Friday, September 3, 2010

Daughters of Sampras, sons of Hingis

I arranged my entire day so that I could watch the match-up between Dustin Brown and Andy Murray. It’s not that I thought that Dustin had a chance in heck of winning this match, but I wanted to see how my Caribbean rasta was going to go about preventing himself from swallowing three consecutive bagels.

I assumed that, as he stepped onto Arthur Ashe court, not swallowing three consecutive bagels would at least be a part of Dustin Brown’s mission. Of course I assume that his primary aim would have been to try to win the match. But I figured that a reasonable back-up plan would be to lose as respectfully as possible. Or to put it in Caribbean-speak, to not completely shame himself in front of all these people.

I also wanted to see what was suddenly so special about Dustin’s game that England – a country apparently so desperate for tennis stars that they might be willing to offer citizenship to a hacker with a big serve – might be willing to consider this particular hacker’s possible petition. Because the truth is that Dustin Brown is a hacker. And I have avoided admitting this truth to myself for a long time.

It was easier to avoid doing so when the only people I ever saw him play came from either other Caribbean islands, or from countries at the bottommost level of Davis Cup play. Against such a lack of talent, Dustin Brown both looks and plays quite well. And yes, maybe I was distracted by the looks, I can admit that. I mean, that is one fine-looking rasta. And I love the way ESPN kept giving us the crotch shots.

But against other lesser-abled, Dustin looked so good that I was able to miss the fact that he has very little but hack shots to back up his big serve. He can’t even hit a decent forehand down-the-line. Heck, there were moments today when I wanted to grab the racket out of his hand to show him how it’s done. Against lesser-level opponents barely able to return his big serves, Dustin doesn’t look too bad. But facing the talented Andy Murray, Dustin looked like a hack who was trying only to prevent swallowing three bagels. And you know what? His mission was accomplished – he swallowed only one.

You know what was intriguing about this match? The first was how completely unbothered Andy Murray was by his opponent. The New York crowd did its best to rattle Murray and encourage Dustin. In fact, if I was there, I would have the one leading the vuvuzela posse. But Murray remained unfazed by it all. It didn’t even seem to bother him when the rain briefly halted play. He didn’t care when he lost serve in the second set after being up 5-0. He seemed to be in some kind of a zen mental space where nothing and no-one could penetrate. I can’t remember even seeing him look up at his box. By the third set, he was so completely in the zone that nothing that the dreadlocks hacker threw at him was going to stick.

I’m not saying that said hacker is completely without talent, but you have to admit that it’s amazing what crowd support can do. Heck, the crowd at Armstrong almost lifted Ryan Harrison to victory over Sergiy Stakhovsky. Like Murray, Sergiy also refused to get rattled. At times he seemed bemused by the madness of the people screaming at him and applauding loudly when he fell.

And maybe if said crowd hadn’t gotten wind that an American in the Armstrong stadium needed their support, more of them might have stuck around to carry Dustin through that third set and may have helped him accomplish the mission of not swallowing three bagels. But the crowd, getting wind of Harrison’s closeness in the fifth set, abandoned poor Dustin so fast you’d swear they were giving away free beers in honor of Louis. Big thanks to those who stuck around and supported Dustin through the final set agony. If I had gone to New York this year, I would have been one of them.

But the second intriguing thing I noticed today was the interesting similarities between the way Harrison and Stakhovsky played, and the style of tennis also played between Murray and Brown. All four of these men engaged in a cat-and-mouse type of game that I have not seen the likes of since cocaine sent Martina Hingis out of tennis. It was all angles and spins, touch and drop shots, wrong-footing and sneaky forays into court, placement and finesse. Sure there were the big serves. But once the ball was in play, it was like I watching four versions of Martina Hingis. Because at her best, Martina Hingis could also play like a hack, throwing up junk balls to put her opponents off their game. It’s amazing what good hacking can do.

I am intrigued by the fact that in the WTA, women seem to be reaching for more and more muscle and power, while here were these men who understood that it was also possible to win by also using deft touches and sweet angles. This is the tennis that Michael Llodra is playing, that also helped him win today against Hanescu. What an ironic changing of the roles. Who could predict that it is the women who would all aspire to be daughters of Sampras – all big serves and baseline-hitting, mind-numbingly boring, side-to-side tennis – and that it would be the men who inherited Hingis’ remarkable legacy?

Flushing Meadows New York US Open Tennis 2010 03/09/10 Dustin Brown (JAM) second round match. Photo Roger Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

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