US Open 2010: The Signature Match

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US Open 2010: The Signature Match
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Sergiy Stakovsky fought an emotional match against the local hero Ryan Harrison

There are four Grand Slams in one year, and 40 in a decade. Despite the importance we attach to these major events, the tennis world is lucky to have so many major tournaments in a year, unlike cricket or football in which each sport culminates once every four years in a World Cup.

This abundance also means that it becomes very difficult for one major to stand out among the crowd. Hence, one major often becomes more important or more memorable than the others. People will remember the 2008 Wimbledon more clearly than, say, the 2006 final because of how remarkable the 2008 final was.

A Grand Slam needs to have a signature moment. A moment which the fans will remember for a long time, the story of which will sometimes eclipse all other events. At Wimbledon this year, it was the Isner-Mahut saga that stole the show more than the fact that Rafael Nadal completed his second Euro Slam.

Last year, the Cinderella story of Melanie Oudin stole the show ahead of Juan Martin del Potro and Roger Federer (in fact, Federer’s tweener became much more discussed, too).

Already four days into the Open, the final major at the Flushing Meadows was missing such a story. An event which not only displays the sport's high quality, but is backed up with lots of emotion and drama to compel even the most neutral fans of the game to vehemently take sides.

And when we talk of the Open, two things come to mind. An up-and-coming American player and a fifth-set tiebreaker. This was exactly what happened as I sat and watched  (half-yawning) as Andy Murray steamroll past his second-round opponent (not that Murray was not playing good—in fact, I like Murray’s game a lot. Just that it is no fun watching a one-sided affair. Which is why I usually skip Federer’s first-week matches at a major). I saw the IBM Slam Tracker where the match between Ryan Harrison and Sergiy Stakhovsky (I assure you the spelling is correct—I looked it up on Google) just reached the deciding set.

True to the American hype, Harrison was the news after his first-round win, and I decided to look him up during the changeover. To my surprise, I found the word “Nick Bollettieri” in his Wikipedia entry. A surprise, because this kid looked anything but a product from the Bollettieri Academy. First, he looked small and less powerful—even though the ATP listed him as 6'1"—than most from the NB Academy (think Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, or Maria Sharapova).

The second surprise was the way he played. He had lots of flexibility, for one, which was apparent even during his serve as he sufficiently bent his knees and spine, and even attempted some Clijsters’ type splits. Next, he didn't seem like a former NBian—hard-hitting, baseline ball-bashing. He possessed a good, smooth slice, made good, intelligent approaches and was never afraid to serve and volley, even on the second serve.

For all the goods the boy has, it sometimes became irritating to watch the crowd go totally against Sergiy, even when he had done seemingly nothing wrong other than competing well against the local hero. While a crowd cheering for the apparent villain’s unforced errors is nothing new (the French Open quarterfinal between Nadal and Robin Soderling comes to mind), it was the commentators’ total obsession (whose comments were streamed live at usopen.org) with Harrison to the point of even forgetting that the court contained two players is what added the emotion.

Sergiy understood it perfectly well too, which is why he tried nothing silly to start an uncontrollable crowd uproar. In fact, he mostly seemed visibly uninterested in the contest, to the point of looking rather amused at the whole situation as he let out some dry smiles in between the points. This in no way affected the way he played, though, as he showed thorough fighting spirit (perhaps the crowd turned him on) including some courage as well.

Is it somewhat annonying that modern tennis has primarily become a baseline-bashing game?

Sure, most of the top 10 have succeeded with such a style, but we do have players like Sergiy (and now Harrison), Michael Llorda, and the like who keep the beauty of the touch game alive. And watching these players, there is hope that some day a kid with such a style will come along with the mental strength of Nadal (both players committed double faults at 5-5 and 6-6 in the fifth set tie-breaker, respectively) and will dominate the circuit.

Will that kid be Ryan Harrison? He did not come out the better man today—it was Sergiy who fell to the court in relief, much to my ecstasy, if only to see the rude NY crowd and disillusioned broadcasters disappointed—but it would be great to see this all-court player become successful in the future.

Today, though, it was about irrational emotion and beautiful all-court play. And with this, I have got my signature event for the 2010 US Open...so far.

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