US Open Report

Wednesday, September 4, 2011

Jerry Balsam


Watching History (on TV)


For my second visit to the US Open this year, I had the chance to observe history: on a television monitor in the bowels of the Grandstand, along with a rabid group who shared a unanimous rooting interest in Maria Kirilenko – and not merely because she has certain aesthetic qualities that appeal to the superficial male, such as your correspondent. More on that later, but maybe this will induce you to visit my Twitpic album.

The 7 train to Queens was quite the site for commerce, 2011 style. First, a middle-aged man, trailed by his wife, carried a sign that said: “NEED 2 TICKETS.” I hope he found them. Thereafter, a two-piece band, consisting of an accordion and a guitar, provided a rendition of Guantanamera, and passed the hat. We got about halfway through the song, the collections having been made, when we reached a station, and off they went through the doors to work another car.

My day started on Court 17, the new show court featured in the September 5 edition of the New York Times. The only aspect of the article I’d question is the notion that Court 17 is a refuge for fans with grounds passes or “a distant 300-level seat in Ashe.” On this visit, I had a loge box ticket for Ashe, and yet I’m proud to say that I never set foot in the stadium, thereby fulfilling my first rule of the US Open, as reported last week. It will be more difficult to maintain that rule when I return for the second Tuesday and Thursday of the fortnight, but it was a pleasure to uphold it on Sunday.

A quirk of Court 17 was that the singles matches I saw used a doubles net with singles sticks in the alleys. Perhaps this is because the court is new and there was no time to sink the proper holes for both a doubles net and a singles net. According to the Times, the court will be refined next year, and maybe this will be an aspect of the upgrade.

Court 17: Monica Niculescu (ROU) v. Angelique Kerber (GER)

The trick on Court 17 is to get a seat on the south end, beneath the shade of the large scoreboard and press box. Even when the sun moves and you are no longer protected, at least the sun is not in your face. These seats have the added virtue of coming with backs, unlike the bleacher seats arrayed in five segments around the court. They are close enough to the action, moreover, that they come with a warning to watch out for stray balls.

Monica Niculescu, whom I’d seen play doubles last week, had rolled into the fourth round of the singles without dropping a set or, indeed, surrendering more than three games in a set. She had dispatched her countrywoman Alexandra Dulgehru 6-3 6-0, and offered even rougher treatment to the 27th seed, Lucie Safarova, 6-0 6-1. If these were the only facts you had known about Niculescu, you’d assume she was a ferocious ball-striker. This is not at all the case. Her serve ranged from the low 60s to the mid-70s (in miles per hour, to be fair, not kilometers per hour). Her groundstrokes on both wings are two-handed, though she probably hit at least half her forehands with one hand and heavy slice. When she hits her regular two-handed forehand – cross-handed, of course – it carries some topspin, but her backhand is the more forceful shot, and she ran around some forehands to hit it.

Angelique Kerber, a lefty who had ousted the 12th-seeded Aggie Radwanska in the second round, was far more conventional. The challenge for her was to take Niculescu’s junk balls and hit winners without overhitting. This was often impossible or at least quite difficult. In a Niculescu match, neither player looks good.

Kerber went up a break of serve early in each set and more stumbled than cruised her way to victory. She wisely used the drop shot, even off some of Niculescu’s first serves, which are basically indistinguishable from her second serves. I noticed one obvious area for Kerber to work on: when she goes with the slice serve, which is such a weapon for lefties, she tosses the ball well to her left. Niculescu picked up on that and began moving to her left when the toss was in the air. More disguise would lead to better results.

Final Score: Kerber d. Niculescu 6-4 6-3

Court 17: David Ferrer (ESP) (5) v. Florian Mayer (GER) (26)

I stayed on 17 to see David Ferrer play. I’d never seen his opponent, Florian Mayer, but I knew he’d had some good results lately, as evidenced by his seeding. Mayer had a brace on his right ankle. He hit almost every backhand, including stay-in-the-rally slices, with two hands. It was only when he was fully extended that he went with the one-handed slice. Many of his backhands were jump shots, and it was difficult to tell what he thought he was accomplishing by jumping. This predilection is no secret: Mayer’s jumping backhand drop shots are mentioned on his Wikipedia page. He also plays a fair amount of serve-and-volley, which is nice to see for those of us who remember the ancients like Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg, to say nothing of the prehistoric days of Gonzalez, Laver, Ashe, Smith, et al. As for Ferrer, his style is no secret. He’ll run all day, rarely miss, and generally make his opponent miserable. He likes to run around the backhand, and hits many inside-out forehands with his feet outside the doubles alley. You have to be quick to get away with that, and he is: rarely could Mayer slide a backhand down the line to trouble the seemingly out-of-position Ferrer.

The first two sets were a rout, as Mayer looked nothing like a seeded player. In the third set, Mayer played much better, but the tiebreak was a throwback to the first two sets, as Ferrer got a mini-break at 2-2 and ran off five straight points.

Final Score: Ferrer d. Mayer 6-1 6-2 7-6(2)

Armstrong: Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG) (18) v. Gilles Simon (FRA) (12)

My next stop was Armstrong, where there was a line to get in, but the match proved worth waiting for. When I arrived, Del Potro, the 2009 champion and still not 23, was serving with a lead of 6-4 2-3. He looks much like the player we saw two years ago, before his injury problems, but his serve does not have as much pop, topping out in the mid-120s. Simon, for his part, looks like the club player no one wants to face. Like Ferrer, he moves well and gets everything back. Like Niculescu, much of what comes back is off-paced junk. But he would not have achieved his lofty ranking had he failed to master the art of hitting the ball where his opponent does not want it. What’s more, his serve can be sneaky fast, and even 111 or 113 mph sufficed for aces when the ball was placed just right.

Each player has a quirk: for Simon, it’s starting and finishing his service motion with inches to spare behind the baseline. No Serena Williams foot-fault scenarios for him! For Del Potro, it’s the way he takes the racquet back to prepare his forehand, as the right arm moves independently, and the left hand never touches the throat of the racquet. I could no more conceive of hitting a forehand that way than I could serve like Marion Bartoli, without some preliminary bounces. In an era of tennis uniformity, there are still some outliers.

Neither player dropped serve in the second set, though Del Potro lived dangerously when a double fault at 30-30 in the twelfth game gave Simon a set point. Simon got the key mini-break at 5-5 in the tiebreak with a winner off an inside-out forehand. With the serve returning to Simon at set point, Del Potro pushed an inside-out forehand wide, and the match was even.

At 2-2 in the third, Simon finally broke serve, as Del Potro pounded a short ball and Simon stuck out his racquet to block the ball back for a winner. A second break of serve made the set a breeze for Simon, and then the players dug in for a fight in the fourth set.

Simon went up a potentially decisive break in the fifth game, but Del Potro broke back in a long, hard-fought game. There were no more breaks in the set, though there were certainly opportunities, as the struggle intensified and Del Potro roused the crowd to cheer him on. The match slipped away from Del Potro quickly in the tiebreak: serving at 3-4, he netted a forehand and, on the following point, a backhand pass. On match point, Simon went with a change-up, a 98 mile-per-hour serve, the return of which flew long off Del Potro’s backhand. In 3 hours and 57 minutes, Simon had advanced to face the winner of the forthcoming Isner-Bogomolov match.

Final Score: Simon d. Del Potro 4-6 7-6(5) 6-2 7-6(3)

Armstrong: Alex Bogomolov Jr. (USA) v. John Isner (USA) (28)

Bogomolov’s late-in-career resurgence has been well-documented. Here’s my question: Why does the scoreboard identify him as “Bogomolov Jr.”? Did it say “McEnroe Jr.”?

In the first set, Bogomolov thrice got to 15-40 on Isner’s serve, pretty impressive for a 5’10” player facing a 6’9” opponent. The racquet looks like a ping-pong paddle in Isner’s hand, and he absolutely dwarfed some of the ballkids. Isner hit his serve plenty hard, but probably the more difficult offerings were his slices in the deuce court, hit out of a tree, or the kick serves that bounced so high, once entirely over Bogomolov. Bogomolov tried different approaches, sometimes standing way back, sometimes crowding the baseline to prevent Isner’s serve from bouncing away. I liked the latter approach, but it’s easy to say when you’re not facing 139 mph bombs, and I can understand why Bogomolov did not have the heart to stick with it.

The problem for Bogomolov was that he did not cash in any of his six break points in the first set, or either of the two that followed. Isner also had eight break points on the match, and he converted two. Neither of those breaks came in the first set, so the players faced off in a long tiebreak. Bogomolov had gone up 4-2, but gave back the edge with a double fault. He got to set point twice, but on Isner’s serve, so that was not a good situation. The first time, Isner followed up a 131 mph serve with a forehand on the line; the second, he bounced a 103 mph second serve over Bogomolov’s head.

Things came to a head when Bogomolov served at 9-9. Isner hit a good inside-out forehand, which elicited a backhand into the net. Now Isner stepped to the line and whacked a 139 mph offering to Bogomolov’s backhand for a winner and the set.

After Bogomolov had lost his first-set opportunity, one could sense Isner pulling away, which he did with one break in each of the second and third serves. If every player in tennis had the same serve, I doubt Isner would be in the top 250 in the world. But a big serve can take a player a long way: in Isner’s case, to a seeded position in the US Open draw. His movement is certainly nothing to brag about. In the third set, a wag observed that Isner wanted to get a break of serve so that he would not have to run anymore. (Running is not a big feature of his service games.) This led me to imagine a hypothetical conversation between Isner and his coach:

Coach: Hey, John, I’ve got some footwork drills that I think will help you take it to the next level.

Isner: Maybe tomorrow. I think I’d like to take some serves now.

It will be interesting to see whether Simon has some answers for that big serve.

Final Score: Isner d. Bogomolov 7-6(9) 6-4 6-4

Grandstand: Maria Kirilenko (RUS) (25) v. Samantha Stosur (AUS) (9)

As soon as Isner had sealed his victory, I tried racing to the Grandstand to catch the one remaining day match, between Sam Stosur and Maria Kirilenko. There was just one problem: the players were at 5-6 in the second set, and Kirilenko needed to hold serve and then win the tiebreak before fans would be let into the arena. If she failed to do that, the match would be over. Hold serve Kirilenko did, but the tiebreak proved a struggle – an epic struggle. By the time it had ended, the two had played the longest women’s tiebreak in a Grand Slam. Kirilenko saved five match points, twice earning the opportunity to play on only after successful Hawk-Eye challenges reversed calls that would have won the match for Stosur. While this 17-15 battle was going on, I was part of a contingent of fans who cheered raucously for Kirilenko and waited, waited, waited for our chance to see some more live tennis. When Kirilenko finally won the tiebreak, we raced up the steps into the Grandstand, there to witness what proved a fairly ordinary final set.

Stosur and Kirilenko are both listed at 5’8”, but Stosur plays a bigger game, especially with her kick serve and somewhat greater weight of shot off the ground. Kirilenko cannot pull off big babe tennis, but she plays an appealing game, seeking opportunities to move forward and volleying deftly, even off her shoe tops. Kirilenko ran into trouble in the fifth game of the third set, falling behind 15-40 and then dropping serve when Stosur nailed a crosscourt forehand pass. Stosur cruised through her service games, getting out of a 15-30 hole at 4-3. She raced to a 0-40 lead and three match points in the next game. Kirilenko dodged two of the bullets, but on the third – the eighth match point for Stosur – the Aussie overpowered her opponent and finally elicited the decisive error.

The win must have been a tremendous relief for Stosur. To lose after holding so many match points would have been agonizing; now she’ll have her hands full in the quarters against Vera Zvonareva. For me and the few thousand diehards who stayed till the end, it was a great day of tennis, starting at 11:00 a.m. and ending at 10:15 p.m.

Final Score: Stosur d. Kirilenko 6-2 6-7(15) 6-3