Sunday, July 26, 2015

THANK YOU CITI OPEN - WINNING WITH (BEAUTIFUL) UGLINESS

The year was 1987, and it marked the rebirth of the Sovran Bank Tennis Classic as a special event on the ATP tour.  Gone were the temporary bleachers, the tents and stagnant water and the har-tru strewn throughout the facilities, to be replaced by one of the most beautiful stadium courts in the country, a world class player facility, paved walkways as pristine as they were efficacious, and deco-turf II - the exact same surface used at the US Open.  The american version of the classic European rustic surface had been a fixture since 1969, which convened nicely with the change of surface at the US Open to the the green dusty stuff in 1975.  But when the last major of the year converted to a surface more conducive to American players in 1978, the har-tru continued to attract a subset of European and South American professionals.  The pedigree of the game's luminaries like Guillermo Vilas, Jose Luis Clerc, Andres Gomez and Yannick Noah, was undeniable, but juxtaposed against the clay surface, seemed to give them an opportunity to artificially pad their ranking and seeding at Flushing Meadows.  Unfortunately, the prestige of the event suffered as a result.

But all that would change almost overnight in 1987, when everything about the tournament screamed alignment and preparation for the toughest test in tennis, and the commensurate improvement in the field of players who came to our beloved little event, was testament to its new place in the pantheon of great dates on the calendar.  This year, the best player in the world, by a long way, was Ivan Lendl, who hadn't returned to Washington DC since took the money and the title in 1982, not to return until the event, more befitting his stature and world famous preparation for the US Open, was worth the detour.  He had won Roland Garros for the third and last time (second year running), but then lost the Wimbledon final to Pat Cash, the irascible Australian who's joy at defeating Lendl was rivaled only by the one and only major of his career.  Undeterred, Lendl came to  DC as the top dog not only in the draw, but in the world rankings, and it would mark the middle of his best professional season, making three of 4 major finals, and winning two of them.

Following him to the nation's capital for the first and last time in his career, was none other than Das Wunderkind from Liemen, Boris "Boom Boom" Becker.  He had been scheduled to play in 1985, in all likelihood assuming he wouldn't have gone as far in the draw as he did at Wimbledon.  The tournament was still on clay at the time, part of an anachronistic US summer clay circuit that included Indianapolis and Forest Hills.  As such, requently Europeans and South Americans came to pad their results before seedings were calculated for the US Open, so the Sovran Bank Tennis Classic would have been an excellent opportunity for him to do just that.  Of course the need to do so disappeared when he shocked the world by winning Wimbledon.  After that, he won two singles victories over the United States in a Davis Cup World Group play-off in 1985, over Aaron Krickstein (that other teen sensation who had by then lost some of the luster on his marquee due already to some knee issues and the results of some very talented European contemporaries - i.e. Becker and Edberg) and Elliot Teltscher.  His return in 1987, as the penultimate seed, laid the groundwork for a hugely anticipated #1 vs #2 final.

Unfortunately for Becker, 1987 was an annus horribilus.  He had defeated Tim Mayotte and John McEnroe in a Davis Cup tie in St. Louis, coming back from 2 sets to 1 down in both matches to do so.  In his first match against McEnroe, a 5 hour 22 minute back breaker for players and spectators alike, he wore down his cantankerous opponent in a match that reminded us all why McEnroe was both a blessing and a curse to the Davis Cup.  Becker, had held his nerve, despite McEnroe telling Germany's captain, Niki Pilic, to "shut the hell up", telling a black linesman whom he felt wasn't patriotic enough that he "...didn't know there were any black germans" and the entire American crowd to stand up and repeatedly interrupt Becker's first and second serves.

In the end, this was largely the highlight of Becker's year - he lost in the 4th round of the Australian Open to a player that his former manager and mentor, Ion Tiriac, had (sort of) abandoned him to manage, one Slobodan Zivojinovic.  Zivojinovic was a rare contemporary of Becker's who's claim to fame was that he was probably the only player on tour that made Becker look like the 19 year old manchild that he, in fact, truly was.  At 6'4" and 220 pounds, he also had a serve that made perfect sense for a man of that stature - frequently hit above 130mph, which did him a world of good at Kooyong.  Becker then lost the semi-final at Roland Garros, a good result for most players, but not for a player who had grown up on clay, and actually enjoyed the opportunity to display the full breadth of his ground game.  There he lost tamely in 3 straight sets to true clay master (and fellow 17-year old grand slam champion - his a Roland Garros in 1982) Mats Wilander.

But it was a Wimbledon that Becker's star truly began to fall - losing in the 2nd round as the 2-time defending champion to a player, Peter Doohan, who'd enjoyed most of the success in his career at the NCAA level - where he won a national title in doubles (presaging his 5 professional doubles titles).  Becker scratched and clawed, and fought every minute of that match, but unlike previous years where his stature seemed to grow as the match got tight, in 1987, Becker waited for Doohan to come back down to his expected level...only Doohan never did, and after 2 and half hours of near perfect serve and volley tennis, dethroned the boy king from Bavaria for what remains one of the biggest upsets in the history of professional tennis.

So under that shadow of disappointment, Boom-Boom sonic-boomed his way to Washington DC with the full expectation that he could restore some measure of lost gravitas by bludgeoning his way to the title, scooping up the scalps of several Americans in his half of the draw, and the most valuable one of all, in Ivan Lendl's.  The problem was that nobody bothered to tell one Brad Gilbert of Oakland California. After defeating 3 Americans along the way (including current USTA coach Jay Berger), Becker ran into the Talkinator Gilbert on the 2-year upswing of the zenith of his career in 1989.  As if his year wasn't bad enough by his already lofty standards, Boris Becker would lose to Brad Gilbert for the first of 3 consecutive losses in 1987 in DC.  The match was a study in what Gilbert would later describe mercilessly as "winning ugly".

The first set had Becker forcing the play with his powerful serve, which Gilbert, almost by rote, initially tried to return with depth and pace, to which Becker responded with easy 1-2 combinations and power volleys.  But in the second, Gilbert changed his strategy to focus on doing the exact opposite of what Becker wanted - where Becker wanted pace, Gilbert hit with a soft short slice, with the desired effect of pulling the German to the net before he wanted to go there, which Becker frequently obliged.  Never known for his footwork, Becker's was particularly poor when lumbering to net, which he made up for with great reach and dexterity on his volleys, particularly for a man of his endomorph physique - but he rarely made it to net after the first set, such was the frequency of his errors on approach.  That was due in no small part to Gilbert's expert neutralization of the pace and spin coming to him.

Where Becker wanted short replies from the forehand, Gilbert frequently hit with high and deep questions into Becker's backhand, forcing him to generate pace and spin while moving backwards, a difficult task for even the best of players, and more so for one having a bad year.  Becker had a unique ability to hit his backhand from behind him, likely due to the strength of his shoulders and forearm, but that capability usually followed an approach shot with pace - Gilbert gave him none to work with.  And Gilbert, rather than serving and volleying, would hit kick serves to Becker's backhand in the ad court, respond to Becker's returns with short flat forehands in the deuce court, then long slice back to the ad court - the yo-yo on the string was Becker at this point, and the madness that it elicited not only resulted in an unexpected loss, but an embarrassing final set obliteration - a rare bagel of the uber-competitive strawberry blonde Bavarian who, at 19 years old, was already, and rightfully, viewed as one of the fiercest competitors in tennis.

The irony of Gilbert's victory was that, in assigning the name "Winning Ugly" to this style of play that lead him to overachieving in the game based on his talent, it leaves one with the unfortunate impression that his game was entirely lacking in pulchritude - to the contrary, Gilbert's tactical acumen was one of the more beautiful things to behold on a tennis court.  Realizing that the vast majority of points are won with forced errors, Gilbert understood that frequently the most effective method of overwhelming one's opponent is to allow him to self-destruct.  And nothing presses that button like taking away a strength and forcing a better player to win with his weakness.  Frequently when a new great player emerges, the only ones who figure out how to beat them consistently are the ones who understand this incredibly essential characteristic of tennis - you can only play as well as your opponent lets you.  And if your opponents tries to beat you at your game, he is merely giving you the sword which you will gleefully plunge in his heart.  But turn the handle around, and the aggressor frequently falls on his sword, and nobody did that better than Brad Gilbert.

Except perhaps Ivan Lendl.

Lendl's performance in the final was a carbon copy of Gilbert's in the semi-final.  He had played a low quality, but highly effective, match against Jimmy Connors, where he fed him a steady diet short slice to Connors' forehand - a tactic that, 12 years after it was first effectively employed by John Newcombe at the Australian Open, and then Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon, Connors still hadn't figured out how to handle.  Lendl had a reputation for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in several major finals before finally breaking his duck at Roland Garros in 1984 on the one characteristic of his game that he would eventually become famous for:  his fitness.  After becoming stronger than anyone on tour, he discovered that his ability to play the same shot over and over again became a tool as effective as Chinese water torture - nothing dynamic, but eminently effective.

Against Gilbert, he realized early on that Gilbert was nervous, having lost to him 12 times in a row, and making the final of the first important title of the summer US hard court circuit, in a brand new beautiful stadium, was more than he could handle.  The enormity of the occasion, and the intransigence of his opponent, one of the few men on tour who could claim to be fitter, and more resolute in his tactical commitment, melted all of Gilbert's tactical expertise away, leaving only his innate natural talent to hit a tennis ball, to bear the burden of the competition.  Ironically, Lendl, never known as the most talented player in the world, was probably more talented than Gilbert, and on this, the 12th of 16 occasions that they met on the ATP tour, Lendl's superiority would prevail - in fact he never lost to Gilbert in his career.

I, myself, was fascinated with Gilbert's game - it seemed so simple, and so effective, I could never figure out how he did it.  How did he always seem to find a way to defeat players who were, in terms of their pedigree, far superior to him.  He rarely struck the ball hard, and even his serve, which was accurate and consistent, was not what one would expect of an athletic 6'2" inch American raised on football and baseball.  The secret to his success was something more feminine, something more simple:  he took his opponent's greatest strength, and reduced its influence on the match, which would in turn forced a better player to beat him with their weakness.  Under those circumstances, the match could be played on his terms.

In truth, tactically Gilbert was the Chris Evert of the men's tour, with less talent, and worse results of course - but strategically and tactically, they were mirror images.  Evert never appeared to have physical superiority, or even technical superiority - most of her opponents had more tools in the kit - but Evert's true special talent was the depth of the skills she did possess and her ability to make shallow the skills of her opponents.  The modern game suffers from a kind of fatal narcissism, where players all think the key to their success is their own game.  They assume that because tennis is an individual sport, the last thing they have to worry about is the other guy on the court.  Fed by the paucity of quality coaching, where the "mental game", and its ugly offspring "belief", seem to be the focus, lost from the modern game is the art of strategy and tactical execution - in short, there are no more Brad Gilbert's in the men's game, and very few in the women's game.

I recall 3 years later watching Gilbert obliterate a young Michael Stich in DC, a year before Stich's solitary victory at a major at Wimbledon in 1991 (over none other then Boris Becker, I might add).  The amazing thing about this match was that Stich, consistently serving in the 125+ range throughout that match, gained absolutely no advantage from the serve, because Stich made error after error trying to do just that.  Throughout the match, Gilbert brilliantly returned soft and deep, thus negating the advantage of a heavy serve, but in his mind Stich felt compelled to take advantage of his huge serves, even though that advantage didn't exist.  Thus he went for ill-advised setup and kill shots over and over again - destroying himself and probably wondering along the way, how he could possibly be losing to a player who was hitting so few winners and taking so few chances.  Add to that the heat, and the relatively quiet audience, watching in bewilderment how this praying mantis of a player, with a gargantuan but easily produced serve, managed to get broken 4 times in just 10 service games.

Winning ugly is a misnomer, because there is something very beautiful about tactical acumen played out so mercilessly in a tennis match.  Nothing says, "I know this game better than you do," like beating someone you have no business beating, over and over again.

For that lesson from Brad Gilbert and Ivan Lendl, I say, thank you Citi Open.
Post a Comment