Melbourne is in its glorious summer — not that anyone from TAS is there, except via high tech — and it is time to assess the 2024 pro tennis situation. But after the first week of the year’s first major, it is too soon to know. Anything can happen. The key questions are these: will country club Republicans get off their obsessions with their golf handicaps and rid themselves of the kinks in their forehand drives and take their party back from the crazies?
And second, will the White House tenant next year — 2025 — be a regular user of the tennis court they have on the premises, and will he — or, face it, she — invite my organization, the Banneker Athletic and Social Club, to use it, including free tutorials in the public interest for the tenant & guests as well as deserving children of the District of Columbia? (READ MORE from Roger Kaplan: Al Gore for President)
Because it is increasingly evident that if sanity is not restored quickly, the U.S.A. as we know it will be in dire straits, almost as dire as 1950, when we were engaged on two fronts, foreign and domestic. Our three-year post-WW II Davis Cup run had ended in 1949, and Australia was in the second year of a five year streak.
You might say: we got through that pass, didn’t we? My answer is, and not to make facile puns: How many passes does one nation, however great, get?
The first week at Melbourne, a charming and welcoming city all around, wish we wuz there, went so-so for Americans. Taylor Fritz and Coco Gauff got our side into fourth rounds in their respective draws, but such hopes as Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton flamed out and on the women’s side we saw Jessica Pegula, the sweetheart of Buffalo, beaten in the second round by a cute French girl and New Jersey native Amanda Anisimova in the fourth by defending champ Aryna Sabalenka, Minsk-born and now, sensibly, at home in Miami.
Tiafoe looked at times off his usual speed, which ought to have favored him on the fast Melbourne Park courts, letting the shotmaking of a young qualifier from France, Arthur Cazaud, repeatedly wrong-foot him. It was an exceptional show of grits by the young Gallic from Montpellier, a lovely city on the Riviera and a great tennis town. He ran his youthful fearless play into the fourth round and a chance to go against Wroclaw’s own Hubert Hurkacz, whom Mr. Pleszczynski, an astute observer of Polish sports, sees as too Polish — lacking modern attitudes, such as the killer instinct you need to win a major.
The boss has the last word, but modern attitudes go only so far. Note the inability, despite employing a sports psychologist, of women’s no. 1 Iga Swiatek (who is from near Warsaw) to get through the first week. She lost a three-setter to Linda Noskova, the latest in a long line of Czech girl prodigies. It was the first time a No. 1 seed at AO got knocked out so early, let alone by a teenager.
“Let the better man win,” says Mr. Pleszczynski, or woman; generosity in defeat is better than pride in victory, especially if if makes you hate to lose, which may be what you need to win.
The week’s laurels in the hate-to-lose department went to young Cazaud’s 35-year old compatriot from Soisy-sous-Montmorency, a far-suburb of Paris. Adrian Mannarino, played 15 sets prior to a fourth-round showdown with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Even in the cool winter conditions — which actually is summertime in Australia, though some of the flat-earthers in both political parties deny this — this is remarkable at any age. Physical fitness can be maintained with training and vitamins (not supplements, citrus fruits, and greens) but not everyone develops the mental, or spiritual, strengths that champions — in sports, in life! — require. (READ MORE: The French March Against Anti-Semitism)
“Manna” has what Djokovic pointed to as a factor that enabled him to save the two match points Roger Federer had on him the last time they met in a Wimbledon final, most prestigious tournament in the world and the Swiss maestro’s favorite. Federer, Djokovic noted in an interview with tennis writer Jon Wertheim, is, or at any rate then was, the better player; he played the better match. Except in the points that finally mattered, and in a close contest, that made the difference. What Djokovic implied was that on the mental side, he was stronger, again at least in that match.
[I]f the Republicans do not restore the prestige and power of the tennis and golf country club set, with their dry martinis and yak-yak wives, it’s curtains for the GOP.
Most people think the mental side of tennis means stay focused, forget everything, play the point, Djokovic told Wertheim. Well, of course you play the point, never take your eye off the ball, and get the best across the net until the guy on the opposite side doesn’t. But that is not all he said; in fact it is fallacious. Mental means embrace your whole game, not points one at a time. If you are messing up, don’t pretend you can forget it and get into the next point fresh. Rather, admit you messed up and adjust, the sooner the better. The critical difference is that this way you do not have an unacknowledged mistake nagging you from somewhere in your back brain. That is real mental strength.
Over five sets and close on five hours, American phenom Ben Shelton (who is half Mannarino’s age) played the stronger game. He hit twice as many aces (18 to 9), and no wonder, his serve can reach 231 km/hr, Mannarino’s never tops 200. In American English, that is 145 miles vs 125, so go figure what they were hitting on average. Overall the young American won 186 points to the Frenchman’s 180. These points were overwhelmingly won on short rallies, four shots and less; if Mannarino gets his man into a long rally, he figures the angle and gets it: brains. Djokovic himself acknowledged this of Mannarino: he is an always-dangerous player whose court intelligence will disrupt your game plan.
However, the intelligence and endurance were insufficient for the next challenge. Mannarino played against the Man in the fourth round and it was over in minutes, figuratively. Novak Djokovic ran over him, 6-0, 6-0, 6-3, in under two hours. Twice as many total points, 85-42, and he could afford five doubles to Manna’s zero because he made up for them three times over with 17 aces to 1.
Awful — and yet, no; it was a good fight. Adrian Mannarino has a unique game that makes use of skilled volleys and a powerful flat two-handed southpaw backhand. Against a majority righty field, Djokovic pointed out, it is effective. He stays loose, does not faze, and has a reliable serve. His forehand, which often looks like he is slapping the ball, is not a power shot but is a consistently reliable one that works by using his opponents’ pace against them. Djokovic indirectly complimented him on this by using a slow pace through much of the match and hitting down the middle to forbid Mannarino’s dangerous crosscourt shots. (READ MORE: Bill Maher to the Rescue)
Djokovic is the defending champion at AO, which he has won ten times. He has an all-court defensive game which he turns into an offensive one in the split second it takes his racquet to make contact with the ball he is always ready for — because he has set it up.
On offense, Djokovic typically catches the ball low and zips it back to the lines or creates an unexpected change-of-pace that confounds the opponent and brings on an error. His form is classic, big full swings on a forehand properly extended from his upper body and shoulder. He has a two-handed power backhand that many observers consider the best since Don Budge invented the modern backhand as an offensive shot in the 1930s. The Djokovic service is solid and fearsome, notwithstanding the occasional double-fault. He uses it for placement, kick, or slice, as needed. In other words, he is complete. And he keeps adapting.
Cross sport comparisons can only go so far, but if you think of Larry Bird, you might be close: the brain, the speed, the thinking several paces ahead of everybody else on the court. Or Joe DiMaggio with a tennis racquet, though the purists, not without reason, argue that Roger Federer’s grace and other-dimension shot-making (due to faultless footwork and eye-arm coordination) are more akin to the Yankee Clipper’s class act.
Anyway, Djokovic’s second week is well worth following. Can one of the young guns who have beaten him, Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, find a way to outlast him in a five set grinder or somehow flummox his game by getting on his nerves of steel, which have been known to fray? In the third set against Mannarino, he finally lost a game on a missed return of serve and the crowd went wild. Djokovic, who has had his share of hostile crowds, complained to the ump, went back to the baseline, closed out his serve with a ferocious ace. Mannarino held another service game at 1-4, and again at 2-5, but it ended with Djokovic serving out the match on the next game.
So yes, even the man who understands mental can let his opponent or the crowd or what-all get into his head and mess up. He remarked in a post-match interview that Mannarino’s inability to win a game after two sets was bothering him to the point of distraction. Admit that the triple bagel, like a perfect ball game, is messing with your head, let it slide, and then calmly take charge again and mop up. A sensible approach to life’s problems? Could be; he plays Californian Taylor Fritz in the quarters, whom he has beaten eight times in eight encounters.
Will Janik Sinner, the superbly fit and hard hitting Tyrolean, the best of the young players to have yet to get to a final in a major, be hungry enough to overcome him if they meet? Or the other no-major-final-yet, Andrey Rublev, who is playing hotter than ever? Who’s to say? Does it matter more than Trump-Biden? (READ MORE: ‘Right or Wrong, My Country’: Americans Need to Imitate Israel)
This is not the place for moronic comparative forecasts. Enjoy the show, whichever one you think makes your life better and remember: if the Republicans do not restore the prestige and power of the tennis and golf country club set, with their dry martinis and yak-yak wives, it’s curtains for the GOP. And you know what that means.
Author: Roger Kaplan