As the 2014 U.S. Open inches toward its inevitable conclusion, some stars are using the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium to propel themselves into the spotlight.
Although the U.S. Open isn't the most prestigious Grand Slam of the tennis season, the atmosphere in Flushing, New York, is unlike anything in the sport. The lights are quite literally on bright.
Wednesday night was no different, with several players hoping to transition from highly regarded young star to genuine Grand Slam title contender.
|Men's Draw: Quarterfinals|
|No. 10 Kei Nishikori def. No. 3 Stan Wawrinka||3-6, 7-5, 7-6(7), 6-7(5), 6-4|
|No. 1 Novak Djokovic def. No. 8 Andy Murray||7-6(1), 6-7(1), 6-2, 6-4|
|Women's Draw: Quarterfinals|
|No. 17 Ekaterina Makarova def. No. 16 Victoria Azarenka||6-4, 6-2|
|No. 1 Serena Williams def. No. 11 Flavia Pennetta||6-3, 6-2|
Kei Nishikori took his time against Stan Wawrinka, but the payoff was well worth the wait as the 24-year-old advanced to the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career. More importantly, he's the first Japanese men's singles player to qualify for a U.S. Open semifinal in nearly a century, per The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com).
Also, for the first time in his career, Nishikori beat top-10 opponents in back-to-back matches at a Grand Slam.
This match was one of the more captivating from start to finish. Just when Wawrinka looked like he was in control, Nishikori clawed his way back. And when Nishikori looked like he would finish the match in four, Wawrinka pushed it to a decisive fifth set.
Tennis commentator David Law couldn't believe the way that Nishikori not only negated Wawrinka's power game but also turned it around on him:
After the win, Nishikori admitted that he was surprised he outlasted the No. 3 seed in the tournament, per Reuters (h/t The Guardian):
Nishikori absorbing Wawrinka's power and turning it back on Stanimal is one of the highlights of the year for me. Genuinely awesome.— DavidLaw (@DavidLawTennis) September 3, 2014
'I don't know how I finished the game, but I'm happy,' an exhausted Nishikori, who had a medical timeout in the third set to have his right foot taped, told the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd after clinching victory. 'I feel amazing. I'm very happy to come my first time semis. I hope I can recover again and hopefully I can play 100 per cent tennis next round.'
Nishikori's reward for his effort will be the No. 1 player in the world after Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray in four sets.
Early on, the match looked like it would turn into an instant classic. The clash even caught the attention of legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson:
Who is going to grab control of this match? Murray/Joker on a teeter/totter. Wish I was in LA to see it thru, but it's lites out. #USOpen— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) September 4, 2014
After Murray tied the match at a set apiece, things took a major turn, though. Djokovic exerted more and more influence on the proceedings, leaving a helpless Murray in his wake. The Serbian star cruised in the third set and encountered only slightly more resistance in the fourth.
Attacking the Net's Mat Zemek felt that the stars simply didn't align for the 2013 Wimbledon champion. His biggest issues came to the fore all at once:
As for Andy Murray, the basic approach was right. The competitive fire was right. Execution and lingering fitness questions hurt him.— Matt Zemek (@mzemek) September 4, 2014
The result isn't all that surprising considering Murray entered the U.S. Open dealing with a major crisis of confidence. Few expected him to get past Djokovic if the two crossed paths. The only disappointment is that Wednesday night's match wasn't more competitive.
Wednesday's two women's singles matches were largely devoid of drama. Ekaterina Makarova and Serena Williams both won in straight sets, surrendering a total of 11 games between them.
Makarova's win over Victoria Azarenka started off close. The two were tied at 4-4 in the first set. With Azarenka threatening to break, Makarova held serve, via the U.S. Open official account:
After that game, Azarenka was never really within striking distance again.
Her serve really let her down. According to the tournament's official site, she lost 41 percent of her first-service points, compared to 19 percent for Makarova. Azarenka also double-faulted on six occasions.
In addition to her strong serve, Makarova really wore Azarenka down with groundstrokes. Her backhand was particularly impressive, as she racked up eight groundstroke winners on that side.
After the match, the 26-year-old spoke about what she felt was a mental edge she had previously lacked in big matches, per espnW.com's Melissa Isaacson:
'Before maybe I didn't believe that much that I can [come] through. Today definitely was a different feeling, and I really believed to myself that I'm ready to go forward and to be in the semis,' said Makarova, who will next meet the winner of Wednesday night's Serena Williams-Flavia Pennetta quarterfinal. 'Maybe I've grown up a little bit or maybe I'm ready for big wins just in my head.'
While Makarova's stock is only rising, Azarenka's is on the decline after her back-to-back U.S. Open finals appearances.
Last year, she had one win, two finals and a semifinal on her Grand Slam resume. This year, quarterfinal exits at the Australian Open and U.S. Open were her peaks.
As a result, she'll drop outside of the top 20, per Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times:
Ekaterina Makarova reaches her first Slam SF after her fifth QF, awaits winner of Serena-Pennetta. Azarenka falls out if top 20. #usopen— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) September 3, 2014
Makarova is in uncharted territory. She's made four Grand Slam quarterfinals in her career but never advanced to the semifinal, and she only needs to beat the best women's tennis player in the world to get to the championship.
No pressure there.
Serena Williams might want to drop the first three games of the first set more often. After going down 0-3 to start her quarterfinal against Flavia Pennetta, she won 12 of the next 14 games, cruising to a 6-3, 6-2 victory.
Pennetta should've known she was in trouble before the match when Williams warmed up in a Nike blazer, via Jay Caspian Kang of The New Yorker:
Love Serena's warmup tuxedo jacket pic.twitter.com/qiuEctCbVP— jay caspian kang (@jaycaspiankang) September 4, 2014
What better way to show that you mean business, right?
It's perhaps a bit reductive to say that Williams should win any tournament she enters, but the fact of the matter is, her best is light-years ahead of anybody else's best on the WTA Tour.
The 32-year-old hasn't dropped a set so far at the U.S. Open, and nobody's even come close to winning one against her. At moments like these, you just sit back and revel in her greatness.
Anything can happen in one match, and Makarova did beat Williams at the 2012 Australian Open. Right now, though, Serena looks untouchable and should make her fourth straight U.S. Open final.