Taking It

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 /by

103900421 by Pete Bodo

Never send a man to do a job best left to a woman. In fact, if you're an American tennis official, don't send three men, just dial 1-800-Williams, and ask for Serena, or the lady dressed in the sparkly hot pink sausage casing. You know, Serena's older sister and rival in the WTA fashionista wars, Venus.

To think that just a few days ago, certain of my/our countrymen were doing backflips, what with Long John Isner, Sam "he's 6-6, but plays a lot smaller—in a good way!" Querrey, and Mardy Fish (have you heard, Fish lost 30 pounds recently. . .) looking like they might all earn a berth in the fourth-round, the buzz was as audible as the clattering of the cicadas in Flushing Meadow Park. It turns out that most everyone was talking about the wrong American.

It's been a rough few days for the red, white and blue. Isner, still nursing a tender ankle, was a portrait in reluctance, wandering around the baseline like a guy severly bummed out by the fact that you have to run in tennis, and return as well as deliver serves—the latter task being infinitely more to his liking. Fish discovered that doing something—like capering around the backcourt, daring your opponent to get the ball by you—just because you can is not always a wise choice. And Querrey, the loser of of a bitter battle with the wind as well as Stan Wawrinka today, demonstrated that if you don't stick your volleys and make the most use of your best weapons to make something happen, you can find yourself encouraging lunatic fantasies about an all-Swiss U.S. Open men's final of 2010.

All three American men—two of which are featured in American Express' Next Contenders campaign—were, to a greater or lesser extent, undone by what has to be called a strangely un-American passivity. I'm not engaging in facile pop sociology here, either. Can anyone deny that the signal characteristic of the American game, going back forever, has been a generally profitable embrace of aggression? That mentality has been demonstrated most obviously and convincingly by the historical emphasis placed on service power and proficiency, as well as a willingness to play serve-and-volley tennis. Even our baseliners, with the exception of Michael Chang, usually looked to take the game to their opponents. Wasn't it Jim Courier who showed that you can cut a tiring and sometimes risky step out of the serve-approach shot-killing volley combination by simply smoking a winner from a few feet inside the baseline off the return?

It's ironic: the three American men who fell by the wayside are among the most dangerous servers on the tour. But this time around, none of them applied their big weapon to the larger cause of taking the game to their opponents. I hadn't even thought about it this way, being as susceptible to group-think as anyone, until Venus went out there tonight and went right at tricky Francesca Schiavone with the same mentality as a 275-pound fullback charging the hole on either side of a nose tackle on 3rd and goal from the two-yard line. Venus was nothing less than dominant and unrelentingly aggressive throughout the two-set match, and if I hadn't been busy eating hot buffalo chicken wings during her press conference I would have made a point to ask about that.

The only other player who so convincingly reads the riot act to opponents is Venus' sister, Serena. It appears to be a family trait, so their offspring will probably be in deep doo-doo from about toddler age onward. This stern, authoritative streak isn't about scores, either. Hail, you can slaughter a poor stiff in a clinical, friendly way, in the manner of Roger Federer, or in an almost apologetic way, like Rafa Nadal (Sorry I am so good, but also I am humble, no?). The Williams sisters prefer to be more to the point: I'm Venus Williams and you're not. Nobody ever said life is fair.

I confess that I made some miscalculations in my earlier thoughts on how this match might play out. I thought that Schiavone's diversity of shot, willingness to attack, and versatility would really trouble Venus, who's been error-prone in recent times. Today, though, Venus was paying attention. And while she suffered a lapse here and there (most notably when she hit two double faults and a ghastly backhand error in a game that enabled Schiavone to recover from a break to 4-4 in the first set), she recovered quickly enough each time.

The court speed helped Venus. It enabled her to dictate the pace and kept Schiavone from employing all her resources. When Schiavone was able to extend a point and change the pace of the rallies, Venus had trouble. It was especially evident when Schiavone used her slice to tease errors of over-exuberance out of Venus's forehand. But due to the relatively low bounce, Schiavone's topspin was not nearly as effective as it is on a slower, high-bounce surface. It's the same problem that makes Nadal's life difficult on this surface; neither player can make the ball leap quite high enough. Schiavone's problem was compounded by Venus' height; even a good topspin backhand usually ended up inside Venus's stike zone.

By contrast, the fast court made Venus' serve especially effective, and she wisely played a very long court—she hit with good depth and her fairly flat groundstrokes penetrated and went through the court, taking time away from Schiavone. Venus did a terrific job using the properties of the surface to her advantage. But most of all, she played purpose-driven tennis. She knew what she wanted to do, stuck to the simple blueprint, and paid no never mind to all this business about Schiavone mixing it up—mixing her up.

The two most important points of the match were the last two of the first-set tiebreaker, both errors by Schiavone, who had clawed her way back from a 0-4 deficit only to lose it, 7-5. The first of those was a backhand error off the first ball Venus hit following Schiavone's return of serve; the second was a more costly forehand error Schiavone committed off Venus' service return."She play a little better in that moment," Schiavone said of Venus's performance in the critical points of the tiebreaker. "I couldn't catch my opportunity. Then I played a very high level and I came back. When we were five-all, I missed two balls. She didn't win the point. I just missed two balls. That's tennis."

But delving too deeply into tactics, strategy, or even the key winners or errors in a match like this kind of misses the point. Venus' performance tonight was a triumph of attitude. There were times during the night when the only thing that that was missing, the only thing that made it different from the days of yore, those early days of Williams dominion, were the rattling braids and the colorful beads dislodged from her hair, rolling on the court.

Venus is a wiser if not a better player these days, so she deferred when she was asked what it might mean for her to get back to a U.S. Open final for the first time since 2002. "Well, I want to be in the final," she said. "Because then obviously it's just one more step. But I'm focused on the semis and I don't get too excited unless the tournament is over."

Whatever happens from now on, she fired a shot tonight that ought to echo long after the the tournament is over. She reminded us that while you can no longer define anything like an American game, or style, there remains a vestige of the American attitude: A tennis match is there to be won; you can try to negotiate it way from an opponent, trick him out of it, steal, it or earn it out of sheer persistence. Or you can do it the Williams way, just reach out and take the danged thing.

My advice is to schedule a conference call; make sure Mardy, John and Sam are on it. Andy too, come to think of it. . .

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