Dipping Forehands and Dipping Dots
by Jerry Balsam

My first two days at the 2008 US Open were consecutive day sessions, on Tuesday and Wednesday, August 26 and 27. The weather was just about perfect on both days, and I did my best to stay out of the brilliant sun. I have posted photo albums on Snapfish. You may see my August 26 album here and my August 27 album here. The albums include photos of some players whom I watched for only a few minutes, as I scurried around the outer courts, and whose exploits are therefore not reported below.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Men’s Singles, First Round, Grandstand

Sam Querrey d. Tomas Berdych (22), 6-3 6-1 6-2.


A couple of young giants slugged it out, but Querrey, an inch taller at 6’6”, did most of the slugging. Berdych, a former Top Tenner and most famously Roger Federer’s conqueror at the 2004 Olympics, has been on the downswing in advance of his twenty-third birthday, and his indifferent form was evident on this occasion. In their only prior meeting, earlier this year, Berdych handled Querrey easily at the Masters Series in Miami, but you could never tell it today.


Querrey scored breaks the first two times Berdych served. While Berdych got one break back, Querrey broke for a third time at 3-5. Berdych, having recovered from 0-40, tried a drop volley at 30-40. Querrey sprinted to hit a wonderful one-handed crosscourt backhand chip for the pass and the set. Querrey would break Berdych’s serve seven times in the match, with Berdych limited to one break of his own.


The young American showcased a powerful serve and groundstrokes but did not spend much time at the net. He threw in his first serve-and-volley point to clinch the second set and then closed out the match with an ace.


I was at the match with my father, my uncle (his brother), and my uncle’s loquacious grandson David (my first cousin, once removed). I had remarked that it was surprising to see Querrey wear an outfit that featured so much black (along with yellow) when he was playing in the midday son. A moment later, David, 9, asked: “Do their mothers pick out their clothes in the morning?” Maybe they should.


Men’s Singles, First Round, Louis Armstrong Stadium

Tommy Haas d. Richard Gasquet (12), 6-7(3) 6-4 5-7 7-5 6-2


Old man Haas, a venerable 30, is a former No. 2 in the world who’s been to the quarters here three of the last four years. The only other Slam where he’s made it past the fourth round is the Australian, where he’s a three-time semifinalist. Gasquet, no longer quite a wunderkind at 22, has been past the round of 16 at a major only once, when he roared back last year from a two-set deficit to shock Andy Roddick and reach the Wimbledon semis.


The two players feature elegant one-handed backhands, both outstanding — but Gasquet’s one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. They also like to wear backwards baseball caps, which is an interesting look for a person of Haas’s age and discretion.


Haas went up a break in the eighth game and had two set points while serving at 5-4, but he dropped four straight to level the set. Gasquet raced to a 6-1 lead in the tiebreak and closed it out 7-3 when a Haas challenge failed, as Hawkeye ruled Gasquet’s serve clipped the service line. Haas cashed in a single break in the second set and made it stand up to level the match. Haas dropped the third when he served a double fault on Gasquet’s second break point at 5-6. While Haas went up an early break in the fourth set, he was broken right back. The German scored a second break at 5-5 and then served out the set at love, closing with an ace. After three hours and nine minutes, we were all even, going to a fifth set.


The crucial game was the third, as Gasquet could not win any of four game points and was broken. Haas registered an insurance break to go up 5-2 and then served out the match. All told, Gasquet served 20 aces, but half of them in the first set. I’d surmise that Haas started to read Gasquet better as the match went on, and then he was able to bring some big-match experience to bear.


This match also offered a lesson in commerce. I was deputized to take David for ice cream. We immediately came upon a Ben & Jerry’s stand, but David announced that he wanted Dippin’ Dots. I had not been familiar with that brand, but I knew enough about life at the US Open to explain to David that Ben & Jerry’s was spending good money to make sure that no competitors were on the premises. The ice cream cone came to $5, which might be considered a bargain in the context of US Open prices. (To give David his due, he also asked me an interesting question: Was Arthur Ashe one of the greatest players ever? I explained why Arthur was such an important and admirable figure, and then David asked me: Was Louis Armstrong one of the greatest players ever? Indeed, he was!)


On my way to the next match, I walked past Court 8 and saw the most extraordinary thing: a female player regularly playing serve-and-volley. (It’s rare enough among the men these days.) She was the southpaw María José Martínez Sánchez, and it did not help, as she was to lose 6-3 6-4 to the young German Sabine Lisicki.


Men’s Singles, First Round, Louis Armstrong Stadium

Mardy Fish d. Robert Smeets (Q), 7-6(4) 6-7(3) 6-3 6-4


Fish is closing in on 27 — where does the time go? — while his opponent, an Australian lefty born in the Netherlands, is not quite 23. They both serve and volley a little bit, and both feature two-handed backhands. The last few times I’ve seen Fish, his knees were taped, but he was playing without the tape today. His forehand, perhaps befitting his Edina, MN birthplace, is a slap shot. He lays the wrist back and then whips it through on contact. This can make for some extra pace — and for some balls going where they’re not supposed to go.


The first two sets went to tiebreaks as these two big servers bashed away. (Fish’s fastest serve was 138 mph, while Smeets had to settle for 132.) In the first set tiebreak, Smeets was serving at 4-5 when two things went wrong for him: first, he netted a backhand after a (relatively) long rally, then Fish hit a crosscourt forehand for a winner. In the second set, Smeets went out to a 4-2 lead with the first break of the match. Fish drew even, and the players were off to another tiebreak. This time, Smeets won the first six points, thus giving himself six chances to close out the set. The fourth was a charm, when Fish steered a forehand wide.


A little boy sitting near me, in the company of his father, addressed the American: “Fishy, why are you doing this to me?” I told the youngster that Mardy was giving him a free lesson on how life sometimes doesn’t go as you planned. The father chuckled and said: “A lesson in tennis and in life.” It was a lesson I learned on August 26, 1965, when my father took me to my first baseball game, and I watched my hero Sandy Koufax pitch against the Mets, who had never beaten him. Not till that day, at least.


After Smeets belied his ranking and drew even in the match, he seemed to lose his zip. Fish began the third set with a hold and then a break, and he closed out the set without incident, 6-3. In the fourth set, Fish broke serve in the opening game, and then the chair umpire called for new balls. By my reckoning, that was a couple of games late, since 36 games had been played at that point, and the 7+9 system would call for a change after 34 games. It wasn’t a question of new or old balls at this point, as Fish raced to a 4-0 lead. Smeets finally held and then broke when Fish double-faulted at 4-1 15-40. Fish made no more mistakes, and he served out the match easily, bringing the curtain down on this day of tennis for me (but not for everyone at the day session) at 8:15 p.m.


But what of the dog that didn’t bark? Why was Smeets not serenaded by fans from Down Under shouting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie — oy, oy, oy!”? I have two possible explanations. Either it is because he was not born in Australia or the fans save their efforts for hometown boys ranked within the top 150.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Men’s Singles, First Round, Armstrong

Nikolay Davydenko (5) d. Dudi Sela, 6-3 6-3 6-3


I was here for ethnic identification (with Sela), certainly not to see Davydenko. Talented and hard-working as Davydenko is, he reminds me too much of Vladimir Putin — in appearance, and possibly in conduct — to be a very sympathetic figure.


The match was about as close as the score indicates. It’s not that Sela was out of his league, just that he’s not as good as Davydenko. As an astute observer sitting a row behind me said of Sela: “He’s about as good as he’s going to get. It’s a shame, because he’s a good boy. They both do the same thing, but Davydenko does it better.” The same spectator noted how Davydenko dominated points on his serve. He’d start the point with a serve with some mustard on it — Davydenko served as hard as 129 mph in this match, while Sela could not exceed 114 — move three feet into the court, and then whip his groundstrokes while Sela tried to retrieve from five or more feet behind the baseline. Sela could win only 31% of the points on Davydenko’s serve, while his own serve was barely a weapon, as Davydenko captured 48% of Sela’s service points. Sela hit the ball with reasonable topspin, but Davydenko penetrated more with flatter, harder shots. (It takes a freak of nature like Rafael Nadal to hit the ball with a combination of heavy topspin and terrifying speed.)


Perhaps the best moment for Sela came when he was serving at 2-5 in the second set. At 40-30, he retrieved a Davydenko overhead and sent up a second lob, deeper than the first. Davydenko backpedaled, looked up into the sun…and whiffed. It was a moment any public park player could appreciate, but it didn’t prevent Davydenko from serving out the set in the next game.


Sela’s most noticeable adjustments came in wardrobe: for the second set, he broke out a baseball cap; in the third, he exchanged his sleeveless black shirt for a white shirt with sleeves. It didn’t do much good.


The Israeli fans were rather restrained. There were a few desultory cries of “Yalla, Dudi,” which was interesting. In past years, I’ve heard the Israelis shout “Kadima,” which is Hebrew for “let’s go.” “Yalla” is an Arabic equivalent that has become idiomatic in modern Hebrew. Perhaps “Kadima” is off-limits now because of its political implications.


I left Armstrong and saw a bit of doubles on Court 9. I wanted to see the giant Ivo Karlovic, who was partnered by Teimuraz Gabashvili (a Russian born in Tblisi, Georgia, as it happens). They were playing Yves Allegro (just before his 30th birthday) and the journeyman Horia Tecãu. I saw two interesting things. Remarkably, Gabashvili often stays back on his serve. More remarkably, one of the ballgirls was an amputee with a prosthetic leg. According to the New York Times, her name is Kelly Bruno. More power to her! You can see my photo of Kelly here. (Allegro and Tecãu won the match, 7-6(8) 6-3.)


Women’s Singles, Second Round, Court 4

Katarina Srebotnik (28) d. Yvonne Meusburger, 6-1 6-3


I caught the last few games of this match as I scouted out a seat for the men’s match to follow. Meusburger was superstitious. When she hit a good serve, she was careful to get that ball back for the next point, and she also made sure not to step on the baseline as she took her position to serve. As with many superstitions, these were unavailing.


Men’s Singles, First Round, Court 4

Marin Cilic (30) d. Julien Benneteau, 4-6 7-5 6-3 6-7(7) 6-2


I stayed for only the first two sets, I regret to say. I knew Cilic, the second-best teenager in the world, behind Juan Martin Del Potro, was worth watching, but the sun and the backless bleachers on Court 4 were getting to me. In a month, Cilic won’t be a teenager anymore, so where does that leave us? (Del Potro turns 20 five days earlier.)


The scoreline of the match indicates that Cilic served 21 aces and 5 double faults, while Benneteau had 3 and 9, respectively. Take away the 22-point edge on aces and doubles, and Cilic’s 7-point edge overall turns into a 15-point deficit. So, yes, this was obviously a match in which serve made a big difference, and Cilic’s 6’6” height did not hurt.


Court 4 is not tough merely for spectators. There is no singles net; rather, there is a doubles net with singles sticks. There is no radar gun to measure the serves. There is a lot of noise, most prominently the scores being announced on neighboring courts. It’s a long way from the cavernous atmosphere of Arthur Ashe Stadium, let alone the grace of Centre Court, Wimbledon.


In the first set, Benneteau broke in the opening game and again in the seventh after dropping his own serve in the sixth. He saved a break point in the eighth game and three more in the tenth as he served out the set. The one Cilic really would have liked back, I think, was the 30-40 point in the final game. Benneteau hit a kick serve to Cilic’s backhand on second serve. Cilic, who doesn’t have to worry about high-bouncing balls getting out of his hitting range, smacked the return long.


Benneteau immediately went up a break in the second set, too. He gave that break right back with a double fault. Cilic had three chances to go up a break in the sixth game, but he couldn’t cash in, with greatest frustration when he netted a sitter forehand on the second break chance. Benneteau eventually held with a rare serve and (drop) volley, polished off with an overhead. The wheels came off for Benneteau at 5-6. He fell behind 0-30, screamed at the umpire when his serve up the middle was called wide (there are no Hawkeye challenges on Court 4 — or anywhere but Ashe and Armstrong, for that matter) and promptly double-faulted for three set points. Cilic cashed in the second opportunity, and I headed for shadier pastures.


I got to Armstrong just in time to wait on the runway as Robby Ginepri finished off Amer Delic, 6-1 6-2 7-6(5).


Men’s Singles, First Round, Armstrong

Ernests Gulbis d. Thomas Johansson, 7-5 6-1 7-6(3)


The one time Gulbis and Johansson had played, it was a blowout last year in favor of the Latvian youngster, who will beat Cilic and Del Potro to age 20 by getting there on Saturday, August 30. Aside from that history between the players, Gulbis had to be favored because of his higher ranking. I wanted to see this match in case it proved to be the US Open swansong for Johansson, who will be 34 next March and is now removed from the form that took him to two wonderful if surprising titles: the Masters Series event in Montreal in 1999 and, most memorably, the Australian Open in 2002.


Gulbis calls upon a bigger serve, but the hardest serve of the match was Johansson’s. Johansson has a beautiful two-handed backhand, a compact stroke devoid of extra moving parts. For his part, Gulbis has an explosive forehand, but sometimes it explodes in his face. In Toronto this summer, Gulbis led Jose Acasuso 5-1 in the third, and then his backhand started to go every which way. Acasuso kept giving him chances to miss the forehand, and Gulbis obliged, dropping six consecutive games and the match. Before I saw that match, I had assumed Gulbis was Top Ten material — and he may well still be. Now, though, one has to wonder if he has what it takes to win tough matches. Seeing his mechanical forehand volley in the warm-up (but rarely in the match), one must wonder further: it is almost as if he is trying to hit the ball from behind his body.


The stat sheet indicates that Gulbis averaged 100 mph on his second serve. Many of those second serves came in at 110 mph or faster. This brought back a memory. Ten years ago, I saw Mark Philippoussis beat Johansson in a fifth set tiebreak, 12-10, in the US Open quarterfinals. Each man had three match points in the tiebreak. I remember Philippoussis shocking spectators by hitting some second serves at 115 mph. That’s still not common, but it’s not a shock anymore. (By the way, at the time Philippoussis was 21 and Johansson 23. Who would have guessed that Johansson would still be playing while Philippoussis had become a reality show contestant, or that Johansson would be the one to grab a Grand Slam title?)


Gulbis won the first three games of this match before Johansson could hold serve. When Gulbis served for the first set at 5-3, Johansson got the break back with the help of two double faults. Gulbis got in a 0-30 hole at 5-5, but he crawled out and then broke at 15 to claim the first set. The second set was a rout, with Johansson frustrated enough to bounce his racquet after squandering the fourth of five break points in the final game. The third set, however, stayed on serve all the way. Gulbis had a break point in the ninth game, but Johansson followed his serve in and Gulbis’s forehand pass was just wide. The tenth game went to deuce five times, and Johansson had one set point, which Gulbis answered with an ace. Then Johansson held at love and Gulbis at 30, and the players went to a tiebreak. Johansson led 3-2, on serve, but then Gulbis ripped off the next five points — one of them after a successful challenge on a forehand of his that had been called long.


If this was Johansson’s last US Open — he was to lose his first-round doubles match on Thursday — let us take a moment to appreciate a career of exceeding expectations and being a decent guy all the way. Salut, Thomas! (That’s presumably how they’d say it in Thomas’s home of Monte Carlo. Unfortunately, the Babelfish translator doesn’t tell us how to say it in Swedish.)