Wednesday, July 20, 2016

2016 CITI OPEN DAY 4: THE QUIET AMERICAN

Last year I generously extolled the virtues of the Mesomorph, Sam Groth - a man with a rocket launcher of a serve and the physique of a man meant to protect a king.  His tournament came to an end yesterday against the best player in his quarter, when he fell tamely in the first round.  Groth's might be the most famous of all his flamethrower serving contemporaries due to his infamous 163mph record salvo, so the temptation to watch him play is a strong as it ever was.  I watched a gaggle of expertly prepared and generously whetted, middle-aged women move from side to side on the north end of Grandstand 2, to get a feel of what the biggest serve looks like coming at your face.  I guess size really does matter when you may know little about the intricacies of the game, but you can definitely read a radar gun...and boy was it buzzing today.

Unfortunately for Groth, the serve is only one half of the first shot qualities required of a top player.  Whereas he specializes on giving, Nishikori, Djokovic and Murray have shown over and over again, that it is the fine art of receiving that is altogether most likely to distinguish a professional tennis player in his chosen field of endeavor.  That's why the true tennis enthusiast, whether a connoisseur or a novice, should take note of the subtle, almost indiscernible skills of Brian Baker, which you can't tell at first glance, but like the still waters of the Potomac, run very, very deep.

His story is one of Herculean heights and troughs before he returned to take his rightful place at the table of professional tennis.  In 2003, Baker was as one the best juniors in the world, losing in the final at Roland Garros to one Stan (the Man) Wawrinka.  And with victories over his now more illustrious contemporaries like Marcos Baghdatis, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, one could have been forgiven for heaping untold American hopes and aspirations on his narrow shoulders.  But injury plagued him for years to the point where he nearly gave up the game, until 2011 when, while coaching at Belmont University in Tennessee, he entered an ITF future event in Pittsburgh as an unseeded - in fact he was unranked - qualifier.

And won the tournament...without dropping a set.  

That remarkable debut (anew) culminated in a career high ranking of #52 on the back of a victory at Basel over Radek Stepanek and a loss to eventual champion Juan Martin del Potro two years later.  Desperate injuries at the Australian Open of 2013 and just before the same tournament in 2015 genuinely threatened to destroy his prodigal return, and cost him almost the entirety of 2014 & 2015, but the tennis Gods, (who must be crazy) have given him one more bite at the apple, and we're all the better for it.

Baker has the ability to do two things that are essential for any top tennis player:  he can blunt his opponent's greatest weapon, and he can provoke them into destroying themselves.  If his rival likes to hit with a lot of top spin, he can cut a slice that's as flat and straight as a rock thrown side-arm, lightly bouncing off the surface of a lake.  If the guy wants to come to net, he can hit running top spin lobs off of both wings, to go with passing shots that find their way through the scantest of openings like a bodkin.  And if his opponent has an elaborate wind up to his ground strokes, Baker stays on top of the baseline and whips his forehand inside in and out, with equal efficacy, making it very difficult to find your feet, settle in and rip it.  

In fact, I would argue that Baker's greatest weapon is that chameleon quality he has to shift his shape to whatever is required.  He's not John Rambo, loudly blowing shit up in the quiet concrete jungles of the US summer hard court season.  He's not John McClane, yapping on the radio all day and night, and jumping off a burning building shouting "yippee-kayayy, motherfucker!"  

Brian Baker is the quiet American, who will gut you like a fish as he smiles, shakes your hand, and removes your wallet.  He'll disabuse you of any notion of how good you are by forcing you to do exactly what you do worst, if you want to beat him.  He doesn't appear to be physically imposing until you're standing next to him, when you realize you're looking up at a pair of glaring eyes just under the brim of a hat dripping with sweat.  You hit a serve wide in the deuce court that registers 120mph and as the return zips by your chest missing the opposite sideline by 3 inches, you look over at Baker who is furtively excoriating himself for missing a shot you thought had no business reaching, let alone making.  

That's when you realize that you're in for a long day at the office.

It suddenly dawned on me having watched Grigor Dimitrov struggle through yet another early and unexpected loss (to Daniel Evans) in this his second season on the mend, and Donald Young snipe and gripe his way past Ernesto Escobedo in the unforgiving heat and humidity of an afternoon in July in Washington, DC, and Sloane Stephens disappearing into the night, performing a kind of seppuku of unforced errors against a resilient, but underwhelming Risa Ozaki.  

What exactly is competitiveness? 

Is it the ability to conjure up the energy to run down every drop shot, stretch for every volley, reach for every return?  Is it the ability to raise one's game, and hit that essential passing shot or lob when the moment demands it, and all others would wilt under the pressure?  Or is it just a steel will, at once unbreakable and irresistible, the assassin's tool and the protector's aegis, wielded upon request at the very moment is most desired?  

The truth is that it could be one, none or all three of those things.  But Brian Baker makes one thing clear as his competitiveness muscles its way past one more who would deign to block his path.  It's not fist pumping, or shouting, "Come On!" after you've (finally) done something right.  It's not yelling at that pitiable coterie of supplicants that's still following you around the world as the clock winds down on your window of opportunity. It's not that crumpled mangled mess of carbon fiber and cured animal intestines that used to vaguely resemble a racquet, before it was sacrificed to the God of misplaced anger and bitterness.

Whatever it is not, one thing is certain:  it's quiet...just like Brian Baker.
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