U.S. Open Tennis 2010: Key Storylines To Watch On
Is there a better day in the tennis calendar?
It’s New York. It’s the fine, warm early days of September. It’s the last Grand Slam of the tennis year.
And it presents to the world the Women’s final and two Men’s semi-finals in one single day.
It’s “Super Saturday” at the U.S. Open and, on this special day, every tennis fan across the globe has put their life on hold, got the babysitters in, cracked open the beer, and taken control of the remote. Nothing will get in the way.
Flushing Meadows has a unique approach to scheduling that is unlike any other Slam. It shares out the pleasures between the daytime crowd and the night-time shift—double the tickets, double the money.
The first round overlaps with the second round and the quarterfinals spread themselves from the afternoon of one day into the deep shadows of the following night.
Worst of all—for the players at least—the headliners who have won through six matches will, with less than a day’s respite, enter the Arthur Ashe arena to fight to the very death for the title of U.S. champion.
Factor in the fast, unforgiving courts, temperatures that hit the 40s, and two back-to-back Masters or Premier tournaments in the preceding weeks, and this becomes one of the toughest tennis challenges of the year.
So “Super Saturday” is the gold standard for great tennis, but it is also the measure of physical endurance and mental fortitude. Only the strong survive.
In 2010, three of the top four seeds in both the Women’s and the Men’s draw made it, and in and usual symmetry, neither defending champion was involved.
On the Women’s side, Serena Williams has left the field wide open.
Women’s Final: Vera Zvonareva (7) Vs. Kim Clijsters (2)
Zvonareva is a woman growing into her talent, and 2010 has been a very good year for her.
She celebrated her 26th birthday this week and celebrated, too, a win against one of the form players of the moment.
Top seed Caroline Wozniacki came to their semi-final match having lost just 17 games in the tournament, and not a single set.
She dismissed one of the favorites, Maria Sharapova, in dominant style, was the Olympus U.S. Open Series champion, and stood to overtake Williams as world No. 1 if she took the title. What’s more, she was a finalist in New York last year.
In comparison, Zonvareva has had a low profile, but she too has not lost a set through tournament. She has played with a huge confidence, wielding big ground strokes, and attacking the net with great enthusiasm.
She’s a player who caught the eye several years back, but a succession of injuries, especially to the wrist and the ankle, blighted her progress. Now, though, she is playing with some of that old freedom and with more outright pleasure than ever.
She’s an intelligent woman, too, currently studying for a second university degree. She achieved her best Slam result by reaching this year’s Wimbledon final. Her second final here is proof of her quality and determination.
There are few more determined opponents, however, than Kim Clijsters. The Belgian made a remarkable return to win the championship last year, just weeks after coming back from over two years in retirement and the birth of her daughter.
She has played a limited schedule, partly due to a few injuries this year, but her success on hard courts during 2010 has still been excellent: titles in Brisbane, Miami, and most recently, Cincinnati.
She powered through the U.S. draw for the loss of just 14 games until she dropped a set to Sam Stosur in the quarterfinals. Against Venus Williams in the semis, she had a tougher time, dropping the first set and going down a break in the second.
But she fought back to win a tie-breaker and then came back from a break down in the third set, too. She had to be at her best to dominate a surging Williams, but Clijsters has looked fast and fit, aggressive and fast. She has also shown that fight and resilience for which she is so respected.
She looked, in short, much as she did this time last year, and on that evidence, the must be favorite for the title.
However, Clijsters has lost her last two matches to Zvonareva: in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, and just last month in the quarters of Montreal. This final may go to three sets and it might go either way, but on balance, Clijsters’ superior movement and greater experience should win her third U.S. title.
The Wind It Did Blow
The U.S. Open should adopt a theme tune. Four Seasons in One Day would fit the bill perfectly, except it was written about Melbourne. So let’s try another Crowded House title; Weather With You.
For in Flushing Meadows this year, there has been no respite from ‘weather’ of some sort.
In week one, the players experienced some of its highest ever temperatures, touching 110 degrees by mid-week. The heat was unrelenting and sweltering. The ice towels and sunshades became on-court essentials and spectators fell like flies.
The heat and humidity eventually subsided, to be replaced with wind. And more wind. Gusty, whirling, unpredictable, it made some elements of the tennis a lottery.
The net bowed in the blasts, lobs dropped to half their usual length, drives bent like bananas. Some moments were near comical, as players climbed to reach shots that lifted at the last moment, or lunged to collect balls that fell unexpectedly short.
As tempers frayed and the litter flew, the unforced error count rose. In the quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils, they hit 87 UEs in three sets. Robin Soderling and Albert Montanes produced 83. The two sets between Kaia Kanepi and Zvonareva delivered 88.
Through all this, play continued, aces were scored, drops were made, matches were won. While the flags rattled and hats flew off, while shirts clung to torsos and drops were administered to sore eyes, the best players found a way through.
As Billie Jean King said: “Champions adjust.”
The weather looks, at last, as though it has blown itself out as the tournament reaches its final days. But this time last year, play was abandoned as torrential rain-storms hit New York.
Let’s hope Stormy Weather isn’t the theme this time round.
Men’s Semi-final: Rafael Nadal (1) vs. Mikhail Youzhny (12)
When the U.S. draw was made, the Rafael Nadal half looked decidedly challenging.
Not only might he face the dangerous outsiders David Nalbandian or Ernests Gulbis in the quarters but could also face one of the two form players of the moment, Andy Murray or Tomas Berdych, in the semis. They all fell by the wayside, as did the highest seed that Nadal has met, countryman Fernando Verdasco.
The Spaniard’s progress has been a masterclass. With each successive round, Nadal has played himself into better form. He’s moving well, playing aggressively, and serving better than he’s ever done. A changed grip is now delivering not only accurate, wide angles but also speeds of around 130mph.
Even by Nadal standards, he is also looking confident, he’s not dropped a set, and his serve has been broken only once. He looks like a man who’s not content with reaching the final: only the title will do.
Bearing in mind how strong his campaign has been—and that includes the excellent physical preparation that he’s clearly undertaken—his words following the dismissal of Verdasco are chilling:
“I’m playing well, but I am not playing yet at my best level.”
Coping with this handful of a tennis player will be the wily Mikhail Youzhny, who has taken his unexpected place in the semis in the absence of Murray and Berdych. But it has not all been plain sailing.
The Russian faced a tough opponent in the dangerous American, John Isner, dropped a set against Tommy Robredo, and then took exactly four hours to put out the brave campaign of Stanislas Wawrinka.
There’s no question that Youzhny has the game for Flushing Meadows. He likes to use slice as often as topspin, angles as well as drives, and he transitions from baseline to net better than most men in the game. He also has great footwork and a compactness that helps him pick off low shots with a deft touch.
His greatest weapon against Nadal is likely to be his tactical astuteness. His mix of shot, pace, spin, depth, and angle against Wawrinka were worthy of a chess match. And he will need to keep mixing it up and attacking the net to try to get Nadal off balance with changes of direction.
Youzhny has done it before, and all four of his victories over the Spaniard have come on hard courts. The big question is, how much fuel does he still have in the tank? He’s played a lot more tennis than Nadal, and will need an bottomless pool of energy to stay with the world No. 1.
And it’s doubtful that Wawrinka left him anything like enough.
Mens’ Semifinal: Roger Federer (2) vs. Novak Djokovic (3)
This is becoming a habit. When Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic meet in their semi-final on Arthur Ashe, it will be their fourth consecutive head-to-head there. The first time was in the 2007 final, and in each year since it’s been the semi-finals.
Federer has won on every occasion and has conceded just one set to the Serb in the three matches.
But this could be a humdinger. Both have had a lean year in tournament titles but both have hit a fine vein of form in the run-up to this, their 16th match against one other.
What has added a little extra spice to the contest is that they met only last month, both coming into the Toronto Masters after a long break from the tour. It was a tight match, on courts not dissimilar to Flushing’s, and with periods of dominance and patches of errors from both men.
There is always an edginess to their encounters, as they probe each others minds as well as each other’s tennis. That one ended, as the majority of their matches have, in a win for Federer.
Looking at their progress in the Open, Federer has enjoyed the smoother ride: He’s not dropped a set so far. Indeed he’s only faced one tie-breaker.
The attacking game he adopted both in Toronto and then in winning Cincinnati, looks in good shape and has been improving with each match. Against No. 5 seed Robin Soderling, he took just an hour and 50 minutes to win in windy and chilly conditions. His first serve averaged 64% and he scored 18 aces.
Just as impressive has been his defense. He’s moving extremely well, and his anticipation has been spot on. Soderling managed just two aces against him in their quarterfinal.
Djokovic had a tough first-round five-setter in the searing heat of week one. But the win seemed to inject some extra belief into his game. With each subsequent match, he has shown more confidence and more consistency.
By his fourth round match against Mardy Fish, his fluid ground-strokes, accurate serving, and attacking stance began to meld into very good form.
For a man renowned for his excellent backhand, the Djokovic forehand winners against Monfils came with remarkable regularity. Even more impressive was his consistent and penetrating first serve: 74 percent.
This could be Djokovic’s best chance yet to get the better of Federer as long as he maintains that concentration, quality serving, and attacking play. And if he does, he could take back the No. 2 ranking as well.
But if Federer turns up with the game that beat Soderling, he is narrow favorite to edge to the final of his 44th consecutive Grand Slam.
Doubles Double Up
Let’s hear it for the doubles.
The supremacy of the Mike and Bob Bryan in tennis has continued with their third New York title, their ninth major championship, and their 65th doubles title. And they did it, this time, without dropping a set.
Bob Bryan was also one half of the mixed doubles top seeds with Liezel Huber. They, too, won the U.S. title: It was Bryan’s fourth and Huber’s first.
Waiting in the wings is the third of the doubles competitions—the Women’s—which takes place ahead of the men’s singles final on Sunday. And it will be a chance for a double doubles. The second seeds are Huber and Nadia Petrova, and they are already in the final. So it could be two titles apiece for Huber and Bryan.
But more uplifting than all these achievements—impressive though they are—is the story of the ‘Indo-Pak Express.'
That joyous train comprises Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, who have won just one tour-level title together, and were runners-up to the Bryans in the Men’s final.
The 30-year-old duo have won legions of fans for their "Stop War, Start Tennis" campaign. With their successes this year in the majors, they are drawing more attention to their cause: attempting to heal the political frictions between their two nations.
The United Nations ambassadors from India and Pakistan were both in the crowd to watch them play.
The message is simple: “I’ve always said that if me and Rohan can get along so well on and off the court, there’s no reason the Indians and Pakistanis can’t get along with each other. We just saw both ambassadors today sitting together.…and they're coming to watch us in the Finals.”
According the Times of India, social networking sites also came alive with messages encouraging Indian and Pakistani fans to buy a ticket for the doubles final.
And, in a gesture of support, their opponents in the final are making a donation from their winnings to the flood relief in Pakistan.
Yes, uplifting is the word.
The Flowering of the Single-Handed Backhand
Who would have thought it? On one side of the net in both of the Men’s semi-finals will be that most sweet of shots, the single-handed backhand.
Federer’s expansive flourish, with arms folded back like wings, will face the double-hander of Djokovic. Youzhny’s neat and elegant sweep, like a conductor’s baton, will try to fire its angled shot across the diagonal of Nadal’s court.
But there’s been a lot of it about well ahead of the semi-finals.
Only yesterday, Youzhny and Wawrinka began their quarterfinal match like a lyrical poem. Both exploited their backhands in all their variety, exchanging deep, angled, sliced drives with strong topspin swipes down the line.
The rarity factor—two men exchanging such a rich variety from that one-armed weapon—meant two immediate breaks of serve went almost unnoticed.
Earlier in the draw, the 30-year-old left-handed Michael Llodra took out Berdych and then Victor Hanescu with his flowing all-court game, serve-and-volley tactics, and his beauty of a single-hander. Then there was the double pleasure, until Llodra fell ill, of a left-hander versus the Robredo right-hander.
Robredo progressed to a fourth round match with Youzhny, a match filled with a bevy of backhands—the single-handed variety.
Casting an eye up the draw, there were Philipp Kohlschreiber and Feliciano Lopez, both all-court players with a penchant for the serve and volley and the single-hander.
Even the women—or one sparkler of a player in particular—were doing it. Francesca Schiavone is a powerhouse of energy, darting into the net at every opportunity to execute a Navratilova-like backhand volley.
So sit back and admire, this Saturday, the most graceful, slanting, slice-inducing shot in tennis, at the hands of Federer and Youzhny.
Maybe it’s not such a dying art after all.