Sunday, August 28, 2011

Flushing Meadows

I was at Flushing Meadows earlier this week – to watch the first day of the qualifying rounds for the U.S. Open – and I must say I was utterly underwhelmed. Not with the quality of the tennis, which by qualifying rounds standards was excellent, but with the general vibe of the arena.

The US Open moved from its Forest Hills venue to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 1978 at Flushing Meadows and has since then been played on hard courts. The venue has seen the tournament grow into a commercial behemoth. The place palpably lacks a sense of history; it has a plastic feel to it – you don’t get the impression that a John McEnroe or a Chris Evert once strode there with imperious grace.

There are, however, snippets of the past to consume if you are willing to walk into areas that are otherwise barren, such as the ‘Court of Champions,’ which celebrates the past winners with dedicated plaques, located near the South Gate. Even that, though, is essentially unimpressive. And barring that, all you will see is food stalls selling pretzels and pizzas, the official merchandise store selling t-shirts and caps, all at exorbitant prices.

In brief, you don’t get the feeling that you’re in a place truly historic. Yes, the arena is relatively new, but the tournament isn’t, and you would have thought greater emphasis would have been placed on its cultural significance. Sadly, however, the place brims with commercial garishness and does little justice to the repute of the event that it stages.


That’s enough of the rant, though. As gaudy as the arena was, the tennis was beautiful. I had the chance to recall, the late, David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay on the physics and metaphysics of tennis, titled “The String Theory.” In the paper – which I rate as one of the best pieces of writing that I’ve ever read on the sport – Wallace writes about the experience of watching Michael T. Joyce, then a top hundred player, at the qualifying rounds of the Canadian Open in Montreal. He deconstructs the game, with gorgeous delight, to explain the thin margins that separate a very good player from a truly great one.

Consider this paragraph, for instance:

“Even more illuminating than watching pro tennis live is watching it with Sam Aparicio. Watching tennis with him is like watching a movie with somebody who knows a lot about the technical aspects of film: He helps you see things you can’t see alone. It turns out, for example, that there are whole geometric sublevels of strategy in a power-baseline game, all dictated by various PBers’ [read: power-baseliners] strength and weaknesses. A PBer depends on being able to hit winners from the baseline. But, as Sam teaches me to see, Michael Chang can hit winners only at an acute angle from either corner. An “inside-out” player like Jim Courier, though, can hit winners only at obtuse angles from the center out. Hence, wily and well-coached players tend to play Chang “down the middle” and Courier “out wide.” One of the things that make Agassi so good is that he’s capable of hitting winners from anywhere on the court -- he has no geometric restriction. Joyce, too, according to Sam, can hit a winner at any angle. He just doesn’t do it quite as well as Agassi, or as often.”

Wallace also posits that television doesn’t let you “appreciate what real top-level players can do.” I couldn’t agree more. I have seen a few of them play at the Chennai Open and the power and the accuracy of their strokes boggles the mind. This, though, was a different opportunity for me. I was going to see some very good players from really close quarters. In some cases I was going to be at a distance no longer than six feet from the tramlines.

First up, I visited court 9. Estonia’s Jurgen Zopp was playing Sergei Bubka, the son of the legendary, world-record holding, pole-vaulter, Sergey. Bubka, 24, has been on the tour for many years now, struggling to break into the top echelons. He is ranked just outside the top 200 and has never made it to a Grand Slam main draw. As one would only expect, he is athletically built and on the evidence of this match, he has a strong serve and is particularly good on his backhand wing, which he hits with a double-handed hold. He is even capable of jumping onto it, a la Marat Safin, and hitting it with serious venom.

Bubka steamrolled Zopp in the first set, winning it 6-3, in just 25 minutes. It was only the first round of qualifying, but he seemed a class apart. His first serves were quick and placed at the edge of the service box and his second were swerving and clever.

In the second set, Zopp found greater rhythm. Bubka was still the superior player, holding his service games with ease and stretching Zopp on his. But Zopp, somehow managed to hold on to his serves, and took the set to a tiebreak. In it, the Ukrainian’s class again shone through. There were difficult moments to counter, but he served with rare confidence and took the tiebreak 7-5.

Watching from the side, I was astonished at the sheer pace of Bubka’s groundstrokes. If this was how hard the World’s 210th ranked player could hit the ball, I wondered how good the truly great players were. The margins, though, must be really thin. It cannot be merely be a case of power. While Bubka, can hit backhands on the run with amazing power and accuracy 7 times out of 10, maybe Djokovic and Nadal can make it 9 out of 10 times. Regardless, I was watching someone who is exceedingly good in his craft even if he was just short of being a great player.


After Bubka was through, I shifted my attention to court no. 4 where France’s Arnaud Clement, once ranked as high as no. 10, was to play Canada’s Frank Dancevic. Clement is now ranked 154 in the world, while Dancevic is 183rd. Clement reached the finals of the Australian Open in 2001, losing in straight sets to Andre Agassi. Incidentally en route to that final he defeated a young Roger Federer. He has also reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the US Open in the past.

He is short for a tennis player – only 1.72 meters tall – but his calves are muscular. He is essentially a counterpuncher – his style involves scurrying across the baseline and making the opponent play one ball more than he would like to.

Frank Dancevic, is Canada’s third best player. He was ranked 65th in the world in 2007. But, since then troubled by back problems, his ranking has plummeted. Nonetheless, he looks a proper tennis player, athletically built, standing at 1.85 meters. He plays too, as I found out soon, beautifully.

The bleachers on Court 4 were filling up. Even though Clement was, arguably, the biggest draw of the qualifiers, the crowd was surprisingly large. Dancevic, however, was the one who shone brightest. He served hard and accurately and made Clement work very hard in his service games, pushing him around the court and dominating imperiously.

Dancevic’s backhand, I must say, is a thing of beauty. I have a particular predilection for single-handed backhands, and Dancevic’s, regardless of his ranking, was one that stood out for its sheer magnificence. Often the ball seemed to stand still, as he readied himself to stroke his backhand.

Time is often the decisive factor that separates the good from the great. Dancevic certainly had the goods on his backhand wing. He could slice it delicately, either dropping it just over the net or deep into one of the corners, with sharp spin; he could hit it flat with pace and accuracy, increasing the tempo of the point; or he could hit it with top spin, sliding the racquet head up and over the ball when striking it.

Dancevic dominated, nearly, from start to finish, winning the match 6-3, 6-3, breaking Clement’s serve four times and allowing himself to be broken only once. I had expected to watch Clement showcase his artistry, but I was nevertheless satisfied at watching, from such close quarters, a player strike his backhand with rare elegance. I suspect had Dancevic not been plagued with injuries, we may have been hearing of him more now.


I also watched Lithuania’s twenty-one-year-old Richard Berankis disposing off Spain’s Guillermo Alcide 6-2, 6-2 in just three-quarters of an hour. Berankis is certainly one for the future – he varies his rallies by sometimes going for power and at other times opting to change the rhythm with little slices and dabs.

France’s Caroline Garcia, who was ever so close to upsetting Maria Sharapova in the French Open, though, came up a cropper against Russia’s Regina Kulikova. Garcia won the first set, looked in fine touch, serving well and finding corners of the court with remarkable ease. But Kulikova upped her game in the second and third sets, even as Garcia’s own game began to wane. Still only eighteen, however, Garcia showed enough skill to suggest that she is likely to make a definite impact on the women’s game in the future.


The day, though, wasn’t only about the qualifying rounds. I saw Andrea Petkovic practice with her coaches at Louis Armstrong and she struck the ball with so much power and with so much style that I could sit there watching for hours. Robin Soderling and Mikhail Youzhny played a practice match, a little later, on the same court. Soderling, suffering in recent times with a wrist injury, certainly looked a bit off, not hitting the ball with as much as power as one is accustomed to seeing from him. Youzhny, however, made for a sublime sight, with his single-backhanded backhand glittering in the radiant sunshine. Somdev Devvarman and Janko Tipsarevic had a hit at the Grandstand stadium with the Serb pummeling the Indian from the back of the court. Somdev had his moments, but for the most part, Tipsarevic was utterly dominant.

At the end of it all, I was left a little stunned. I knew these players hit the ball with great power and found angles of geometric brilliance. But witnessing it from as close as I did, gave me a whole different perspective. Tennis, I have always thought, is the world’s most beautiful sport and any lingering doubts, have now been put firmly to rest.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ian Bell, the late-cut and artistic batting

I was a fan of Ian Bell even before I had ever seen him play Test cricket. Not that I had watched him play enough in County games, but his prodigious talents were much spoken about well before his England debut. It was in one of the Wisden magazines, I think, which was on display at Landmark, where I first read about his potential – a player who relied on touch and finesse more than power and one who supposedly had the talent to become one of the game’s top run-scorers. The description of his batting, I remember vividly, suggested that it was a sight to behold, full of elegant cover drives and delightful flicks.

It was his penchant for the late-cut, though, that did me in. I hadn’t seen him play, of course, but if he could play the late-cut well – which almost all the pieces written about him seemed to suggest – then he had to be mighty good. I’ve had an endless fascination for the stroke, heard romantics purr in delight when merely talking about Gundappa Vishwanath’s execution of it and I myself have derived great pleasure from watching Carl Hooper and Mark Waugh play the stroke, ever so late, with the care of a surgeon and the joie de vivre of an artist. But by the time Bell was ripe enough for his debut, V.V.S. Laxman’s and Damien Martyn’s batting had already captured my imagination. They both made batting look ridiculously simple and played in beautiful, flowing styles, essaying the late-cut with rare polish.

Yet, I waited in anticipation of Bell’s debut. I wanted to see, for myself, what the fuss about his batting was all about. I wanted to see if there was finesse in his late-cut; could he pierce seemingly non-existent gaps through the slips and the gully?

In August 2004, against the West Indies, with Graham Thorpe – another favourite of mine – injured for the fourth test at the Oval, in came Bell, still only twenty-two-years-old. He looked rather innocuous –skin, freckled; hair, ginger; build, light and ostensibly under-confident – surely he was no batting artist? Yet in the middle, bar a testing time against Fidel Edwards, he looked the bit. He was neat and composed in his stance, he had oodles of time to play his shots and he certainly possessed the gift of timing. His propensity to play the ball almost posthumously, at times, was also on display and I revelled in watching the arrival of a new artist – one who could not only play the late-cut, but play it bloody well, with subtlety and elegance.

The real test, I knew, was still to come. His talent was obviously undoubted – he seemed to be endowed with many natural gifts, but his temperament remained to be tested. Indeed, in the years to come, he seemed to make a name for himself as a flat-track bully – one who could pummel inferior attacks with ease and elegance, but who came a cropper in examinations of mental fortitude against the best, viz. Australia. Shane Warne – who gave Bell the moniker Sherminator practically drove him to mental disintegration, tormenting him psychologically, if not purely through cricketing skills.

But under, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss, Bell has blossomed. Finally, the prettiness in his batting is finding its justification in his run-making. Indeed he didn’t have the greatest of starts under the new management. He was dropped immediately after England’s embarrassing loss at Jamaica in February 2009. He was sent back to play for Warwickshire – to find not merely form, but to build his mental resilience. His response to being dropped, though, was excellent. He made scores of runs in County Cricket and earned a recall to the Eleven for the third Ashes test, but it wasn’t until the decider at the Oval that he displayed the complete extent of his comeback. On a difficult wicket, batting at one-down, he dropped anchor not merely through a display of artistic batsmanship, but by showcasing outstanding resilience and newfound mental toughness.

From there on, it has, almost, been all rosy for Bell. The runs have flowed, whether batting at 3 or 5, and he has found the balance between extravagant stroke-play and necessary watchfulness. A century of the highest class at Durban against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in an innings victory for England showed that he had come a full circle. He played the pacers serenely, concentrating hard to settle down before unveiling his rich array of strokes, which no doubt included a few of those fluid late-cuts.

In the tour to Australia last year, he easily looked England’s best batsman; but wasted behind an out-of-form Kevin Pietersen and a declining Paul Collingwood, at number 6, Bell rarely got the opportunity to make a big score. Yet at the SCG in the fifth test, in partnership with Matt Prior, he made a splendid 115 to help England put a cherry on top of their Ashes triumph. It was a century of rare class – one in which he displayed both obstinacy and style.

This summer, he’s already made three test match hundreds. The first two, at Cardiff and Southampton, against Sri Lanka, were both phenomenal in their artistic delight. They were littered with velvety late-cuts – time and again he let the ball go past him before caressing it gently into the third-man boundary.

These knocks, though, came in relatively easy circumstances against a weak Sri Lankan bowling attack. The century against India, however, in the on-going Test at Trent Bridge has not merely been exquisite in its artistry but is a vindication of his advancement as a batsman. With Trott injured, he walked in at number three, survived a tricky phase at the end of day two before stroking the most sublime century today. He not only eased England’s nerves, but also put it in a position of supreme command. His century came off a mere 129 balls and was exhilarating in its imagination. He timed the ball with purity, and his placement was often immaculate to the point of perfection. His innings – and perhaps also the sporting reprieve that he was given, albeit when he had passed his hundred – epitomises so much of what is great about the sport. It was a beautiful reminder that in an age of twenty-twenty cricket, where batsmen choose raw power as their weapon, there is still place for delicacy of touch.

(First posted at: