The Heat Is (Still) On

September 3, 2018

My final US Open visit for 2018 came on another hot and humid day. Every year, I try to make some time for doubles and juniors. This year, I didn’t do so well on that resolution. Each of my three days at the Open was so uncomfortably warm that the main consideration – perhaps the only consideration – was staying in the shade. That militated in favor of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, especially on September 3, when my wife and I were fortunate enough to have reserved seats in the lower bowl. Uncharacteristically, I watched matches in only one venue, as Armstrong served its purpose. Indeed, as the New York Times has reported, Armstrong is the place to be.

I began on the 7 train, where a couple from Dublin were making an impromptu trip to the Open – that is, they were arriving without tickets, a brave (or na´ve) move to pull on Labor Day. I advised them to get grounds passes if they could (as rain was not going to be an issue, so they didn’t need Ashe or Armstrong tickets) and, in any event, to return on Tuesday, when it would be much easier and cheaper to buy tickets. I hope they made it into the tournament on Monday, but I’ll never know.

In my first match of the day, Kei Nishikori faced the newlywed Philipp Kohlschreiber, both of whom I’d seen earlier in the event. Both have the idiosyncrasy of taking only one ball before first serve, thus needing to pause for assistance from a ball boy (or girl) if they serve a fault. This is striking for Kohlschreiber, who hits a throwback one-handed backhand (italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs) – but no one these days is quite so throwback as to hold two balls on the toss for first serve. (In photos from the old days, one can see a spare ball being held by Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Fred Stolle, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, and Katharine Hepburn.)

As when he had faced Yannick Hanfmann, Kohlschreiber returned serve from very deep in the court. He started out fairly successfully, reaching break point in the first game of the match, but Nishikori held on and then broke for a 2-0 lead. Neither player was dominating on serve: Kohlschreiber broke back to get to 1-2, but Nishikori broke again for a 3-1 lead. From there, Nishikori stayed the course, holding serve for the remainder of the set until he closed it out, 6-3.

Nishikori cruised through the second set, 6-2, breaking serve in the first and fifth games. Kohlschreiber began to wear a baseball cap for protection against the sun, but only when receiving serve.

In the third set, Nishikori, who was probably feeling pretty grateful to Kohlschreiber for knocking Sascha Zverev out of the tournament, took the lead by breaking serve in the seventh game. He served for the match at 5-4 and got to 30-0 before some big hitting by Kohlschreiber got him back into the game. On a third break point, Nishikori dropped a forehand half-volley into the net, and the score was 5-5.

Nishikori struck back in the next game, hitting two backhand service returns down the line for winners and eventually breaking serve with a crosscourt forehand. On his second try to serve out the match, Nishikori got to 40-15 and closed out the contest two points later, falling to the court in relief at his 6-3 6-2 7-5 victory.

Next up were two twenty-year-olds, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka. Osaka had certainly been on a roll: in the second round, from 2-2 in the first set, she reeled off ten straight games against Julia Glushko, and then threw a double-bagel at Aliaksandra Sasnovich, who had just missed being seeded. Going into the match, however, Jeff Sackmann’s rating system had Sabalenka as the most likely player to win the women’s singles. Sabalenka bolstered her case by holding serve in the first game, snapping Osaka’s string of 22 straight games. In the fifth game, Sabalenka climbed out of 0-40 with two big serves but then double faulted on the third break point to fall behind. When Sabalenka fell behind by 0-40 once more at 3-5, she did no climbing, and Osaka clinched the set, 6-3.

Sabalenka is physically imposing, down to her unfortunate tattoo, while Osaka seems frail – until you see her hit the ball. Sabalenka is a loud grunter, Osaka a quiet assassin. Sabalenka struck first in the second set, breaking for 2-1 and again for 4-1. By the end of the set, Osaka’s first service speed had dipped into the low nineties – from 110 mph and up – and her movement was labored. She saved two set points at 1-5 but Sabalenka closed out the set in the next game, punctuating the effort with an ace.

As reported by Christopher Clarey in the New York Times, the ten-minute heat break before the third set allowed Osaka to regroup, even though Sabalenka notched the first break of serve. Osaka promptly broke back and had opportunities to break again in the sixth game (0-40) and in the eighth (0-30). Though Sabalenka denied those opportunities, in the tenth game, her double fault gave Osaka three match points. Again, Sabalenka got out of trouble, but not all the way. A fourth match point ensued, and Sabalenka could stem the tide no more, double faulting and throwing her racquet in disgust. In the end, Osaka was a little bit better: making 66% of first serves, compared to Sabalenka’s 59%; winning 68% of first-serve points, compared to 67%; and succeeding on 53% of second-serve points, compared to 52%. I’ll be surprised if neither of these players eventually wins a major.

The third match of the day featured two top-tenners in the 2014 champion, Marin Cilic, and David Goffin. In the opening game, Cilic squandered a 30-0 lead and lost serve on a double fault. The players held serve from there until Goffin served for the set at 5-4, when Cilic grabbed a break point with a forehand volley deftly placed behind Goffin and cashed it in when Goffin missed a backhand. The players found their way to a tiebreak in which nine points went against the server and only five with him. Cilic never trailed, though he could not have enjoyed going from serving at 5-2 to 5-5. Eventually, he strung two points together to win the tiebreak, 8-6, when Goffin, serving to save a second set point, hit a backhand wide.

After the set, the scoreboard and public address system called for a memorial tribute to Sen. John McCain. I took a moment of silence as a better tribute than applause for the recently departed, but it’s hard to know which response was more appropriate. Others disagreed with me and applauded.

After escaping with the first set, Cilic broke serve in the third game of the second, but he never seemed to develop a feeling of comfort and ease: he bounced the ball a great deal before serving, especially on second serve, where the service clock was not a factor. While one thinks of Cilic as a big server – at 6’6”, he would have been a pure serve-and-volleyer in another era – his fastest serve of the match was only 127 mph. For a big man, however, he hits groundstrokes that are both steady and powerful, opening opportunities to win points on short balls or at the net. Even without a huge serve, the importance of the first delivery to Cilic was plain, perhaps because of his great success with sharply angled first serves: his winning percentage dropped off from 83% to 47% when he had to rely on a second serve; for the diminutive Goffin, the delta was a mere five percentage points: 60% versus 55%.

Regardless of his state of mind, Cilic continued to cruise through the second set, pulling out of 15-40 in the eighth game with two of his twelve aces and closing out the set, 6-2. The lights went on at 6:07, before the third set began. Cilic pulled ahead with a break in the fifth game and held serve steadily to get to 5-4 and 40-30, at which point Goffin mounted a last stand. After saving two match points, Goffin got to break point, but he was unable to return Cilic’s serve when opportunity knocked. On a third match point, Cilic hit a crosscourt forehand winner to seal the victory, 7-6(6) 6-2 6-4. He celebrated by giving towels to fans who’d been cheering him on in the first couple of rows.

Finally, I got to keep my doubles pledge, as the last match on Armstrong was a mixed doubles quarterfinal between Bethanie Mattek-Sands/Jamie Murray and Nadiia Kichenok/Wesley Koolhof. This year, the logo on the net for all matches is Mercedes – no more Chase – but the official still had to replace the net when we switched from singles to doubles.

I noticed early on that Murray, who was sporting a nasty bandage on his right knee, started his service motion about six inches behind the baseline and stepped forward, appearing to touch the baseline on occasion. Before the match ended, he would be called for two foot-faults. He also tends to hit his overheads with a stiff-arm motion akin to the “sky hook” that Jimmy Connors used to hit when the ball had got behind him.

In Kichenok’s box, there was a blond woman who looked remarkably like her and showed up on the video screen fairly often during the match. The fans behind me were speculating on whether she might be Kichenok’s twin sister, and now the answer can be told: she is. Her name is Lyudmyla, and the sisters have been doubles partners.

At the risk of spoiling the suspense, it’s worth noting that the better-known team of Mattek-Sands and Murray won 94 of 176 points in the match, or 53%, which is almost always enough to seal the win. For much of the match, too, it seemed they were in control – but the match was not in the bag, and threatened to enter Simpson’s Paradox country.

In the opening set, Kichenok was broken in the third game, and Murray served for the frame at 5-4 – but he was broken at love. Mixed doubles at the US Open is played with no-ad scoring and a match tiebreak in lieu of a third set, so when Kichenok served at 5-5 deuce, she was facing a break point. On deciding points, the player of the same gender as the server is to receive. (In men’s and women’s doubles, which are played with no-ad scoring on the regular tour but not during the majors, the receiving team can choose who will return serve on deciding points. In this match, both men received in the deuce court while the women played the ad court.) On this occasion, Murray – whose movement at the net created problems for the opposition – left home early enough for Kichenok to hit a backhand pass into the space he had vacated, and she held serve.

After Mattek-Sands (who, of course, has a notable tattoo of her own) held at love, Kichenok and Koolhof took a 4-2 lead in the ensuing tiebreak. Mattek-Sands and Murray swept through five of the next six points, however, to steal the set. On set point, Kichenov, the server, lobbed over Mattek-Sands, and the ball was called good on the sideline. Mattek-Sands challenged, and the ball was wide, deciding the set.

One of the best features of mixed doubles is that it lends itself to having all four players at the net, and this happened several times in the match.

For the second set, Murray, who had started the match without a cap, changed his shirt – and his cap to match – making the move from black to white. Three times in the set, games went to deuce; all three (twice with Kichenok serving, once with Mattek-Sands), the serving team survived the break point. In the tiebreak, the underdogs took a 5-2 lead and reached double set point at 6-4, with Koolhof serving. He put a crosscourt forehand passing shot wide, and then, with Mattek-Sands serving, Kishenok’s return hit her partner in the back, so it was 6-6. On Mattek-Sands’s next service point, Koolhof hit a backhand return for a winner. Kishenok served at 7-6, and Koolhof poached to put away a volley and take the set.

This brought the contest to a match tiebreak. Kichenok and Koolhof took a 5-3 lead, but Koolhof missed a half-volley to give back a mini-break, and Kichenok double-faulted at 5-6 to return another. Mattek-Sands served at 7-6 and won two points with strong volleys: maintaining a firm wrist to hit a low ball behind the crossing Koolhof for 8-6 and then a reflex volley winner for 9-6 and match point. On his serve, Koolhof saved one match point but dropped the second with a backhand pass that went long.

Thus, Mattek-Sands and Murray won seven of the final nine points to prevail by 7-6(5) 6-7(6) [10-7], ending my US Open day at 9:29 p.m. As I left the grounds for the last time this year, I reflected on some of the good things about the tournament, much as I complain about the crowding, the heat, and the security (though the latter worked rapidly this year). The new Armstrong is a significant upgrade. Fans can bring food and cameras onto the grounds, in contrast with the New York Open, which lost my patronage with its restrictive policies. And, if the heat keeps up, you can lose weight without exercising. Next year…some juniors.