Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Going Up Swinging
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Going Up Swinging 12/01/2007 - 5:30 AM

2007_12_01_blake The tennis fans of America were out early and often in Portland Friday morning. Walking past the restaurant at my hotel at 8:00, I passed a blur of red, white, and blue hats, shirts, scarves, and bow-ties sitting down to breakfast. Coming in the opposite direction, through the revolving doors, was a family in matching red sweat shirts that said “Bryans’ Bunch.”

There was a lot more of the same over at Memorial Coliseum, which was remade into ground zero for U.S. tennis for the day. A little before 1:00, the arena went dark, lights swirled on the ceiling, and what sounded like the theme from Superman filled the air. A sea of stars and stripes washed over the bleachers: There were red, white, and blue cowboy hats, baseball hats, rasta caps, rattles, Frisbees, sweat shirts, kazoos, cow bells, batons, pom-poms, drums, horns, basketball nets stretched across dudes' skulls, and my favorite, two guys in the front row done up as Captain America and Uncle Sam. (They let the Russians hear it all afternoon.) As the players were announced, firecrackers went off, thunderstix smacked, and the big screen above exhorted us to chant the letters of our country (“you-ess-ayy!”). Jon Wertheim, standing next to me, leaned over and pierced the moment just in time: “That’s what I love about the USTA,” he said. “The subtlety.”

That wasn't all they had in store for us. Between games, just in case someone in the audience couldn’t go 90 seconds without being entertained, we had jugglers, ring-tossers, cheerleading squads, T-shirt throwers, a 9-year-old singing the national anthem, and a decent-sized marching band with their own section halfway up the bleachers (head-scratching song choice: “Don’t You Love Me, Baby?”). Combine that with the 1970s-era seating in the Coliseum, and the whole thing felt like a cross between the Donny & Marie Show and Robert Altman’s Nashville.

In other words, we were throwing the kitchen sink at Russia's Dmitry Tursunov. Even better, we were throwing Andy Roddick’s serve at him, on a court that Tursunov said was “laid out for Andy especially, for his serve.” Roddick, who added that the surface “took” all of his service spins well, hit his heater up the middle, sent bullets wide in the ad court, and slid the ball away from Tursunov on the deuce side. He finished with 24 aces, many just when he needed them.

Roddick saved some of the biggest of all for the longest game of the match, when he served at 5-4 in the first and held seven set points. By the end, he was audibly huffing and puffing as he scrapped to stay in points from the baseline. When the rallies ended, he rared back for another monster first serve. After a 146 and a 143, I wondered how many he had in him. Just enough, it turned out, as he finished the set with a 147-m.p.h. unreturnable heave.

This was a vintage Roddick win in many ways. He scrapped with his ground strokes and bombed with his serve—has there ever been a player with a serve like his who had such a fundamentally defensive mindset? But Roddick also did everything well Friday. His slice, an odd stroke that he hits—chops, I should say—with his legs completely straight and standing on his tippy-toes, was more effective and varied than usual. He floated it just deep and soft enough into the corner so that Tursunov had time to run around and either go for too much or leave himself out of position. After the match, Roddick said his strategy had been to stay consistent on his return games and wait for the streaky Russian to hit a bad patch. It couldn’t have worked any better.

Tursunov was despondent and resigned in his presser, virtually conceding the tie to the U.S. He had played an odd and, as he said, “passive” match, only focusing when he got down multiple break points, which he did many times. That’s when he played his calmest tennis and put together complete points rather than gunning away from behind the baseline. Tursunov remains a difficult character to understand, particularly for a pro athlete. If you’ve ever wondered why irony is often the furthest thing from a jock’s personality, look no further than the always-facetious Tursunov. He doesn’t have the blind belief in himself that's common to many of the most successful athletes. Like his fellow Russian Marat Safin, Tursunov looks like he plays tennis out of obligation to his talent rather than joy in competition. Today he brought out his best game long enough to stay close to Roddick, but his negative body language—he often walks around between points with his racquet head pointed loosely at the ground, which makes his whole body slump—was enough to let you know he wasn’t about to do any front running today. There was something about cursory about his performance, and he knew it afterward.

By the time I got back to my seat, James Blake, traditional loser of second Davis Cup rubbers, was just where I didn’t expect him to be: up 4-1. The first backhand I saw him hit was as free and fluid as Justine Henin’s. He was mixing up speeds on his serve, tracking down everything, and not missing any forehands when he had time to set up for them.

That’s how it went for most of the first two sets. Blake improvised with a surer hand than usual and out-backhanded one of the best backhands around. The testy Russian, meanwhile, was testier than usual. He wasn’t just fighting Blake, but was also in a running battle with the ball kids, none of whom could do anything quickly enough to suit him. A few times, after a kid dropped a ball or was slow to get Youzhny his towel, he looked up at the chair umpire as if to say, “See what I have to deal with?”

Still, his body language was better than Tursunov’s, and it was only a matter of time before he clawed his way in. Youzhny started to open up the court with angles and combinations, and matched Blake’s power from the baseline. The result was a lot of winning tennis from both guys in the last two sets, as they traded bombs from the baseline and flying fist-pumps to celebrate them.

Then each of them took turns blinking. Blake, serving for the match and essentially the Davis Cup, missed first serves, forced two forehands and made errors, and was broken at love. The question that Blake had appeared all afternoon to be ready to put to rest—are you tough enough?—was in the air again. You could pretty much taste it a few minutes later, when Youzhny went up 2-0 in the tiebreaker and looked like a lock to reach a fifth set.

Whether it was the energy in the building or mental exhaustion from having battled back so far, Youzhny couldn’t cross the threshold. At 3-3, he missed a return badly, and then made his dumbest move of the afternoon. Rather than make Blake win it under pressure, Youzhny tried a drop shot, something he hadn’t done much all day. He stoned it and went down 5-3. Blake could see the finish line; the crowd, the moment, the momentum pushed him across.

Afterward, Blake said he’d wanted to prove his critics wrong and show he could win a big match (though he then denied this, implausibly, in his presser; his line amounted to: “I never think about those negative articles that I keep happening to mention.”) But Blake was right in saying that he had learned from his tentative performance in the semifinals in Sweden, and that he was going to go down swinging today. It was a simple approach that helped him stay positive through the long fourth set, when he easily could have started rushing or hanging his head, which has been his standard reaction in the past.

Until the final point, though, I had trouble believing Blake was going to break that pattern. In the middle of the fourth-set tiebreaker, I noticed Roddick on the sideline staring at the ground, his hands on his head. He looked the way I felt—I just didn’t want to see Blake lose this match, this way, in this setting. After Youzhny botched his drop to make it 5-3, Blake hit a fantastic reflex crosscourt return winner, a shot only he would try. The crowd broke loose; it was suddenly match point. In the press section at tennis tournaments there’s an iron law against applauding, but when Blake hit that return my arms shot forward in an automatic reaction. I wanted to put my hands together, but deep habit held me back. Captain America and Uncle Sam looked like they had it covered anyway. Now I wish I had joined them. James Blake deserved a hand today.

First question for Saturday: What’s the over/under on the number of chest bumps the Bryan brothers give us? Kamakshi and I are making a conservative estimate of 12.


Posted by usa 12/01/2007 at 07:01 AM

usa and subtlety..ha..

Posted by bobob 12/01/2007 at 07:43 AM


Posted by fedfan 12/01/2007 at 07:45 AM

Nice post. I'm so happy for James, and Andy. You've touched on the ambiguous feelings many of us have in regard to American jingoism vs. pride in a well-earned Davis Cup win. Since, as your colleague pointed out in her blog, the US is no longer a tennis super-power, I think it's ok for us to stick out our chests a tad.

Posted by Supersnark 12/01/2007 at 09:01 AM

'sticking out chests' is most hilarious when you lose, which you probably won't happen this time. That jingoism and showiness is part of why watching Roddick lose to Federer (or anyone else) is laugh-out-loud funny.

Posted by Mayor ghouliani 12/01/2007 at 09:30 AM

7 chest bumps
and thanx for another great read

Posted by tina 12/01/2007 at 09:36 AM

Only 12 chest bumps for the Bryans? Oh, come on. Even if it's a complete drubbing, I'd bet on well over that. Snark, you make me laugh at just the thought of Roddick losing. My biggest tennis laugh ever was in Carson City, CA in 2005.

Posted by skip1515 12/01/2007 at 09:50 AM

Steve, your anxiety when Blake was trying to close out in the 4th set breaker had been presaged by Jimmy Arias in the booth, as Blake got ready to serve at 5/4. With scary omniscience, Arias said that one rides the rollercoaster with Blake, never knowing which JB will be on display from one moment to the next. With Roddick, Arias pointed out, you'd be right to expect him to serve 2 or 3 unreturnables as he served for the match, with Blake....who knows?

Then Blake meekly dropped serve, and Arias' chest was probably sticking out so far it was out of the booth. But, like a real pro, Arias said nothing about having been so spot on in his forecast.

As you say, it was all to his credit that Blake regrouped and not only won, but did so by going forwards, not by staying still and hoping Youhzny would collapse. I hope this is the first of many such wins for him.

Posted by rudy3 12/01/2007 at 10:07 AM

Thanks Steve, great response to all the tennis I saw yesterday.
And if Mike & Bob chest bump their way to the cup today...get over yourself and cheer wildly!

I am someone who finds her joy from tennis in all things Spainish. But as a romantic, I gotta root root root for the home team. Andy, James and The Bryans deserve this momment in their careers. They have been a credit to what Davis Cup is about.


Posted by Supersnark 12/01/2007 at 10:23 AM

I doubt whoever the Russians play will win more than 3 games in any set.

Posted by richie 12/01/2007 at 11:24 AM

Steve - What a great description of all the hoopla and tense tennis. Some of this came across through the TV but not as well as your blog. Blake did seem to be playing with a little more patience and did not seem too down when he could not serve it out - perhaps having McEnroe giving him advice and nodding his head endlessly helped Blake out. Nice job.

Posted by ncot 12/01/2007 at 11:32 AM

"We were throwing the kitchen sink at Russia's Dmitry Tursunov."

ahahaha! that is very funny, man. jugglers, ring-tossers, cheerleading squads, T-shirt throwers... all fillers. i can imagine the over-the-topsy turviness of it all. hehehe.

congrats to andy and james. esp james. im not a fan of him, but i can celebrate with him, no.:)

Posted by patrick 12/01/2007 at 11:36 AM

Bryans win 6-1,6-3,6-1. Chest bumps greater than 12. It may be at least 5 per set.

Sunday will be dead rubber day with Blake and Roddick watching from the sidelines.

Posted by The Original French(ie) 12/01/2007 at 12:17 PM

I watched the matches and was not at all sure about the chances of Americans until, well the very end. I think one of the particular strength of these Russian dudes is that everyone is wary of them and expects (or hopes?) them to outbattle anyone at will.

Roddick was sooooo stressed, it was quite incredible he did not miss more shots.I agree about Tursunov being "despondent" but he was not-quite-there instead of being just passive. I thought he was uncannily calm under pressure but now actually, I think he was just having one of his usual walkabouts moments when under pressure. Youzhny, on the contrary was a real pleasure to watch, that match was really fantastic. I thought he reacted in a good natured yet aggressive way to the local patriotic atmosphere: it was perfect. Blake did magnificent shots-then-choked-then did superb-shots again. It was supenseful and everything a final should be!!

Believe it or not, I've never seen a Bryan & co match EVER. This is going to be a first. I have no idea what to expect (although I'm not placing the bar too high)

Posted by The Original French(ie) 12/01/2007 at 12:20 PM

Steve, I think your great post could be complemented by some pictures of these 2 matches: there were quite good & "photogenic" moments from Blake, Youzhny, Tursunov & Roddick....

Posted by Ed McGrogan 12/01/2007 at 01:00 PM

That Wertheim line is comedic genius and spot on.

Posted by usually quiet 12/01/2007 at 04:06 PM

Ain't nothing "rare" about Roddick's serving against T. But I do agree that he had, indeed, "reared" back.

Posted by dcf 12/01/2007 at 04:55 PM

I love davis cup!!! the usa team shines best playing for their friends and country. thank goodness federer isnt interested in playing for his country I would hate to see davis cup be ruined by his unwanted presence.

Posted by dcf 12/01/2007 at 04:58 PM

I forgot to contratulation roddick on his excellent high energy play yesterday and especially james blake for his rare clutch play.

"" First question for Saturday: What’s the over/under on the number of chest bumps the Bryan brothers give us? Kamakshi and I are making a conservative estimate of 12. ""

not even close. I always laugh whenever I see you and your other antiamerican colleague kamakshi be wrong about the usa team again.

Posted by anon 12/01/2007 at 05:08 PM

== That jingoism and showiness is part of why watching Roddick lose to Federer (or anyone else) is laugh-out-loud funny. ==
I laugh-out-loud whenever Nadal or Nalbandian serve up a fresh cup of humility to "TMF" knocking his royal arrogance right off his clown era throne. lol.

== My biggest tennis laugh ever was in Carson City, CA in 2005. ==
Mine was when Federer lost to Canas twice in the same month. lol.

Posted by tina 12/01/2007 at 06:07 PM

^^ you're funny. May I ask, however, what is a "clown era"?

Posted by patrick 12/01/2007 at 06:12 PM

Congrats to the US for winning the Davis Cup. Roddick wins the most important event in his life after the 2003 USO.

Posted by Sher 12/01/2007 at 06:30 PM

Whee! I'm happy. Andy can now point to the first Davis Cup in what, 12 years and say he took part in that! I don't expect the guy to win Majors but I think this competition matters to him quite a bit. He said he had something like four dreams: be #1, win US Open, Wimbledon and Davis cup. So he's going 3 out of 4 which is fantastic.

Posted by Liz (for Federer 4-ever) 12/02/2007 at 08:12 PM

Steve -- you felt like giving James Blake a hand? What's this world coming to.

When I hear statements like that, I laugh every time the frat boy, Andy Roddick loses to Roger Federer. I guess he and James Blake have more in common than I thought. Whether you have a James Blake, "I don't belong on the same court as top level players" attitude or the Andy Roddick, "I'm going to scare them with my 140 mile per hour serve" attitude, they still eventually go down to Roger Federer if they get in his side of the draw.


Allez Roger!!

Posted by When 12/02/2007 at 10:26 PM

Try being more positive for James. Its usually pressure central and if you listen you can always hear PatMac kissing Andy's end.

Posted by Liz (for Federer 4-ever) 12/02/2007 at 11:28 PM

When said~~

Try being more positive for James. Its usually pressure central and if you listen you can always hear PatMac kissing Andy's end.

Liz's reply~~

~~high five~~

I love James Blake to death, don't get me wrong. But I think James really gets a raw deal because as you say, PatMac is making kissy-kissy to Andy Roddick. I'm glad someone else noticed it besides me.

Posted by steve 12/03/2007 at 12:39 AM

i felt like clapping, that's all

Posted by jason 12/09/2007 at 09:12 AM

this is out of context, but this morning i just found myself thinking about this. if sampras was playing now, and healthy i do believe he would be among the top 3 players in the ranking. here is why. Sampras is a better grasscourt player than federer, and i don't think that federer would have dominate Wimbledon the way he has. Also, even though i think that federer is a better hardcourt player than sampras it not by much, and sampras would get 4 out 10, at victories, at least so federer would not dominate the hardcourt season as well.. Maybe federer would still be number 1 because he plays well on everything, but no way would the the gap, his lead , be so great. Indoor season, i would give to sampras 6 out of 10 yimes if they played. But let not forget nadal. some people seem to forget that heavy topsin also gives sampras a huge problem, and his backhand ,overall, is not as good as federer.( when it comes to passing shots, his backhand /shots are better than federer). They (federer,sampras, nadal) have a winning instinct this cannot be undervalued. Stich has as much talent as sampras,even volleyed better, but did not have this instinct. Becker, had the game, ability to be much more dominate, but his lack of total commitment, getting into top shape ( i think that physically, he was at his best 1988-1991-during bob brett era).There were always the occassion were becker would demonstrate exactly how great aplayer he was ,like to prove a point... if i wanted to, i could be number 1(davis cup1987-1992. stockholm name a few) I remember watching an interview where bolliteri was coaching becker saying, " i knew he was good, but I never realize that he could so much, he more talented than i thought" Anyhow i think this is a fair assetment. Did I miss anything?

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