matthew and Gale. All three of them are hardened veterans of the US Open scene. Denise has been working every Open for the last 6 years, and Gale, Matthew’s mother, is on her 14th year on the job.
Gale told me that most of the top-ranked players don’t stop by here and go straight into the site in reserved Mercedes sedans. There are rare exceptions, however. Hingis once ran into the back of a player’s shuttle to evade an obnoxious autograph seeker. Graf and Murray each took the bus to the tournament exactly once.
When I asked Gale what her day job is, she told me about being laid off of the Teacher’s College ten years ago, and then starting her own home cleaning business. She talked about the freedom and challenge of working for herself, and wished that schools put more emphasis on teaching entrepreneurial skills to young adults.
“No other job is going to let me do this 3 weeks every year. That’s why I’d rather be my own boss.”
The practice courts at Flushing Meadows are pretty good places to talk tennis with complete strangers who may or may not know what they are talking about regarding technique, tactics and other intricacies of hitting the fuzzy yellow ball back and forth over the net. Having written about the game for a few years, as well as having paid my dues on the court (with the broken frames stacked in my attic as proof), I’d like to think that I know a few things about tennis. Once in a while, however, I get a sobering wake-up call.
At around 11AM, I was watching a few pros hit on the practice courts adjacent to Arthur Ashe when I overheard a middle-aged man, dressed in matching black Underarmour gear, chatting with his buddy about not knowing any of the players practicing in front of them. The ‘smartass’ label had been a constant for me since elementary school, so naturally, I asked them who they were referring to, and if they needed any help telling who’s who.
“So what about this guy right here?” The hat-wearing man asked.
“Philipp Petszchner from Germany. Great forehand and serve. No backhand.”
“What about that guy?”
“That’s Dimitrov,” I replied.
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. If it looks like Federer, hits like Federer, but isn’t Federer, then it’s probably Dimitrov.”
“And his hitting partner?”
That went on for a few minutes until I finally screwed the pooch. A short and squat-looking player with a smooth one-handed backhand and a receding hairline was hitting with Petszchner. Must be Dudi Sela, I thought. I off-handedly remarked how Sela is hitting his forehand better than I remembered. Then came the dreaded answer from my new pal:
“That’s not Dudi Sela. I think that’s Rochus.”
I took another look. The guy was swinging a Prince Graphite Longbody racket. Sela uses a Head Prestige. He was right and I stand corrected. Crud…
IVAN’S FAVORITE SPORT
Most people know Ivan Lendl either as Andy Murray’s coach or as an 8-time Grand Slam winner in his playing days. What many people don’t know is that Ivan’s favorite sport is actually golf.
While his pupil Murray was warming up with Stan Wawrinka, Ivan had his back to the court and was talking about golf courses in the US with Neil Harman, a British tennis journalist. He didn’t mince words when talking about his favorite and least favorite courses on the Eastern seaboard. Given his considerable skills on the green (he plays at a semi-pro level and a couple of his daughters are excellent golfers as well), you’d assume he knew what he was talking about.
An old French coach (who has worked with Pierce, Henin, Gasquet and other pros) had this to say about Lendl and golf:
“Lendl always made a big deal about how hard he worked off the court, all the running and biking that he did. Some of the time of it was just hot air; he was actually out hitting golf balls.”
HOW MILOS RAONIC MADE ME FLINCH
Today was my first time seeing Milos Raonic in person. It’s safe to say that I have never seen a bigger serve.
Milos was practicing with Andreas Seppi. The first part of their hitting session looked normal enough. Seppi was hitting every ground stroke flat and clean, with great placement. Milos was just a bit wilder, though his shots kicked off the court more and had more sting.
Things changed dramatically when the players moved to the line to warm up their serves. With a lazy motion and without any knee-bend, Milos was snapping flat serves down the T at about 120MPH. The ball would hit the corner of the box and bounce up into the backboard seemingly without slowing down at all. Then he got warmed up. The results were pretty dramatic (look up “Could you return Raonic’s 140mph serve” on Youtube to see what I mean – I guess a better question is, “Did you see the ball the first time?”).
(Video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dsd-yL1Zx58)
HARD KNOCKS: FRANK DANCEVIC
On the other spectrum of Canadian male tennis, there’s Frank Dancevic. Life is hard when you don’t have a Milos-sized serve to fall back on. On top of that, Dancevic had been out most of the year with a back injury and was coming off a meek first-round loss at the Roger’s Cup. Not the best way to kick off the hard court season.
Still, Dancevic has a few reliable shots (a well-placed serve and a silky-smooth one-handed backhand) which he put to good use against Teymuraz Gabashvili. After winning the first set, Frank was serving for the match at 5-4 in the second when Gabashvili dug deep and fought his way to Ad-Out. Dancevic got it back to Deuce, then won an epic 30 shot rally by curling a reverse forehand down the line past an outstretched Gabashvili. Match Point. That was the closest he got to victory, however. He dropped serve twice in a row to lose 5-7, and then lost the final set 2-6. Life is hard.
THE WAITING: ZHANG ZE AND CHINESE MEN’S TENNIS
A male Chinese player is a rare sight at Grand Slam events, even in the qualifying draw. Ranked 171th in the world (his highest ranking ever), Zhang Ze is the best that the most populous country in the world currently has to offer, tennis-wise. Unfortunately, his opponent, Aljaz Bedene of Slovenia, made him look pretty bad today with a quick 6-2 6-4 takedown. There wasn’t much that Zhang could do to hurt Bedene out on Court 11 despite having the perfect size and height for tennis (at 6’2, around 170lb). His serve lacked purpose, his forehands landed consistently short and his backhand – his best shot – was streaky at best.
Why the disparity between the current crop and male and female players in China? Old French Coach (who is currently working as a consultant for the Chinese federation) believes it’s a question of work ethic.
“In the vast majority of the cases, as a coach you need to push the male players to do more (in terms of practice and fitness) and prevent the female players from doing too much. I think this is especially true in China right now. It’s just as bad in France – some of the coaches set bad examples for the players; smoking, drinking, partying. Naturally the players copy. It’s not a lack of talent, but a lack of discipline. Even guys like Federer and Sampras didn’t practice that much. They didn’t work a lot but they worked smart; they did just enough.”
SHOT OF THE DAY: NAOMI BROADY’S BACKHAND
Never have I seen such an unorthodox one-handed backhand. I’ll leave it at that.
FOUND: SARAH GRONERT
You may remember Sarah Gronert as a player who attracted much controversy (http://www.aolnews.com/2009/03/13/tennis-player-sarah-gronert-enveloped-by-gender-controversy/) due to a rare gender issue at birth. I haven’t heard any news on that front for a couple of years now, so naturally it was surprising to see her here in Flushing today.
Watching her play against a resurgent Tamarin Tanasugarn, nothing in Gronert’s game struck me as particularly masculine. She has the same bent-arm, semi-western forehand and two-handed backhand as 90% of other female pros. I doubt anyone who didn’t know about her story would’ve seen anything out of the ordinary.
As it turned out, Gronert pulled out with an injury after dropping the first set 1-6 to 35 year-old Tanasugarn, who was nursing a right elbow injury of her own.
WHY WATCHING WOMEN’S TENNIS WILL MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON
I’ll end today’s segment with my favorite story of the day – watching Michelle Larcher de Brito argue, cry and fight her way through her first-round qualifying match against Ekaterina Dzhehalevich.
De Brito was already down a break in the final set when I arrived on Court 11. What drew me in at first was the oddity of her grunt (or scream, to be more accurate). While players like Azarenka and Sharapova are known for their grunting, de Brito takes it to the next level. Her grunts are high-pitched squeals which often vary in volume and were rarely timed with the impact of the ball against her racquet. While Vika or Maria may exhale loudly upon contact, which in theory enhances the power of their strokes, Michelle instead holds her breath and waits until the ball is over the net to let our her shrieks. It seemed constricting and ineffective, as evidenced by her trailing in the deciding set. I thought back to when I first saw her name in a Tennis Magazine article. She was 15 then and was proclaimed to be the next best thing out of Bollettieri’s. Seeing her in person today, I wondered what all the hype was about.
Nothing comes easy for Michelle. At 5 foot 5 inches, she doesn’t have the effortless power or the long reach of other Bollettieri phenoms. She gets no free lunches. Every point needed to be earned with an aggressive string of shots hit near or inside the baseline. Her instinct is to retreat, but she wills herself to move in, time and time again. Her misses are punctuated by shrill screams, delivered while bent-over toward the court. Her winners are accompanied by an equally high-pitched “Come-On” she perfected in Bradenton along with her backhand and forehand. In the middle of the set, still a break down, Michelle grinds her way to a break point. She seemed to be back in the match as Dzhehalevich pulls a backhand wide, but a questionable overrule erases that ray of hope.
“Are you serious right now?” She barks at the chair umpire. “Tell me that the ball was on the line.” She dared the umpire.
“It was on the line,” he said.
“Shut up…” she muttered while walking back to the baseline. Then, she began to cry.
At that point, more and more people were gathering around the court to watch this train-wreck of a match unfold. Dzhehalevich, grunting louder than de Brito now, holds on and is a game away from the match at 5-3. Meanwhile, de Brito is borderline hysterical. Her world is collapsing around her, it seems. She cries, weeps and lets out sighs of despair – during points. Somehow she forces herself inside the court often enough to hold one more time, putting the pressure on her opponent to serve it out at 5-4.
While de Brito and Dzhehalevich were pulling up and holding back on their strokes, across the walkway on Court 10, ATP pros Bradley Klahn and Diego Junquiera were trading topspin missiles and serving lights-out. Their ball-striking and decision-maker had no traces of nerves. They were playing a cleaner and better version of tennis. Yet I stayed on Court 11, where serves were being hit at 110KPH rather than 100MPH, because I felt emotionally compelled to see this match through. Klahn and Junquiera may as well be flawless, emotionless robots designed specifically to trade ground strokes and volleys. On the other hand, with every swing and every grunt, I could see fear, resentment and inadequacy on the faces of Michelle Larcher de Brito. Four more points; if she’s crying now, then what is she going to do once she loses? At 30-all, the large crowd gathered around the court was 2 points away from finding out.
All of a sudden, though, it was Dzhehalevich who got tight. It started with an errand overhead which gave her opponent a break point, followed by a feeble double-fault which turned the 5-4 lead into a 5-5 stalemate. Just like that, the momentum of the match completely changed. De Brito began taking balls off the rise, grunting ever louder, and started to take initiative in the rallies. She won 3 straight games to take the final set 7-5.
Even though I had no part in the contest, I was emotionally drained and felt as if being a part of the audience gave me a deeper understanding of what it means to suffer and to be human. As she signed autographs for the horde of fans gathered around Court 11, Michelle’s tears were gone, replaced with a smile. After the match, I told her that watching her play gave me goose bumps. Her smile grew bigger still.
This particular episode makes me wonder whether we’re looking at women’s tennis from the wrong perspective. There is no question that the woman’s game is inherentlyweaker than the men’s game. Weaker serves, weaker athletes; weaker competition. Yet, what I saw today made me consider that, perhaps, overcoming weakness is a greater show of strength than having no weakness in the first place. ATP players are too good; too perfect. I cannot fathom Roger and Novak, and how they make tennis look so impossibly easy while I struggle to get 3 decent shots over the net in a row. What I can related to, however, is the day-in-day-out struggle of WTA players with their opponent, their environment and most importantly, themselves. That I can identify with.
Imagine a WTA commercial where Sharapova talks about serving 25 double-faults in a match; where Li Na talks about quitting tennis for 2 years at the peak of her youth due to burnout; where Lisicki talks about crying for hours after yet another tennis injury. It is something to be proud of? Not really. Yet once a nonbeliever realizes that these moments of intense weakness are followed by great exploits (Maria’s career Grand Slam, Li Na’s French Open triumph, Sabine’s many comebacks), he’ll be a fan for life. I believe we watch sports as much for the drama and the emotional roller-coaster, as we do for the quality of the spectacle. Maybe someone out there will agree with me.
THAT’S ALL FOR NOW. THANKS FOR READING!