September 4 US Open report
by Jerry Balsam

My third and final visit to this year’s US Open came on another dry and beautiful day. Yet again, I got caught up in a five-setter, which meant that I did not spend as much time as I would have liked checking out the juniors or doubles action. I’ll have to make that a resolution for next year.


September 4, 2007

Stanislaw Wawrinka v. Juan Ignacio Chela

Men’s Singles, Fourth Round

Louis Armstrong Stadium


No one thinks too much about the tall and gaunt Juan Ignacio Chela, the twentieth seed, but he’s a formidable competitor who had just come off a five-set win over Grand Slam-shaky Ivan Ljubicic. In today’s match, he faced Stanislas Wawrinka, a stockier player who strikes both his forehand and one-handed backhand with abandon. If you just watched the two players without peeking at the scoreboard or knowing anything about their respective rankings, you would assume Wawrinka to be the better of the two. His groundstrokes are more penetrating, he serves bigger, and he just looks harder to handle. But Chela is good at keeping the ball in play, and he gives himself an advantage by playing close to the baseline rather than hanging back in the Andy Roddick style. He also brings back memories of Marcelo Rios — or, if you will, Marat Safin — with his “jump shot” on high two-handed backhands.


In the first set, after Wawrinka grabbed an early break of serve at love, Chela broke back, and the players remained even till Chela served at 4-5. He quickly fell behind 0-40 with a double fault. When Chela worked his way to net on triple set point, Wawrinka challenged him to make a low forehand volley, which he parked in the net. The second set was all Chela, as he broke early and late, serving it out for 6-2.


In the third set, the players broke serve in four consecutive games. At one point, the second ball that Wawrinka stowed in his pocket dropped to the court, resulting in a let. After that, Wawrinka took only one ball on first serve, lest it happen again. Keep that moment in mind, because it was to play a role in a later match. After the rash of service breaks, the players held till the tiebreak. Chela fell behind quickly but recovered the mini-break with a nice combination of backhand volley and forehand volley and then secured two points on his serve for a 4-3 lead. The serve went to Wawrinka, who shanked a backhand to fall behind 3-5. Chela returned the favor when serving at 5-4, dumping a forehand into the net. He then did the same with his backhand, to give Wawrinka set point on his serve. Chela came up with a big backhand down the line that elicited a Wawrinka forehand into the net. After the players changed ends at 6-6, Chela got a look at a second serve. He moved all the way over to hit a forehand, and got what he wanted: a 91 mph serve that he ripped down the line for a clean winner and set point on his serve. Having created this opportunity, Chela made no mistake, pouring in a 119 mph serve to Wawrinka’s backhand, which the Swiss player returned into the net. Chela having secured the set, Wawrinka tortured his racket, banging it hard against the court.


At this point, one could not be blamed for thinking Wawrinka toast. Instead, he broke serve three times in the fourth set, cruising to a 6-1 win. So now it was the fifth set: prior to the tournament, Wawrinka had been 8-0 in career fifth sets, while Chela was 1-8. Form seemed to hold as Wawrinka raced to a 2-0 lead, resulting in a warning from the chair for Chela after he slammed his racket in frustration. But Chela broke right back and then held for 2-2. Chela reached break point in the seventh game, and Wawrinka hit an apparently safe kicker — only 80 mph — on his second serve. The ball went long, and Chela had the decisive break. Though Wawrinka saved a match point at 3-5 and came out dancing like a boxer before Chela (to whom the trainer had ministered during the change-over) served for the match at 5-4, Chela closed out the match at 15. Wawrinka added another racket slam to his quota for the day as he tasted the bitterness of his first loss in a five-set match.


I strolled the grounds to catch a little bit of junior action before repairing to Arthur Ashe Stadium for the final points of a rejuvenated Carlos Moya’s win over the exciting young Ernests Gulbis. At match point, the players engaged in a head-to-head shootout at the net, which Moya won, celebrating by collapsing on his back. With that, it was time for the final match of the day session on Ashe.


September 4, 2007

Novak Djokovic v. Juan Monaco

Men’s Singles, Fourth Round

Arthur Ashe Stadium


I had seen Novak Djokovic’s very difficult second-round win over Radek Stepanek; now it was time for the third seed to face the twenty-third seed, the Argentine Juan Monaco, in a fourth-round match. I had never seen Monaco, in person or on television, before this, and I was impressed with what I saw. He is a steady baseliner, to be sure, with variety in his two-handed topspin backhand and one-handed slice and plenty of mobility, but he also has a reasonably powerful serve and is unafraid to finish points in the forecourt.


The first set ended abruptly. After an early exchange of service breaks, Monaco found himself serving at 5-6 0-30. Quickly, a Monaco double fault and a Djokovic forehand passing shot resulted in a break at love and the set.


The feeling in the stands was that, after a tight first set, Djokovic would now assert himself in the second. Not so fast! Monaco saved a set point at 4-5 with a daring and uncharacteristic serve-and-volley play. The 5-5 game was a real tussle, with Monaco breaking through on his fourth try. But Monaco could not serve out the set; on break point, Djokovic ran down a drop shot and ultimately took the point with a forehand drop volley. Djokovic ran away with the tiebreak, 7-2, closing it with a 128 mph ace up the middle. Surely now Djokovic would demonstrate his mastery.


Well, maybe not. The trainer worked on Djokovic’s back after the second set. (This was a familiar sight from the Stepanek match.) Though Djokovic broke serve in the first game, Monaco broke right back. During the change-over after the seventh game, just before 6:30, the lights went on at Ashe, as USTA executives undoubtedly prayed with fervor for a quick conclusion to the match so that the night session would not be unduly delayed. At 6:38, with Djokovic about to serve at 4-5, cleaning crews came into the stadium to prepare the facility for the night matches. But Monaco was not cooperating. He held serve at 5-5 with the help of a huge forehand down the line in reply to a Djokovic overhead, and the crowd really got behind him. The third set went to a closely contested tiebreak.


1. Monaco opened by holding a service point when Djokovic hit a backhand long.

2. Djokovic evened the tiebreak at 1-1 with a big forehand down the line.

3. Monaco netted a backhand, and Djokovic was up 2-1.

4. Monaco squared the breaker at 2-2 with an inside-out forehand off a short service return.

5. Djokovic lined up a forehand passing shot; Monaco guessed right and moved to his forehand side, cutting off the shot and then concluding the point with an overhead for a 3-2 lead.

6. Djokovic tied it up with a 125 ace up the middle.

7. After the players changed ends, Djokovic hit a drop shot and started a cat-and-mouse game at the net, which concluded with his backhand volley down the line. The shot was called wide, and Djokovic challenged. Hawk-Eye showed the ball just millimeters wide, and Monaco had the mini-break for a 4-3 lead.

8. With Monaco serving, Djokovic hit an inside-out forehand wide, falling behind 5-3.

9. On Monaco’s second service point, for the second time in the match, the spare ball fell out of his pocket. The chair umpire called interference on Monaco — you get one free drop, not two — and awarded the point to Djokovic, thus erasing Monaco’s mini-break lead. A sardonic fan called the ruling “a USTA overrule.”

10. With Djokovic serving at 4-5, Monaco netted a crosscourt backhand to tie the breaker.

11. In tight parts of matches, Djokovic bounces the ball incessantly before serving. This time, he went for 25 bounces with his left hand, and this is not counting the preliminary bounces with his racket. It seemed to work, as he poured in a 128 mph first serve, followed by a big forehand. Monaco’s backhand reply down the line went wide, and Djokovic had a 6-5 lead for match point.

12. Monaco’s 111 mph serve up the middle was good enough to draw a Djokovic forehand return into the net. 6-6.

13. Monaco drew a short ball and nailed a crosscourt backhand for the winner and a 7-6 lead.

14. Djokovic again went for 25 bounces — does he have an internal clock that tells him he’s reached the key number? — and nailed his first serve at 128 mph. A long rally ensued, ending when Djokovic hit his forehand long. Despite the devastating interference call, Monaco had recovered to win the set.


After the third set, the chair umpire invited the remaining fans to move down to the loge. This was not entirely an altruistic gesture by the USTA, because they also wanted to help prepare the stadium for the night session, which would now begin even later than planned. During the fourth set, we were treated to some apt musical selections during the change-overs: the Rolling Stones’ cover of Time Is on My Side and Styx’s Too Much Time on My Hands. Djokovic calmed nerves in the USTA suites by racing through the set, 6-1, and sending the day session crowd home. If I am any indication, we left with new respect for Juan Monaco.


I left the premises at about 7:45 p.m., not realizing that I could have caught the conclusion of a mixed doubles semifinal on Armstrong, with Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi, whom I’d seen defeat the top seeds in round 1, advancing over Zi Yan and Mark Knowles. It was a relatively early night for me, considering that the diehards who stayed till the conclusion of the night session and Rafael Nadal’s loss to David Ferrer did not see the final shot till 1:50 a.m. Though it has been little remarked, I believe that Nadal’s defeat finally puts Roger Federer ahead in the points race for the year 2007.


This concludes my in-person experience at this year's US Open. Next year, I’ll have to make more time for doubles and juniors — really.