A Few Strokes of Genius

Tuesday, August 10, 2010 /by

Tb There’s one thing that’s conspicuously missing from a men’s Masters event. That would be women. For someone who’s used to watching and working dual-gender tournaments, the order of play in Toronto each morning can look a little thin at first glance. Not on talent, or match-ups, or hair product, of course, but on bold-faced names. I like a good Nalbandian-Ferrer throwdown, or a backhand-to-backhand battle between Simon and Youzhny, or even a deep-Euro tussle between Kohlschreiber and Tipsarevic as much as the next less-than-overly-red-blooded American man. But I like Serena and Maria and Ana and Justine and sometimes Jelena, too. Besides their forehands and backhands, they bring a stage presence to the sport that the men largely don’t.

These days the boys stay humble and sing each other’s praises. They team up in doubles for the good of the game. I approve, but it does leave a bit of a hole in the tour, theater-wise. To get the most out of a men’s event like this, you have to find your drama on the court, in the matches, in the ways the guys swing the racquet. If neither of the players you’re watching are stars, if you don’t have any connection to them as personalities or even as humans, if they aren’t on your private hot list, what makes them worth paying money to see?

It’s hard to describe. I’ll call it the Gift, and maybe only a tennis player who doesn’t have it can recognize it. These guys still make plenty of errors—physical, tactical, mental. They get out of position, they get tired, they get lazy and down on themselves. They cave like the rest of us, and they can play cloddish tennis like the rest of us. The men have even gotten a reputation over the last two decades for playing a soulless and ugly game. And sometimes when I see a 6-foot-4 hammer-thrower thump down on a 130-m.p.h. serve and put it precisely on the T, I begin to agree. But I don't agree for long. To the close observer, though, the modern game offers all the subtle and incidental pleasures of the old.

You know the feeling. You’ll be sitting back in your seat or walking past a random side court, and you’ll see a shot that makes you purse your lips and give out a short low whistle. Or maybe you'll shift your neck back and open your eyes a little wider—that's as demonstrative as you can expect a tennis fan to get. It’s not just the power of a shot that inspires this, though that’s usually part of it. There’s also a dash of genius, of unlearned perfection, mixed in. What can I say, you know it when you see it. I can’t think of many places in any sport where you can get as many tiny glimpses of nonchalant perfection as you do at a men’s tennis tournament.

We know about Nadal’s and Federer’s versions of this tennis genius. They put it to better use than anyone else. But over the course of a day, it can be found in every corner of the grounds.

***

Tomas Berdych is playing Sergiy Stakhovsky on a sticky afternoon on Center Court. Berdych is too tall for tennis. You can see it in how hard he works to get down for the ball, how unnaturally wide he has to keep his stance on his forehand and backhand, and how much work is in his footwork—it sounds much louder and looks much more obvious and thought out than, say, Roger Federer’s. But if he seems a little mechanical getting in position for the ball, Berdych smoothes everything out when he swings. On his forehand, he keeps his back straight, takes his stance early, and leans into the ball. He doesn’t swing with any visible effort; he almost seems to caress the shot a little at contact. But while the ball doesn’t appear to explode off his racquet, it’s by Stakhovsky in a hurry. If there ever comes to be a race of men 6-foot-5 and over who can play like Roger Federer, we’ll trace their origins to this shot.

Next inside the big stadium are David Nalbandian and David Ferrer. For many fans, myself included, Nalbandian remains, after 10 years, a frustrating but appealing mystery. His talent is obvious, but so is his underachieving record and general truculence. Nevertheless, hope has sprung eternal once again after his win in D.C. this weekend.

So why shouldn't we get our hopes up, exactly? Nails has a small comfort zone, for one. Basically, if you push him backward or get him off balance, he’s going to miss. Give him time to set up and he’s deadly. Even Nalbandian’s backhand, a classic that rivals even the most beautiful one-handers, is prone to sloppy misses. If there’s something soft about Nalby’s fitness regimen, there’s something equally soft about his stroke production. He relies on timing rather than hustle, and it gets him in trouble. Still, across from the grunting Ferrer, who arms his shots and avoids all flair, Nalbandian is a model of quiet efficiency.

The ball comes to Nalbandian’s forehand side, a few feet to his right. He does a little hop step over to it. With a short scrape of the surface, he’s at the ball, his body balanced, his racquet poised. With little obvious effort, the ball has been rifled down the line for an easy winner. The two-step beforehand makes it the unique shot that it is. 

I head out to the Grandstand in hopes of seeing another favorite underachieving shot-maker, Marcos Baghdatis. But by the time I get there, late in the third set, the normally good-natured Bag man has lost his mind. The chair umpire overrules an out call in favor of his opponent. Baghdatis fumes, then seethes, then looks at his coach. Unfortunately, his coach is up in arms—literally, his arms are in the air. This gives Baghdatis license to explode. He goes on a long, foreign-tongued tirade, hits two balls out of the stadium, then yells across the net, “Can I have a ball, please?”

I figure I won’t see anything uncanny here, but Baghdatis manages to come through, even in his agitated state. At 2-5 in the third set tiebreaker, he takes a short backhand and with virtually no backswing sweeps through it for a winner up the line. It’s a staple of his game, and I’ve never understood how he gets so much pace with such a compact, almost nonexistent stroke. Like Nalbandian, Baghdatis has such good timing that he ends up relying on it too much. He loses the match two points later and crosses himself, as he always does, as he walks to the net. This time, it looks like he’s praying that he doesn’t kill somebody.

Back on the Grandstand a couple hours later, the sun is going down and Fernando Verdasco is taking Eduardo Schwank to the woodshed, 6-0 in the first set. Schwank sends tepid shot after tepid shot right into the teeth of Verdasco’s forehand. Verdasco sends them back effortlessly to the corners. What’s interesting about his forehand is that he takes a high loop swing, but he still has the arm speed to make it look totally compact. It used to be that if you wanted a short, quick swing, you took the frame straight back; if you wanted topspin, you used a loop and stood farther back in the court. Verdasco doesn't have to make that choice. That may not be genius—it’s not a word often associated with Mr. Sauce—but it opened my eyes a little wider late this afternoon. That’s as much as you can expect from a tennis fan, and from a tennis tournament, right?

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