US Open Report

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Jerry Balsam


The French Are Different


Sunday was another Grandstand day for me, and I took in four matches, from the start of the day session to its conclusion at nine and a half hours later. In an era where everyone plays the same way, I saw two French players who do things differently: Richard Gasquet, with a rare and beautiful one-handed backhand, and Marion Bartoli, with two hands on all her groundstrokes and an unlimited supply of quirks.

Grandstand: Jesse Levine (USA)/Marinko Matosevic (AUS) v. Leander Paes (IND)/Radek Stepanek (CZE) (5)


At 39, Leander Paes just keeps rolling. He might not be the easiest guy for partners to get along with, but he wins: seven Grand Slams in men’s doubles and six in mixed doubles. (He also has a career winning record against Pete Sampras.)


Paired with Radek (The Worm) Stepanek, who supplied the power, Paes patrolled the net, poaching frequently to good effect and helping to turn the match into a rout. On the short end of the stick were Jesse Levine, a southpaw who makes me feel old because he was born on my 30th birthday, and the lanky and ineffective Marinko (Mad Dog) Matosevic. The umpire was the Serena Williams favorite Eva Asderaki.


Matosevic was broken both times he served in the first set, and Levine got broken at 1-5 when he stayed back on second serve and Stepanek took control of the net and the point. Stepanek, who wore a Statue of Liberty shirt earlier in the tournament, went somewhat lower key, but still pretty funky.


The unseeded team stayed on serve in the second set until 2-3, when Levine was broken, again after staying back on a second serve and then netting a volley struck in no-man’s land. Paes and Stepanek cruised the rest of the way and exchanged a heartfelt hug upon sealing their victory. After the match, Stepanek had fun tossing autographed balls into the stands, faking one way and throwing another, or kicking a ball soccer-style.


Final Score: Paes/Stepanek d. Levine/Matosevic 6-1 6-3

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Grandstand: Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG) (7) v. Leonardo Mayer (ARG)

By winning the US Open in 2009, Del Potro inserted himself as the sole outsider in a run of 30 Grand Slam titles, 29 of which were won by three men: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. His countryman Mayer, a journeyman with braces on both ankles and a nice one-handed backhand, is ranked 63rd in the world and should not have posed a threat to the bigger man. The players had met only twice, on clay in Futures events in 2005, when Del Potro had been 16, and the big man won both times.


The match went according to form in the first set, with Del Potro breaking twice. Some fans found the action wanting and fell asleep. Surprisingly, Mayer was serving harder than Del Potro, but the heavier groundstrokes belonged to Del Potro.


In the second set, Mayer saved a couple of break points at 2-3 and surprisingly broke through when Del Potro served at 4-4. Serving for the set, Mayer got to 40-30 but overhit a forehand and was broken when his diving attempt at a backhand volley went long. In the eleventh game, when Mayer was not toweling off the court to clean up a bird dropping, he reached break point, but Del Potro hit a brave second serve to win the point and eventually hold. When Mayer served at 5-6, he fell behind 0-15 and then seemed to lock up. On three consecutive points, without provocation, he hit weak shots that practically invited Del Potro to hit winners. Del Potro made no mistakes and put away all three sitters to break at love and take the set.


I expected Mayer to fold up in the third set, but he did not. Serving at 4-5, he saved three match points, one with an ace, two with forehand winners, one inside-out and one crosscourt. The set went to a tiebreak.


On the second point, Mayer tried a serve-and-volley on second serve, and Del Potro passed him for a mini-break. Mayer got even on the fourth point, which he won with brilliant defense, capped by a drop shot and a forehand pass down the line. But he fell behind again when, serving at 2-3, he netted a forehand. With Del Potro serving at 4-3, Mayer hit a screaming winner service return, but Del Potro challenged it successfully: not the return, but his own serve, arguing that it was out. Given a reprieve and a second serve, Del Potro lost the point when he hit a backhand long, and the tiebreak was knotted at 4-4.


The players stayed on serve, which resulted in Mayer reaching set point at 6-5, but Del Potro got to 6-6 with a big crosscourt forehand. On the next point, Mayer came in behind his return of Del Potro’s second serve, but Del Potro passed him with a backhand down the line to reach match point for a fourth time. Mayer went with the serve-and-volley again at match point and put away a forehand volley for 7-7. He got to set point with another serve-and-volley, as Del Potro netted his return. Del Potro served at 7-8 and Mayer’s forehand return sailed long for 8-8. On the next point, Mayer hit a net cord that bounced very high but stayed in; he missed his next backhand to give the favorite a fifth match point. Mayer averted defeat once more, as Del Potro dumped a forehand into the net. The score was 9-9, and the players changed ends. Del Potro got his nose in front again, hitting a big return of serve and then a forehand crosscourt winner, setting up a sixth match point. This one he cashed in, as Mayer’s forehand return of serve went long, ending the match after 3 hours and 21 minutes. Del Potro exulted, and the players hugged at the net, with the winner earning a date with the retiring Andy Roddick.


Final Score: Del Potro d. Mayer 6-3 7-5 7-6(9)

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Grandstand: Richard Gasquet (FRA) (13) v. Steve Johnson (USA)


Gasquet is one of the great stylists on the tour (and a sharp dresser in Lacoste), but never quite broke through. He’s been to at least the round of 16 at each of the majors, but beyond that only once, to the Wimbledon semifinal in 2007. His career was derailed for a time as the result of a well-documented misadventure in a Miami nightclub. For what it’s worth, the Frenchman used an American racket, Head (the company was founded in the US but is headquartered in Europe now), while the American used a French racket, Babolat.


Gasquet’s backhand is one of the outstanding shots in the sport, aesthetically pleasing and effective. His preparation for serve is by now familiar: the crouch as he bounces the ball with the fingers of his left hand splayed. One also gets used to Gasquet’s superstition: if he wins a point on serve, he tends to seek out the lucky ball to begin the next point. In the first set of this match, he implored a fan to return a ball that Johnson had hit into the stands, with a ballboy having to retrieve an alternative ball to give to the fan as a token of appreciation.


Johnson is a three-time NCAA champion, which is nice but does not typically bode well for a professional career these days. He looked like a public park player in his black socks and black and white outfit. To get to the third round, he beat Rajeev Ram and then had a good win over the mercurial Ernests Gulbis. Against Ram, Johnson had saved 11 of 12 break points and against Gulbis all nine. In the fourth game against Gasquet, he saved another three, bringing his tournament total to 23 out of 24.


The first set went to a tiebreak, with Johnson racing to a 4-0 lead and the fans cheering him on. Gasquet promptly reeled off seven consecutive points, helped by a Johnson double fault and a series of sprayed groundstrokes, to take the set.


In the second set, Johnson saved two more break points in the third game before Gasquet finally broke through in the fifth, firing a crosscourt forehand winner to win the game at love. In the seventh game, Gasquet ran his streak to eight points on his opponent’s serve, with another break at love, punctuated by a backhand return of serve that left Johnson flat-footed. Johnson had a glimmer of hope as Gasquet served for the set, getting to 0-40, but the Frenchman ran off another streak, this time of five points, to take the game and set.


There was a recurring theme in the match, as Johnson went to extremes to hit forehands, even running outside the sideline in his backhand corner. When you give up that much court, you really have to pulverize the ball. Johnson hit it hard, but Gasquet was nimble enough to counter, hitting the ball into the open court and putting Johnson on the defensive.


The beat went on in the third set, with Johnson broken in the first and final games to conclude the match. In the end, Johnson had won only 22% of the points on Gasquet’s serve, while Gasquet won 41% of his return points. Johnson should have a solid professional career, but his game does not seem well-rounded enough to merit a slot in the top twenty.


Final Score: Gasquet d. Johnson 7-6(4) 6-2 6-3

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Grandstand: Marion Bartoli (FRA) (11) v. Petra Kvitova (CZE) (5)


Petra Kvitova may be a Wimbledon champion – and may have more major titles in her future – but Marion Bartoli is the consummate entertainer. It seems that there is nothing about Bartoli that is not quirky. Start with the two hands on forehand and backhand. Throw in the jumping dance she does before each point. Add her refusal to bounce the ball while preparing for serve. (When you think about it, that one might make some sense. If it were not utterly conventional to bounce the ball before serving, would we take it for granted that players should do so? And wouldn’t the sport be better off it Djokovic emulated Bartoli?) Consider her unusual training methods. Maybe she knows something the rest of us don’t.


In the first set, Kvitova frustrated the demonstrative Bartoli, conjuring winners with her left-handed forehand from all over the court. Kvitova, a six-footer who was wearing the same Nike outfit I’d seen last week on the diminutive Sara Errani, has an ultra-simple service motion, starting with both hands in front of her so that they move over her head simultaneously. Kvitova went up 3-0 with two breaks of serve. While Bartoli got back one break in the fourth game, that was all she got in the set. She won only 36% of her service points in the opening set.


Somehow, things turned around after that. Bartoli started to handle Kvitova’s serve and blunt the force of her forehand. Bartoli is a hard hitter in her own right, and she placed flat groundstrokes low over the net and near the lines. She went up a break in the third game of the second set, and copped a second break in the fifth game, as she won a multi-deuce game. While Kvitova drew to 4-2 with a break of serve, Bartoli reasserted her control thereafter, winning eight consecutive games to take the second set and then, in a bagel, the third, as she took 22 of the final 25 points.


Bartoli, a grunter, was emoting throughout the match, while the silent Kvitova remained impassive, allowing herself only a bounce of her racket in the fifth game of the final set. There were no hard feelings at the end, as the players exchanged a two-cheek kiss.


Last week, I’d seen a ballboy with a prosthetic leg; at this match, there was a ballgirl with a similar situation. In both cases, the ballperson handled the job with aplomb. The ballboy, I have now learned, was Ryan McIntosh, who lost a leg while serving in Afghanistan, and the ballgirl was Denise Castelli, who underwent an amputation after a broken leg would not heal. It’s a privilege to watch the world-class athletes on the professional tour, but it’s an inspiration to watch McIntosh and Castelli deal with their challenges.


Final Score: Bartoli d. Kvitova 1-6 6-2 6-0

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Bartoli’s win concluded the day session at 8:37 p.m. The subway platform for the 7 train was crowded as fans headed to Manhattan and beyond. For me, there will be one more day at the tournament, Tuesday, when we may have an opportunity to lament once again the absence of a roof at the US Open.