Amnon Free Press
Some happy news in dismal times: Gael Monfils proposed to Elina Svitolina, promising a wedding in a few months and congratulations across the low-key, by pro-sports standards, tennis world for a unit that is deservedly popular with both fans and fellow athletes.
Rumors that the two high-ranked players had broken up after a few years of dating were dispelled by the reserved announcement they put up on the “G.E.M.S.” social media account, which they use to keep their friends and fans aware of their doings.
Monfils, the young man, is one of France’s top players, who in his early 30s must admit to having had the opportunity, if also the disappointment, of playing through years during which the men’s tour was dominated by three maestri. But la Monf, by the French play on his family name, if missing many of the trophies he might have accumulated in another era, is broadly recognized as a superb shotmaker and showman, endowed with an acrobatic athleticism that might have qualified him for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Actually, like many tennis men, basketball is his other sport. At six four, he is just a little above average for young tennis pros. The finals at the Miami Open this past weekend were between a six-two Jannik Sinner and a six-five Hubert Hurkacz, both of whom may have caught some of Gonzaga–UCLA as soon as they came off the court and will be watching the zooming Bulldogs hustle against the powerful Baylor Bears tonight.
Monfils, for a certainty, watched one of the most thrilling semis in March Madness history. Tennis players never fail to tell you the foot speed and court eyes learned in the hoop game are what they hone, growing up, in Euro-football and skiing, among other activities. Sinner himself was a champion junior downhill racer, and Hurkacz, not unlike John Isner and Gael Monfils, said he would have gravitated to basketball had he not come from a tennis-playing family.
Svitolina, the young lady, who is from Odessa, has won rather more on the WTA tour over the past 10 years than her fiancé has on the ATP. Notwithstanding the long reign of Serena Williams, the women’s tour has been more lively, as girls have risen and fallen and risen again as they grow into young ladies. Seeded fifth, she made it to the semis at Miami, where Ash Barty, defending champion, beat her in two sets, following which she went on to beat former U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who had to give up during the second set due to injury.
Ash Barty, Australia’s top player and WTA No. 1, is an artist on the court, with a game more shrewd than Hsieh Su-wei and even more varied and fast as Agnes Radwańska’s. You can see only some of this on the screen, and unfortunately that is how most of us are watching tennis since last year. At Miami only a thousand seats a day were available at the new Hard Rock Stadium, which is prepared for 30,000, and only 20 press passes for a media contingent that in normal times numbers 10 times that.
The sport’s royalty passed up the second act of the Sunshine Double this year, following the cancellation of Act One at Indian Wells. But one of the side benefits was that, notably on the men’s side, the young generation underscored the competitive intensity in its cohort. The most likely finalists were beaten by the not unlikely, but not expected, Jannik Sinner, at 19 the youngest finalist since Rafael Nadal, and Hubert Hurkacz, 24, who joins Iga Swiatek, last year’s French Open women’s draw winner, as Poland’s most popular athlete. Like his younger friend and rival, he is a throwback to the good sportsmanship and faultless manners of yore.
Hurkacz is a superb defensive player who has an uncanny ability to reach anything sent to him, not only thanks to his wide arm span. Sinner is the more explosive player, but he was unable this time to disrupt his the game of his opponent, who stuck to a plan that he applied throughout the week, based on patience. He prepares the moment from the baseline, even if he must start over after saving a shot that by rights looks like a winner. It worked against the high seeds Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov, and it confounded the young Tyrolian whose aggressive play was in stunning display in dramatic matches against Roberto Bautista Augut and Alexander Bublik.
Now is not the time to ask where the Americans were. Now is the time to say the best ones won, from over yonder, Poland, Australia, the world. The sanitary restrictions and the politicization of the big sports seem to have brought a great many people out on the courts whom one never saw before. At the far east side of D.C., the coaches of the Tennis at Fort Lincoln Park Civic and Athletic Association coax and instruct kids and bigger kids daily. One or two will emerge, if not from there, from Charlie Ribault’s care at the nearby Dwight Mosley Park, or even somewhere else. And young men and women will fall in love and marry, and then return to the court and, with firm arms and sharp eyes, send their shots over the net.
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