Saturday, July 16, 2016

THANK YOU CITI OPEN: JOHN HARRIS

I picked up my press pass at the Citi Open yesterday, and as always, I just couldn't resist the opportunity to get a sneak preview of the players that will make this the place to be for any self-respecting tennis enthusiast in the Washington, DC area over the next 10 days.  The joy of coming to this tournament, for me, is as much in watching the players practice, as it is watching the matches, which can go so quickly if one of the two combattants fails to play his part.  Sure enough, having ambled over to the Grandstand court, I encountered Caroline Wozniacki working out with her father, who like Richard Williams before him, has overcome the paucity of any true tennis pedigree of his own, to turn his daughter into one of the best players in the world.  Among other things, he had her working on pattern play, service return and first strike shot placement, and the old "hit the can" with your serve routine - only the can this time was a white towel (she hit it once, by the way).  Kind of makes you wonder what the "professional" coaches are doing, but I digress.

Following their workout, the court was taken over by Daniel Evans, his coach, and the coach-less Grigor Dimitrov.  Now this was fun to watch:  as an admirer and exponent of the 1-handed backhand, here I had two of the most aesthetically appealing in the game to watch.  Evans, having just come off being manhandled by one Roger Federer at Wimbledon in the 3rd round, actually appeared to be a little off his game, by my count committing about 3 times as many unforced errors as his partner for the day.  What struck me about their hit, which became fairly intense within the first 10 minutes, was the difference between talent and technique, and what the combination of the two allows a player to do that is beyond one who clearly has one but is relatively lacking in the other.

Evans has, by all accounts, exceptional hand-eye coordination and very good hands - he's very talented.  He can do things with a racquet that is beyond your average hacker...including professional hackers.  And from time to time, he can go nuclear with that forehand of his, in a way that makes the racquet look more like a frying pan as his hands come through the point of contact.  But it comes at a cost, when the timing required to pull this off escapes him, he is as likely to hit the back fence as the baseline.  More often than not, if you train your eye on his follow through, rather than the ball, you can see that he's hitting off his back foot.  Dimitrov, on the other hand, hits every forehand in front of his body with good weight transfer from the back foot to the front.  He stays down on the stroke, which allows him to hit with more spin, net clearance, and depth - hence the relatively low frequency of unforced errors.  They went through the standard warm-up cycle, and finished playing a 7-point tie break that Dimitrov won ironically hitting two aces wide in the ad court, after missing that serve in the warm up about 7 times in a row.  I guess practice really does make perfect.

It's worth mentioning that while Evans exited stage left with his coach after an hour, Dimitrov played another hour with another player (whose name escapes me and Leon Vessels) who does not appear to be in the tournament, but seems to be a popular hitting partner at this venue.  Last year I saw him hitting with a number of players, men and women, and this year, after sparring with Dimitrov, he moved to the stadium to hit with a WTA player, and ironically was asked by observing children for autographs, while they ignored his ignominious partner.  Dimitrov, toiling in anonymity, seemed to enjoy himself, as he always does when on the court, belied the presumed depression one might expect from a player whose star has fallen so far in the last couple of years. After a meteoric rise to the top 10 in 2014, coming within a rat's ass of making the O2, and playing a Wimbledon semi-final, this year he found himself unseeded and vanquished in the 3rd round by 2-time NCAA champion American Steve Johnson.  I find Dimitrov's committment and pure joy at being on the court to be a good sign that my prediction, that he will win a major at some point in his career, to still be well within his reach.

During the practice with Evans, Dimitrov noted that the kick serve in the North end of the Grandstand court bites a hell of a lot more than the other courts, and according to him, did him no favors last year when he lost to Johnson following two rain delays and two court changes.  The high American('s) twist serve to the single handed backhand was more than he could handle, and if he meets the Trojan man this year, on that court, he will have to figure out a way to neutralize that serve as a weapon, lest he meet the same fate.

I also had a chance to watch Alexander Zverev hit with Gael Monfils on the stadium court, where I was really impressed by the liquid power of the spindly German (by way of Russia) - a last minute wild-card entrant into the field after being dumped out of a home tournament in Hamburg.  There's just no substitute for being able to inject pace into the rally at any given moment, and I observed the rhythm in their rallies to be decidedly in his favor by something like a 2-3 margin (two counts for his shot to reach Monfils, 3 counts for those of the Frenchman to reach him).  Monfils was more frequently the player hitting late in their exchanges, which will do nothing to turnaround what has been a less than inspiring 2016 for him.

As usual, it's impossible to know whether he will be more focused on thrilling the crowd than winning, but I plan to make a special visit to his first match.  However, if I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Zverev to go further in the tournament and/or win it all, if he can overcome the fatigue he must be feeling having played two warm up tournaments before Wimbledon, making the quarterfinal before getting it handed to him by absent the number 1 seed here at the Citi Open Thomas Berdych and then a warm-down event in his native Germany on clay.

Finally, I watched a practice with Irina Falconi, her second in succession, having been (wo)manhandled in a practice set by Francoise Abanda (the Canadian siren with gams like a daddy-long legs, who's been given a wild-card into the qualifying tournament) against American Christina McHale.  McHale, the New Jersey native who waddles around the court like a long-legged penguin, but hits one of the easiest and cleanest forehands in the women's tour, is a dark-horse to go deep here as well.  Her modern forehand, produced with the racquet head remaining on the right side of her profile, generating torque and deceptive acceleration as it catches up with her hands at the point of contact, is not the best athlete in the draw, but following her very competitive encounter with Serena Williams at SW19, appears to be playing well, fit as a fiddle and ready to win her first WTA title just as her compatriot Sloane Stephens did here last year.

As I watched these two going through their paces, an older gentleman quietly ambled over in my direction and asked, as though soliciting a secret, if McHale was the woman who did so well against Serena Williams at Wimbledon this year.  I confirmed as much, and this initiated a conversation about tennis in general that surprised me in so more ways that one.  He noted that a girl on the far court looked about 12 years old, and remarked how young the players were able to start today, and how different it was versus past eras, because of the equipment.  He asked me how long I'd been coming to the tournament, and I proudly told him 30+ years, to which he replied that he'd been there since the beginning.

Since the beginning?  The 1969 beginning?

It turned out the gentleman was none other than the John Harris, who co-founded the tournament with Donald Dell (and Steve Potts) all those years ago.  Honestly, my knees buckled.  I couldn't help myself, and asked him a series of questions that he patiently answered.  The best match he'd ever seen?  The consolation match in 1971 between a 19-year old Jimmy Connors and a 20-year old Eddie Dibbs, which he said almost nobody saw, but was better than the final between Ken Rosewall and Marty Riessen.  Rosewall, at the time of his victory in 1971, was the reigning US Open champion, having defeated Tony Roche at Forest Hills the year before. But he didn't defend his title due to the growing conflict between the WCT and the ILTF, which centered around the struggle for control over the conditions of who entered the tournament and who didn't.  Despite the Cold War at the dawn of the open era, he was free to take the title in DC, rather routinely, over his veteran American opponent.

All this was news to me.

And to the question of why the surface of clay was chosen for this tournament, preceding the US Open (which at the time was played on grass) Harris explained that in those days, the summer US circuit consisted of actually two sub-circuits. The clay court series in places like Cincinnatti, Indianapolis and Chicago, that they wanted to be a part of to facilitate a better field of players.  Once the summer US clay court season had concluded, the focus moved on to grass, with tournaments in Newport, Boston and finally culimnating at Forest Hills.  In fact, the brief interlude of the US Open switching to clay from 1975 to 1977 had essentially spelled the deathknell of the summer US grass court season, which had been in place for some 85 years, before all the tournaments in the US transitioned to hard courts.

He said that he had been a collegiate and amateur player himself, but that he had never been able to effectively compete against Donald Dell, who was himself a 3-time all American at Yale, and NCAA finalist in 1959.  He said that as good as Dell was, Arthur Ashe was on another level as a player, something that is frequently forgotten about the man...a testament to the exceptional human being that he was, and humanitarian that he became.  

Speaking further about Ashe, who along with Harris and Dell had years before cooked up the notion of an integrated tournament in the nation's Capitol, Harris sat on the Men's Professional Tennis Council representing the US tournaments, alongside him as he represented the players, when he first heard of the Williams sisters.  Harris, with great humility, admitted to me that he didn't think the girls had a chance, not because of their ability (which was obvious) but because their father had prevented them from playing the standard US junior tennis circuit.  After proclaiming as much to Ashe, Ashe himself (who died 6 years before Serena won the US Open in 1999) predicted that both of them would be world champions and would be the first of many from the black American community if the USTA played their cards right.  Sadly it hasn't, which Harris admitted had never been the intention of the WTEF, which owns and operates the Citi Open, and donates nearly every penny to local education, and not necessarily the development of tennis champions.

Speaking of the Williams sisters, Harris told me a story of how he had stayed down the hall from the same hotel as the Williams sisters in 1998 in Australia.  He knew then that the Williams' parents were special because the mother, Oracene, would get up at 7:00am every morning to do the laundry. Why?  Because Venus didn't have any sponsors that would provide her with new clothes to wear before every match; so the depth of humility and commitment was evident. One can understand their persistent skepticism of the tennis establishment, given that in 1998 they still couldn't find a single clothing sponsor that could be bothered to throw some free clothes in the direction of a 17-year old girl who had already reached #22 in the world and had made the final at Sydney a week before one of the 4 biggest tournaments in the world.

How things have changed since.

It was an honor and a pleasure to make the acquaintance of a man who, unwittingly, is one of the reasons that I fell in love with tennis.  This tournament was the first time I'd seen tennis played in person by professionals, and ever since has been my Mecca for 33 years, the place I come to fall in love with the game all over again, and will continue to as long as air fills my lungs.

For this, and for so much more I say, thank you John Harris.

ADDENDUM:  Dimitrov's hitting partner, and the man whose autograph had been sought by those kids watching hit in the stadium court was Leon Vessels, whose history with the Citi Open is as curious as it is inspiring.  
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