August 30-31 US Open report
by Jerry Balsam

My opening dispatch from this year’s US Open is somewhat delayed and truncated: delayed because I had planned to attend the opening Monday, but was deterred by a nasty end -of-summer cold, truncated because by the time I did make it to the Open, the facility was so crowded that it was not easy to hop from court to court. Maybe it’s time for the USTA to build one or two more show courts the size of the Grandstand, or at least of Court 11?

Thus, while I try to give a feel for the things that you cannot see on television, the two matches at which I spent the bulk of my time were five-set classics that the whole world saw. No complaints: the matches — between James Blake and Fabrice Santoro on Thursday night, and between Novak Djokovic and Radek Stepanek on Friday — were immensely enjoyable. I hope that my final dispatch, following my Open visit this coming Tuesday, gives you a little bit more local color.

August 30, 2007
Tommy Haas v. Philipp Petzschner
Men’s Singles, Second Round

I had a ticket to the night session on Thursday, August 30. The session officially begins at 7:00 o’clock, and the gates open an hour earlier. After getting through security at 6:00, I raced to the Grandstand, where I caught much of the third set of the second-round match between 10th-seeded Tommy Haas and his countryman Philipp Petzschner . I liked Petzschner’s comfort at the net, but the wheels came off for him shortly after I arrived. At one set all, he quickly fell behind 1-4 and lost the set 2-6. After I left, Haas finished off the match in four sets, though the fourth set was tight, at 7-5. Petzschner has a big serve and plays with a now familiar style of topspin backhands with two hands and slices with one. Mats Wilander was the first player I recall who made a big improvement in his game when he added the one-handed slice as a standard part of his arsenal, though one can go back to Bjorn Borg , who employed the slice effectively during his run to five consecutive Wimbledon titles. Petzschner is not on their level, though I give him points for trying.

Gustavo Kuerten/Robby Ginepri v. Marcelo Melo/Andre Sa
Men’s Doubles, First Round
Louis Armstrong Stadium

After leaving Haas and Petzschner, I had the privilege of seeing Gustavo Kuerten again. Who knows how many more opportunities there will be? Guga, like Magnus Norman, has never been the same after his hip surgery. This year at the Open, he was playing only the men’s doubles, partnering Robby Ginepri against the Brazilian tandem of Marcelo Melo and Andre Sa . The match took place on Armstrong, with LIRR trains rolling by and the beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up.

Kuerten and Sa are both north of 30 by now, though Guga still looks like the youngster who was No. 1 in the world, and Sa still looks like a young Pete Sampras. Back in 2001, I had seen Sa lose a first-round singles match at Newport to Glenn Weiner; his career highlight came a year later, when he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.  Another highlight was his run, with Melo, to the Wimbledon doubles semifinals this year, which included a 28-26 fifth-set win over Paul Hanley and Kevin Ullyet in the second round.

Melo is tall and gangly, listed at 6’8”, 192 lbs., and is a revelation as a doubles player. He and Sa played a fair amount of the I formation on serve, and it was a sight to see Melo crouch low enough to avoid getting bopped in the back of the head by Sa’s serve. The players contributed an interesting mix of shots, with Kuerten throwing in a lob volley and Melo a rare drop shot (not a drop volley, but an actual drop shot).

Guga escaped two break points at 2-3, 15-40, and his team went n to break Sa at 3-3. But Melo/Sa broke back at 4-3 in a game that began with Ginepri blasting an overhead beyond the baseline. Ginepri missed another overhead in the 5-6 game, leading to a set point for the Brazilians, but he escaped with a hold. In the tiebreak, Kuerten and Ginepri took a 5-3 lead with a mini-break on Melo’s serve after a scintillating four-man exchange at the net. The wheels came off for Guga and Ginepri when Kuerten served a t 5-4. First, Sa hit a great reflex volley and Kuerten netted the reply for 5-5, then Sa hit an inside-out backhand service return for a winner and set point. Sa closed out the tiebreak with a 99 mph service winner up the middle to Guga’s forehand.

The second set took only 31 minutes, as Melo and Sa closed out the victory. They broke Kuerten in the 1-1 game when Melo hit a winning forehand return of Guga’s first serve at 30-40. In the 1-3 game, Ginepri double faulted on break point. Kuerten saved two match points at 1-5 to keep the match going, but Melo then served it out at love for a 7-6 6-2 win. While the winners were being interviewed on court, the always popular Guga signed autographs and eventually came to the microphone to say a few words.

Lisa Raymond/Nenad Zimonjic v. Victoria Azarenka/Max Mirnyi
Mixed Doubles, First Round
Court 13

As the day session dwindled, it became difficult to get into the field courts that remained in action. I went to the open end of Court 13 and craned my neck to watch the conclusion of the second set, and then the match tiebreak, in the match between the top seeds, Lisa Raymond and Nenad Zimonjic , and the Belarussian duo of Victoria Azarenka and Max (The Beast) Mirnyi . Azarenka was the only one of the four to stay back on her serve, but she is an effective groundstroker, returns well, and acquits herself well at the net when she gets there. Mirnyi, with his long reach, covers a lot of court and punishes imperfect lobs. In an upset, to the extent the results of a mixed doubles match are ever an upset, Azarenka and Mirnyi won going away, 6-7(6) 6-3 10-3.

James Blake v. Fabrice Santoro
Men’s Singles, Second Round
Arthur Ashe Stadium

The day session was dwindling, and after Maria Sharapova had completed her rout on Ashe, it was time to enter the main stadium for the match between sixth-seeded James Blake and Fabrice (The Magician) Santoro . Santoro will be 35 later this year, and who knows how many more opportunities there will be to see his brand of wizardry? Though others have played with two hands on forehand and backhand, no one plays quite like Santoro. His backhand is a fairly standard two-hander, usually with topspin. His cross-handed forehand, however, is something else again. He is always slicing and dicing — one can see why he has historically driven Marat Safin crazy — and goes for a topspin drive only on passing shots. In the mix, there are drop shots, lobs, and balls that are slow, slower, and slowest. Santoro seems to be saying: Here’s a nice, easy one, low, deep, and on the opposite side of the court from where you’re standing. Let’s see what you can do with it. Eventually, many players crack.

Of course, this match was on national television, and I don’t have much to add to Lynn Zinser’s account in The New York Times , but I must say a few words about this struggle. As the match went into a fifth set and beyond midnight, the fans in the (relatively) cheap seats were not invited to come down to the boxes, a tradition that was restored when Blake and Stefan Koubek were to go past midnight on Saturday night. It’s hard to say who ran more in this match, but Santoro almost certainly had to run harder, because Blake was regularly going for winners while Santoro was hitting floaters. In the fifth set, though the night was not very warm or humid, the older man began to show signs of wear. After a double fault in the 2-3 game, Santoro called for the trainer. He began to limp and received a delay of game warning. During the changeover at 4-3, Santoro never sat down in his chair, for fear of cramping. Blake, serving at 4-4, avoided three break points and won an epic point at deuce to set up his hold. Santoro could not keep it going at 4-5. He was up 30-15, but a Blake return of serve knocked the racket out of Santoro’s weary hands for 30-30. Santoro then netted a backhand and hobbled through match point, as Blake passed him with a backhand for the win. Blake was entitled to exult: after losing nine five-set matches, he had finally won his first.

August 31, 2007
Radek Stepanek v. Novak Djokovic
Louis Armstrong Stadium
Men’s Singles, Second Round

I enjoyed the privileged of watching another classic five-setter that started less than 12 hours after the conclusion of the Blake-Santoro match. In this one, Novak Djokovic , the third seed, took on Radek Stepanek , a dangerous player who was unseeded only because injuries had depleted his ranking. The players offered an interesting contrast in styles. Djokovic is happy to stay at the baseline, though he does not turn up his nose at opportunities to finish points at the net. Stepanek often follows his serve, including his second serve, to net and looks for other opportunities to sneak in. While he drives his two-handed backhand with topspin, he is very effective with his one-handed slice, which he uses to stay in rallies and as an approach shot. Because he leans into the slice, shifting his body weight forward, it is natural for him to follow the shot aggressively to the net. Once there, he picks volleys off his shoe-tops with aplomb, though he occasionally missed some of the easier, waist-high efforts. Stepanek, whose engagement to Martina Hingis recently ended, now must try to fight off the famous Hingis curse .

The five sets of this match all went to 7-5 or 7-6, with the players contesting 60 service games and three tiebreaks. Of those 60 games, only 6 resulted in breaks of serve, but this was not because of booming serves or inept returning. Instead, there was fine play on both sides of the net. Liz Robbins, reporting in the Times , passed along some statistics from Hawk-Eye: the match lasted 4 hours, 44 minutes; the players ran 3.96 miles (1.82 for Djokovic and 2.14 for Stepanek); there were 1,994 total shots; the longest rally lasted 40 shots and 53 seconds; Djokovic won 60 of the 104 rallies that lasted more than 8 shots.

The numbers give a flavor for the match, but cannot capture its spirit. Stepanek would dance off the court, pumping a fist to his supporters in a corner box, after winning a key game. Djokovic orchestrated applause from the fans and maintained his sense of humor through an ordeal that had the trainer working on both his legs and his back. It all came down to a tiebreak in the fifth set, preceded by a lengthy standing ovation for both players, and that’s where Djokovic turned things up a notch. He opened with an 86 mph second serve to Stepanek’s backhand, which elicited a shanked return and a 1-0 edge. Stepanek leveled the tiebreak with a 122 mph first serve to Djokovic’s forehand, but Djokovic took the first mini-break with an inside-out backhand return of a 98 mph second serve. At 2-1, Djokovic played a Lendl-like point, with a big serve followed by a cross-court forehand winner. Djokovic extended his lead to 4-1 when Stepanek put an easy forehand into the net. Stepanek dropped another mini-break, falling behind 5-1, when he hit a forehand long. After the players changed ends, Stepanek served for the final time. He worked his way to the net twice, losing the point when a backhand volley floated long. Djokovic served for the match. He missed his first opportunity when he hit a backhand long, but at 6-2 he closed out the match with an unreturnable backhand lob.

Tommy Robredo v. Mardy Fish
Arthur Ashe Stadium
Men’s Singles, Second Round

After the cathartic ending of the Djokovic-Stepanek match, I caught most of fifth set between Tommy Robredo and Mardy Fish . It was much windier at Ashe than at Armstrong, but this didn’t seem to bother Fish as the fifth set began. He was serving big: the fastest serve I saw was 139 mph, and his fastest for the match was 141 mph. Overall, Fish led Robredo in aces, 20-2, and even in points won, 155-152.

I arrived with Robredo serving at 1-2, and Fish broke him at 15 for a decisive lead. Fish held serve in a tight 3-1 game, with Robredo so frustrated at one point that he flung his racket to the court, causing the vibration damper to pop out of his strings. This 4-1 lead was the top of the mountain for Fish, because Robredo then ran off five consecutive games to complete an improbable comeback and secure the victory. When Fish served at 4-2, Robredo broke at love. The next time around, at 4-4, Fish fell behind 0-40, struggled back to 30-40, and then double faulted for the key break. Robredo served out the match without incident, leaving Fish to ponder another one that got away. Last year, too, I witnessed Fish lose a US Open match in which he had won more points than his opponent, a four-setter captured by Novak Djokovic . There’s no shame in losing to either Djokovic or Robredo, but Fish will be 26 in December, and the opportunities to win these matches are waning. Perhaps there is something about the end-of-summer atmosphere at the US Open, but thoughts of the shortness of tennis careers inevitably come to the fore at Flushing Meadows. When we’re lucky, we also see what great competitors can do under pressure, and there is something about a wild New York crowd to bring out the best in the players. I feel fortunate this year to have seen Blake-Santoro and Djokovic-Stepanek, and maybe there are other treats still to come.