Thursday, August 6, 2015

CITI OPEN: RETURN OF THE MESOMORPH - SAM GROTH

There aren't too many countries where tennis is king - maybe France during Roland Garros - but the pervasiveness of the game belies the white underbelly of that persistent question that just won't go away...how good of an athlete is a tennis player anyway?  I'm not talking about your weekend warrior, but the real McCoy.  Few would question the innate gifts, and athletic prowess of the so-called big 4, but they would not likely (and perhaps unjustly) be considered for anyone's list of the 10 most athletic people on the planet, would they? I've often wondered why.  After all, most tennis players have played other sports growing up, and many had to make a choice of which sport to play professionally - Nadal, Federer and Murray all had legitimate shots at playing professional soccer, and at 6'9" John Isner could have taken a basketball scholarship, which would have surprised nobody in his native North Carolina.

But they didn't, and therein lies the rub, in my opinion.  You see, in other sports, like football, you have Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders and to a lesser extent John Elway, prove without a shadow of a doubt their qualities as a professional in baseball, and the supreme athleticism of basketball players who've switched to football (like Tony Gonzales), leaves little doubt that this is a viable transition.  Hell, even Michael Jordan hit .250 in the minor leagues, and he hadn't played baseball since he was a kid!  Now, I have serious doubts as to whether any of these guys could ever pick up a tennis racquet with any hope of turning athletic prowess in their chosen sport, into a fighting chance in tennis - in fact, I don't think a single one of them could.

But it seems that we have, in the broad-shouldered, tatoo-sporting, super-serving, Australian behemoth Sam Groth, an answer to the question of whether tennis players could play other sports professionally, and through him, we could start to have an appreciation for the raw athleticism of tennis players.  50 long years after Ion Tiriac completed, what would today be considered, the altogether unimaginable transition from the 1964 Olympic ice-hockey team of Romania, to the 1969 Davis Cup finalist Romanian team in 1969, we have Groth.  

He was a strong junior player - with his partner Andrew Kennaugh of Great Britain, he finished runner up in the 2005 Boy's doubles final to Jessie Levine and Michael Shabaz.  A shoulder surgery, failed marriage and an extremely brief stint as an on court coach to his wife Jarmila Gajdosova (who famously told him that day in 2011 at Brisbane not to "...talk to me like a f---ing tourist") saw him burn out from the game and take up Australian Rules football with local second tier power house Vermont Football Club on the outskirts of Melbourne.  For those of you who've never seen Australian Rules Football, it's a cross between rugby, and ultimate frisbee, played with a familiarly oblong ball, by athletes that all look like they could either win a slam dunk contest, or at the very least handle themselves if it got messy on the wrong side of town.

Physically, Groth fits in with that crowd just fine.

Upon returning to the game in 2013, he seemed to be uninformed of the changes in the game, that said serve and volley was as dead as the wood racquet, and proceeded to work his way through the challenger and ITF circuits (along the way hitting an ATP record 163 mph serve) until he made his way back into the hallowed territory of the top 100.  Last year, he bludgeoned his way into the main draw at the Australian Open, just missed out on the show at Roland Garros, lost a tough 3-setter to Alexander Dolgopolov (a former champion at the Citi Open in 2012) at Wimbledon, and proceeded to make news at the US Open where he lost gallantly to Roger Federer in the second round.  Along the way he captured the scalp of his compatriot Marinko Matosevic (himself a full-bodied exponent of the power game) before losing by one break in all three straight sets to the greatest player in the history of the game.

This year, his claim to fame is an unlikely and heroic performance in a Davis Cup cause that appeared entirely lost to the hugely proud and patriotic Australians, when the hopes of the nation, riding on the narrow shoulders of Thanassi Kokkinakis and Nick Kyrigos, were revived by an inspiring doubles performance from Groth, who manifests physiclally, all the grit and determination that is the hallmark of his illustrious, and retiring partner, Lleyton Hewitt.  Having obliterated their unfancied rivals from Kazakhstan in the doubles, the pair were so convincing in their performance and temperament, that they usurped their younger teammates in the singles the next day and proceeded to perform a one two-combination that would have made (the Australian) Tommy Burns proud.

This year at the Citi Open, Groth took on and beat Victor Troicki in two tough sets, surprising those who observed the match from the mesh fence behind Court 1 with the frequency with which his serves in the ad court had his Serbian opponent chasing shadows looking for the point of contact in the deuce court, such was the power and spin he imposed on the ball.  With deft touch at net, and good skills of anticipation, time and again he defended the net as well as most modern players defend the baseline.  He served and volleyed his way to the end result he sought - to neutralize his presumed technical inferiority from the baseline with an unknown dexterity and ease with contortion at net.  Along the way he showed off a forehand that at any given moment can put his opponent out of his misery with power and spin, and a backhand which, although frequently hit off the back foot, works just fine when he hits it hard enough to push his opponent behind the baseline...just where he wants him.

It is this unusual combination of girth and nimbleness, reminding this observer of the special skills and talents of a strawberry blonde wunderkind from Leimen, so frequently absent from men of considerable size and strength, that makes it unlikely that even the fittest of the fit in other sports, would necessary translate into an irresistible force in tennis.  There are specific skills and capabilities that are necessary in the game, making it as unlikely that someone over 6'4" will win the games most coveted titles, as someone that same size to possess all the skills necessary to play the game the old fashioned way.  Groth has many of them, but not all of them...at least not yet.

I observed Groth working mercilessly on a Spanish footwork drill, where the coach with a ball in hand, directs the player up and back, left and right in a series of movements that, if traced on the court, would have the shape of an inverted 5-point star.  Never lifting himself above or beyond the crouch position of a lightweight sumo, the burning in his thighs is as painful as it is productive, and the resulting pop (or should I say "boom") in his serve is as much due to the power in his legs as it is the rotation of those coat-hanger shoulders that spread as wide as a Texas bull.

Sam Groth may not win the Citi Open, but his impact will be felt by his opponents, line judges, ball boys any ill-advised spectators who take their eye off the court when he's serving.  But through his exploits, wherever they may lead, tennis may just have in Groth its athlete that creates the appreciation for the raw athletic prerequisites assumed away in other sports.
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