The supporting cast

In Gstaad or Kitzbühel, Paul-Henri Mathieu and Mikhail Youzhny might light up the marquees, bold face names in a 32-person draw.  And every once in a while, they hoist the winner’s trophy, the leading man in an off-Broadway production staged between the Grand Slams.

When the tours reconvene in Melbourne, Paris, London, and New York, however, the pecking order is restored. Mathieu and Youzhny step back from the proscenium to take their places in the chorus. Federer, Nadal, and the rest of the top-10 strut beneath the kleig lights; the game’s second tier do battle on the sidecourts, their matches mostly ignored by the mainstream press and the Slams’ marketeers.

The game’s best are awe-inspiring, freakish outliers on the spectrum of human achievement, more an anthropomorphic idea of excellence than its flesh-and-blood embodiment. The Mathieus and Youzhnys are something different, something more poignant:  exemplars of near-greatness.

Clash of the mortals

On August 31, 2009, Mathieu and Youzhny faced off in the first round of the U.S. Open. Mathieu, ranked 27, stands just over six feet tall, lean and muscular. A shock of curly hair gives him a youthful look, but his dark, deep-set eyes seem troubled by doubt. His strokes are a sight to behold. Mathieu gets low and stays balanced as he rips through forehands. He can flatten out the stroke and drive the ball through the court, channel all the racket head speed into pure topspin—the ball floats over the net, then explodes off the Decoturf—or hit deep rally shots that combine equal measures of topspin and drive.

Mathieu takes the first set with ease, 6-2. Stroke for stroke, he’s clearly Youzhny’s better. But you get the feeling that the 60th-ranked Youzhny can draw on reserves of mental and emotional toughness to keep him in the match. His crewcut and severe, inscrutable expression reinforce this impression. The Russian looks like a Red Army lieutenant straight out of central casting.

In the second set, Youzhny’s flat forehand, which barely seems to clear the net, starts to find its range. Mathieu looks tentative. He has a bigger wind up on his groundstrokes. He needs a little more time to set up, and Youzhny is taking his time away. At 6-5, Youzhny serves for the set. He hits two forehand errors. He howls, raises his palms to the sky, and berates in himself in Russian. (In April 2008, in a scene that quickly went viral on YouTube, Youzhny bashed and bloodied his forehead with his racket after losing a point at the Sony Ericsson Open.) He pulls himself together, gets set point, then cracks a backhand winner to take the set.

Exquisite strokes, emotional frailty

As the third set begins, the real or imagined signs of doubt in Mathieu’s eyes become manifest in his game. He records just two winners to 14 unforced errors. In the first set, the count was 11 winners to 7 unforced errors. Mathieu’s first serve percentage drops to a dismal 33%. He loses the third set 0-6.

Youzhny’s shot repertoire is limited. He hits his one-handed backhand flat or with slice. That’s it. But he’s making the most of his tools, disrupting Mathieu’s rythym, and drawing errors from the more accomplished ball striker.  In the third game, he breaks Mathieu, then holds, to go up 3-1. He breaks again in the seventh game, then takes the set–and match–6-2.

The next act

Youzhny walks to the center of the court. He places the racket face on the top of his head. He turns to each of the four sides of the court and salutes. Mathieu is out. Youzhny will disappear in the next round. Once the tours leave the Grand Slams, Mathieu and Youzhny might once again take center stage, maybe in Casablanca or Marseilles. In the meantime, you can watch Federer, Nadal, Roddick, and Murray doing battle on Ashe.

–A. Clarke

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