Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Old Hero and the Jung Villain: a fairy tale

Once upon a time (that is to say, last night), an Italian-born, South African-representing, Canadian-residing, last-tournament-playing, 635th-ranked 34-year-old tennis player named Rik de Voest faced down a frightening enemy from the south (California, to be specific) and, using a clever mix of defense, offense, grit, pluck, and luck, fought a great battle in front of a small crowd at the Odlum Brown Vancouver Open in his adopted hometown, one of whom was certainly his wife, who had to be the one who kept encouraging him: "Come on, Rik," her voice rang out clearly and strongly. "Right here, Rik."

The enemy was Jason Jung. An unlikely villain if there ever one was, Jung has outlined his recent travails in one of the best, most sincere player blogs this blog has seen. He comes across as so nice and earnest and gosh darn scrappy - truly a poorly cast ogre.  But this is a fairy tale and it has to have a bad guy, even though Canadians tend to be very welcoming toward both sides of a sporting contest that is not ice hockey and in no way did they treat him as a villian.

Anyway, Jung, our villian, came out on fire (not literally, this is not The Hunger Games). His movement was remarkable, his groundies scintillating, and his serve on the money.  When he came forward it was on his terms, and he finished off points like the solid doubles player he is. This, one felt, could be a breakout match for the 25-year-old Michigan alum, one that would give him a new career-high ranking and position him well for a run at the Top 250 or higher this year. With that comes direct entry into grand slam qualifying and seeding at smaller challengers. (Here at the Odlum Brown VanOpen, Jung was the top seed - in qualies.)

Honestly, everything was just going so well. And it's not like de Voest, our hero, was playing poorly by any means. He was just unable to withstand the many haymakers the American was throwing. The second started with both players holding serve, including an impressive one-minute love hold game to get Jung to 3-3. He then broke de Voest at 30 (thanks to 5 pretty poor unforced errors from Rik) for 4*-3 and consolidated easily for 5-3*.

And that's when things got weird and foreshadowy and a bit fantastical.

At 40-30, de Voest hit a forehand off his back foot that clipped the tape and barely rolled over - the second such dribbler of the set - and he forced Jason Jung to serve for the match.

Mark Bey, who did an excellent job commentating on this match in the absence of paternity-leave-taking Mike Cation, made a comment later in the match: "Fortune favors the bold." (He may have said favours, since he's in Canada this week.) Now we all know that "fortune" - as in a force of some sort, perhaps embodied by some sort of humanoid not dissimilar to a Roman goddess or robed figure on a tarot card - fortune, that is, that actually guides balls and net cords and the wind and the like - doesn't exist. It can't exist because if it did exist it would suggest there was some sort of rhyme or reason to chance occurrences, and that perhaps if we understood the force better we could even affect its actions and that's not how any of this works! So that old saw is actually super problematic, even more so since fortune in this case favo(u)red Rik de Voest, our hero, who not-so-boldly hit the ball this paragraph is dedicated to off his back foot, instead of Jason Jung, our villian, who had been forcing the action very boldly all day. Instead, in this case, fortune - as in chance - as in random happenstance - simply worked to the benefit of a guy who desperately needed a break, and who took advantage of the opportunity the net cord gave him to play loose and smart tennis for the rest of the match.

The next game, Jason Jung, who had not faced a break point all match, began what what many spectators assumed (or feared) was to have been the final singles game of Rik de Voest's career with a double fault. A missed return and an ace later and it was 30*-15. But then the loose (in a good way) play came from our hero. An aggressive and successful net approach got him to 30-30 and a poor error gave him his first break point of the match, which Jung saved with his own aggressive approach play. A second break point was saved thanks to a missed de Voest return, and then a great one-two play gave Jung match point. Unfortunately, as Bey pointed out, he went for too much on his first serve and then following the second serve, overhit his second shot and hit another unforced error to set up break point #3.

W hat followed was a deadly, 49-stroke rally in which neither player was willing to take a chance or give an inch. While the stuff of legend, such rallies are not necessarily great. Indeed, quality of stroke simply doesn't matter in such rallies: it becomes about the drama. Remember, this was for either 5-5 or to put Jung again two points from the match.  If this were a Sylvester Stallone 1980s staring-contest movie, this was the climactic moment in which the music swells and spectators cheer and gape and you forget that neither guy is really a professional starer they are just acting.

And, of course, it was our villian who blinked The hero won the point on a backhand error and it was 5-5. A fairy tale was unmistakeably taking place.

Jung, though, held tough and got it to a tiebreak, and went up therein 3-1. But then de Voest turned it on big time with three brilliant points culminating on a backhand crosscourt pass that had Jung flabbergasted to the extent that he dumped two balls into the net in the next two points and it was 6-3 de Voest - three set points. Jung saved the first but then came the second - another long, tense point that went 35 strokes, but 35 fantastic strokes which The Tennis Nerds tweeted was "one of the best rallies I've ever seen at a challenger" and which Mark Bey called "insane." You just need to watch it yourself, below, at 01:37:10. Suffice it to say, de Voest, on defense most of the point, won it on a Jung backhand error and with that, the set.

Somewhere, a Roman goddess figure on a tarot card winked.

By all rights the third set should have been anti-climactic and quality-wise it was patchy at times but drama-wise it just got better.  Jung held in the first game from 0-40 and then got the first break of the set to serve up 3-1. De Voest broke right back, though, as heroes do, and on we went. Jung started to cramp, just a bit (wait, aren't heroes supposed to be the ones who overcome physical ailments?). Four holds later and de Voest served at 4-5 at which point Jung got it to deuce. What commenced may have been the point of the match. Seriously - check it out below at 02:18:00. It was an all-court thrill ride featuring a netcord, lob, blind one-hander, drop shot, volley, overhead combination and after he won it, de Voest pounded his chest and smiled his lopsided smile and stuck out his tongue and the ballkids in the crowd were standing and cheering and three points later it was 5-5.

Jung was broken in the next game (on a passing shot from de Voest that would have gone long but for the wind) and it seemed absolutely certain that the end was nigh but, since this is a fairy tale, the ogre rose again and played some of his best tennis of the set to get us to a third-set tiebreak.  And then this nutty match got. Even. Nuttier.

Jung serving to open the tiebreak: Missed first serve. Made the second serve. Except it was a fault because it was a FOOT FAULT! Which I guess happens at inopportune moments when you're cramping but COME THE HELL ON, LINE JUDGE!!! At 2-0, though, Rik hits a Shankerer shot. But then Jung hits his first serve at 1-2 into the net and his second serve bounces before it gets to the net and it's 1-3. Next: a let serve and then a serve into the net and a second serve that's returned with interest but then Jung hits a HUGE forehand down the line and it's 2-3. A missed return from Jung and we change sides, 4-2 de Voest.

But then! De Voest, who has hit exactly one double fault through nearly two and a half hours, hits his second double fault to get us back on serve.


Okay, so, at 3-4 Jung hits a backhand long and at 3-5 he absolutely club-level aspirated-WH whiffs on an overhead. And yet we don't blame him because at this point of the fairy tale, the princess has to defeat the ogre, right?  And so, with three match points, de Voest goes to the service line to give the emotionally exhausted Vancouver crowd the perfect ending they so needed and desired.

And he double faults.

Thankfully for fans of fairy tale endings, de Voest won the next, final point. Jung played a fantastic point, got to the net with an approach to the de Voest backhand, and then dumped a backhand volley and lost the match. Over. 4-6 7-6(4) 7-6(4).  Each man had won 115 points but Rik de Voest won the last one and his career will live happily ever, or at least until Wednesday, when he plays the winner of #2 seed Jimmy Wang and up-and-comer Thanasi Kokkinakis.

In the end, even a blog as pro-USAmerican-player as On the Rise (a tennis blog) couldn't help but tip this blog's cap to the outstanding show these two men put on. This blog was heartbroken for Jason Jung, let there be no doubt. This blog really loves his game and his attitude and so much wants success for him at the highest levels of the sport.

But at the same time, as stories go, this was a damn good one. And so this blog may have smiled, just a bit, along with Rik de Voest, our hero, as he went to the net to shake hands with his gutted, cramping, not-really-villainous-at-all defeated opponent.

Because who doesn't enjoy, at some level, a good fairy tale?

Watch the whole thing, with far superior commentary, below:

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