WASHINGTON, D.C. — Donald Dell observed that the Rio Games was seriously cutting into the tennis tournaments on the North American summer circuit, of which the Washington Open (Citi Open in its current phase) is his own baby.
The Washington Open, created by Dell many years ago and managed by his company, ProServ (a pioneer in sports management and marketing) benefits the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation (WTEF), one of the oldest save-kids-through-sports – not counting Little League baseball and Police Athletic Leagues. And, of course, if it takes a hit they take a hit.
They will do fine, they get reasonable contributions from area philanthropists, some of whom have done well on the federal dollar, others, like Dell himself and the bankers and businessmen who gave of their time and money (lots of it, in the case of H. G. FitzGerald, for whom the quaint, exceptionally well designed stadium at the Rock Creek Tennis Center on 16th St. NW is named), back in the days when these kinds of individuals lived and thrived in Washington. They often gave time to the federals, in the military or some of our specialized agencies or, in FitzGerald’s own case, as ambassador to Ireland, but this was always strictly on the Cincinnatus principle, you serve and go home.
At any rate, Dell was well aware attendance was low this year, and it could not be blamed on the humid heat because it always hot and humid in Washington and you live with it and you get used to it. The players themselves felt it, of course, and got used to it, judging from the level of play. Extreme heat – upper 90s, 100 on center court – causes tennis balls to bounce faster and higher. There were a lot of big servers at this tournament, and by the time they got into the quarter finals, it was aceville.
The no. 1 seed, American John Isner, was beaten in the quarters by his compatriot Steve Johnson, himself a big server, while American Jack Sock, with his fantastic forehand, was broken once in each set to go down before Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic, already well on the way to setting the tournament record for number of aces; he also owns the record for the career aces in ATP events. The other quarters also had big serve men in them, notably France’s Gael Monfils and the young German phenom, 19-year old Alexander Zverev. All these boys are tall. Isner is six-eleven, and two American teens who are being watched closely and who did reasonably well at the tournament, Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka are up there in the heights.
Well, there has been this kind of evolution in the sport, and maybe it means something and maybe it means nothing. However, what concerned Donald Dell, a great tennis player of the 1950s and 1960s who was on the Davis Cup team with his lifelong friend Arthur Ashe, whom his firm later represented, was the tournament’s attendance and, even more important, the continuing weakness of tennis promotion. Another evolution? Tall players and weak promotion by the USTA (the national federation) and the sports media?
Dell has a beef about this. USTA cut a deal with ESPN last year that gives the network exclusive rights to the U.S. Open Series, essentially the North American summer hard court circuit that leads into the Open. Don’t want ESPN, yer outta the series. The series is a valuable innovation, Dell believes, indeed he always supported it, in that it creates a ranked season, the winners getting bonuses if they win at the finish, ie take the U.S. Open. This can mean a lot of moolah, and it (may) encourage fan interest.
But ESPN only wanted to give the Washington tournament a few hours of coverage, and make them pay besides; injury added to insult. Meanwhile, the Tennis Channel offered wall to wall (or first to last ball) coverage, and would pay for it: balm added to respect. For Dell, a businessman who has to think about his interests as well as those of the tournament’s beneficiaries, the staff and kids of the WTEF, the decision was not difficult, but he was still smarting from the shabbiness of it all. There just are not enough people out there who want to promote tennis.
It may not be all bad. It keeps ticket prices down except at the biggest tournaments, allows fans to do what fans are supposed to do: take a lazy summer day off whatever they normally do and enjoy some of the best of a game they themselves play, or played, or watch their children play. Fandom can be a very sick state of mind, even if, practiced with moderation and intelligence, it is a civilized mannerism.
The only moment when I feared for the fans at the FitzGerald Center occurred when they began going all out for Gael Monfils in the final, which was from the first ball he served, and he served first. There is nothing wrong, note, with cheering your man on, and Monfils, who certainly plays to the gallery, while maintaining graceful manners and good sportsmanship, gets this kind of reception everywhere, even when playing against Americans at the U.S. Open.
In this case, he was up against the six-eleven, two-hundred-fifty-or-so pound Karlovic, who had mowed every one else down, just as he had the previous week en route to winning the Hall of Fame Classic at Newport, Rhode Island, the last great grass tournament in the U.S. Ivo has a shrewd mind, somewhat melancholic but not without wry humor, as what would you expect from someone who grew up in Zagreb when Yugoslavia tore itself apart in a torment of race hatred. He does not seek the crowd’s approval, and he did not get it. There were perfunctory nods when he executed the serve and volley, which he does often – one of the very few players who still knows how to – and he made a few remarkable winners on his returns of serve, which he does rarely; but no: Ivo was not in fashion.
Note that Monfils played a terrific match and no doubt deserved the support he got. He certainly earned the win. At the brink of defeat after dropping the first set and getting into a 4-5 hole in the second, he did what no man had done before (all week) and broke what should have been Karlovic’s clinching service game. The rest is a minor classic, as the man from Paris grabbed the momentum, and with it the set, and then held on to take the decisive third one, allowing afterward that he knew the man from Zagreb was exhausted from all that serve-and-volleying as well as dispirited.
Shrewd Monfils: and more. He had heart, as they say: after all, he too was near exhaustion, had been serving his arm out in aces and running after Karlovic’s volleys from the net. With very few rallies, it was a fascinating match, somewhat evocative of the way Australians and Americans used to play on grass, rushing to the net and making sensational cross court volleys or putting it over with what they called “soft hands,” unreacheable drops.
Monfils has a history of falling short, and indeed this was his first 500 level tournament (major, or slam, 1000, 500, 250: thus the ATP ranks them), which is remarkable, even bizarre, for one of the era’s best players, but this win was sweet, for his childhood idols, Arthur Ashe and Yannick Noah, are past winners (Ashe moreover persuaded the WTEF to put the tournament here rather than in the D.C. suburbs.).
Karlovic is not one of the era’s top players, only one of the world’s best players. There is a difference. If you are ranked within the first 50 by the ATP, okay, you are among the best in the world. The top means top 10. Monfils should be up there but he is usually around the top 15. Anyway, Karlovic was superb too and went all the way but the last inches, somehow lost that immense serve when he should have closed, then went mental, or physical, or both.
As he said, “That’s tennis.”