Perhaps the Greatest Shot I Have Ever Seen
by Jerry Balsam


Unless you’re blessed with an outstanding memory, it is hard to say that any particular tennis shot was the best you’d ever seen. Maybe there was something better twenty years ago that you’ve simply forgotten. So I will qualify the statement by saying that on Tuesday I saw what might have been the greatest shot I’ve ever seen. I don’t particularly like the player who hit the shot, and I was happy (not to mention incredulous) when he lost the match shortly thereafter, but I do believe it’s worth remembering the moment — and watching the YouTube clip identified below, before it’s too late. If you’ve ever played tennis, you’ll appreciate that the shot was well-nigh impossible. Before we get to that, however, there was a whole lot of tennis to be played. Photos of my day appear in this Snapfish album.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Women’s Doubles, Quarterfinals, Armstrong

Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur (10) d. Marina Erakovic/Jelena Kostanic Tosic, 7-6(3) 6-0


The unseeded team — Erakovic a righty, and Kostanic Tosic a lefty — mostly stayed back on serve. It didn’t hurt them all that much in the first set, which was the only one I watched. After I left, Raymond and Stosur served up a bagel in the second set. With Kostanic Tosic serving at 5-5, 30-30, Erakovic intercepted the service return but netted her forehand volley for a break point. Erakovic atoned with a winning overhead, forehand volley, and drop volley to help her team hold. The tenth-seeded team saved a set point in the next game, after Raymond overhit a forehand off an Erakovic net cord that followed a cat-and-mouse exchange at the net. Raymond and Stosur, like their opponents had done previously, reeled off three consecutive points to save the game and go to a tiebreak.


Erakovic served the first point of the tiebreak and held. Raymond and Stosur then ran off six straight points, featuring, at 4-1, a nice forehand volley by the serving Raymond off a Kostanic Tosic return and past the net woman Erakovic. While the underdogs were able to save two set points, the favorites closed the set on Stosur’s serve, with her overhead followed by a backhand volley winner from Raymond.


Women’s Singles, Quarterfinals, Ashe

Elena Dementieva (5) d. Patty Schnyder (15) 6-2 6-3


When I arrived in Ashe and scouted out a place in the shade, Dementieva was already up a set and a break. In any match where her double fault rate is barely over 4%, she will be extremely tough to beat, and this was the case on Tuesday.


Shortly after I sat down, the southpaw Schnyder hit a big forehand down the line for a winner to recover the break and level the second set at 3-3. That was all she wrote. Dementieva broke right back with an inside-out forehand and was not to be troubled again.


Is Dementieva, Jankovic, or Safina the best player currently on the women’s tour never to win a major? Will one of them break through this week?


Men’s Singles, Fourth Round, Ashe

Novak Djokovic (3) d. Tommy Robredo (15), 4-6 6-2 6-3 5-7 6-3


I watched the first three sets of this tussle, leaving when it seemed that Robredo had run out of answers against the more powerful Djokovic. It looked like a battle between a middleweight and a heavyweight. After I left, Robredo surprised by claiming the fourth set, but Djokovic came through in the end.


Having watched a fair amount of Djokovic, I still ask myself what makes him so good. Yes, he has a good serve, but it’s hardly a cannonball. Yes, he has good groundstrokes, but nothing obviously outstanding — aside, perhaps, from his well-disguised and dangerous backhand down the line. Yes, he is competent at the net, but not a natural volleyer. I think the answer is nothing more remarkable than that he does everything well, does not have obvious weaknesses, and wears opponents out. Since he and Rafa Nadal are virtually contemporaries, it will be fascinating to see how many major titles Djokovic can add to his Australian crown of earlier this year, and whether one of the young guns — Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, or Ernests Gulbis — will eventually supersede him. One note about Djokovic that’s worthy of mention: he still bounces the ball a lot before he serves, but the skeins of 20+ bounces seem to be in the past. Let’s hope so.


Robredo jumped ahead in the ninth game of this match, breaking serve with the help of a double fault from Djokovic at 30-30. Serving out the set, Robredo got off to a superb start when he chased down a drop shot and then a Djokovic volley to hit a winning passing shot. Robredo held at love.


Though the second set was punctuated by a visit from the trainer to assist Djokovic, it was not close. Djokovic broke for 2-0 and again to close out the set. In the third set, Djokovic broke serve at 15 in the fourth game and was never headed — at least not while I was still watching the match.


The stands behind the court were packed by fans desperate to sit in the shade, while the rest of Ashe was sparsely populated. There were some tetchy moments between the people who held tickets in the shaded area and visitors. Since I was one of the visitors and I kept expecting to get tossed from my seat, I thought it was time to move on after three sets.


Men’s Doubles, Quarterfinals, Armstrong

Maximo Gonzalez/Juan Monaco d. Bruno Soares/Dusan Vemic, 6-2 6-7(3) 6-3


I caught only the final two games of this match and have only two observations.


Both sides played one up/one back. It’s not a long-range formula for success in men’s doubles, as Gonzalez and Monaco were to find out in the semifinals on Wednesday.


Vemic has one of those balding guy ponytails going on. Opinions may differ, but that’s probably another not-too-great idea.


Men’s Singles, Fourth Round, Armstrong

Gilles Muller d. Nikolay Davydenko, 6-4 4-6 6-3 7-6(10)


As the players warmed up in front of a small crowd, with Ashe crowded with fans watching Djokovic v. Robredo (as it would later be crowded for those watching Roger Federer and Igor Andreev go five sets), we could hear music coming over from Ashe during a changeover on that court. It was the late, great Warren Zevon with Werewolves of London. There are times when you just have to love the US Open, and this was one of them — even if the sun was beating down and the ice cream vendor was no longer plying the upper deck of Armstrong during the second week of the tournament.


After his marathon win on Sunday, I thought that Muller had stashed his drop shot somewhere in the garage, but he hauled it out again several times against the speedy Davydenko, and got away with it more often than I’d have predicted. Muller also holds onto a traditional shot that you don’t much see these days, and this one I like. Like many players with two-handed backhands, he adds variety to his game with a one-handed slice. He uses that slice fairly often as an approach shot, unlike the topspin approaches one sees today. It can work quite well, and it’s disguised, in that the opponent can’t tell right away whether Muller is employing underspin to keep the rally going or to launch an attack.


Muller got through his first crisis in the seventh game, savings three break points, primarily with unreturnable serves. Muller doesn’t serve all that hard — in this match, his first serve averaged 120 mph — but the novelty of being a lefty gives him an edge, and he is effective with a slice out wide in the ad court, which is not hit hard but runs away from a righty’s backhand. The stat sheet shows that Muller served 20 aces in this match; there must have been a like number of serves that Davydenko was simply unable to return.


Davydenko handled his first crisis less adroitly. Serving at 4-5, 15-30, he double faulted, then totally mishit a forehand passing shot, and suddenly the set belonged to Muller. This had to be a novelty for Gilles, considering he’d lost the first two sets in each of his prior two matches. Muller went up an early break in the second set and was serving at 4-2, 40-15, but Davydenko ripped off four consecutive points for the break back. In his next service game, Muller saved two break points at 0-40, but not the third, when his forehand approach sailed long. So now Davydenko was serving for the second set, and he closed it out at 15.


After the fifth game of the third set, Muller took a medical timeout to have his left knee taped. I used the time for a men’s room break, only to come back to find that Muller had broken for a 4-2 lead. When it came time for Muller to serve for the set, he fell behind 0-30 and then 15-40. He bravely served and volleyed on a second ball and hit a beautiful backhand volley to get to 30-40. On the second break point, Davydenko lost a long rally when his backhand landed just wide. Davydenko garnered a third breaker when he passed Muller with a backhand return of a second serve, but Muller got back to deuce when he served and volleyed on second serve, and Davydenko hit a forehand just long. Muller got to set point with a 123 mph ace out wide and closed the set when Davydenko misfired on a backhand return of a second serve.


Davydenko saved two break points in the third game of the fourth set and Muller saved one in the eighth game. With Muller serving at 4-5, things got dicey, as he fell behind 0-40. He saved one set point with a 128 mph ace up the T and another when Davydenko’s backhand pass found the net. Muller reached the haven of deuce with a 129 mph serve up the middle that Davydenko returned long. A double fault meant a fourth set point for Davydenko, but Muller held for 5-5 by sandwiching a 126 mph ace up the middle and a crosscourt backhand winner around a Davydenko backhand pass that missed the mark. The lights went on, and it was 6:11 p.m.


Both players held serve at 15, and we went into a tiebreak. It was at least a mini-epic, so it deserves point-by-point recounting, with the serving player’s initials indicated parenthetically.


  1. (ND) Davydenko opened with the serve and secured the first point with a crosscourt backhand.
  2. (GM) Muller evened the score with an inside-out forehand.
  3. (GM) Muller went up 2-1 with a 121 mph ace up the T.
  4. (ND) Drawn forward by a net cord, Davydenko closed the deal for 2-2 with a forehand volley.
  5. (ND) Muller pulled his backhand return of a second serve wide, and Davydenko led 3-2.
  6. (GM) Muller’s slice backhand approach up the line — the one I like — went wide. This was the first mini-break, and Davydenko had a 4-2 lead.
  7. (GM) Davydenko’s backhand service return found the net, trimming his lead to 4-3. Muller then hit the extra ball across the net, accidentally (I think) hitting Davydenko, as the crowd tittered.
  8. (ND) A forehand from Davydenko clipped the tape and landed wide. The mini-break was returned, and the score was 4-4.
  9. (ND) Davydenko tried a drop volley, and a sprinting Muller tried a chip backhand crosscourt pass. Davydenko reached the ball with his forehand, but netted the shot. It was another mini-break, and now Muller had the match on his racquet with a 5-4 lead.
  10. (GM) And now it was time for perhaps the greatest shot I have ever seen. Muller served and volleyed on the second ball, and his first volley got behind Davydenko in his forehand corner. Davydenko raced backward, reached behind himself to hit one of those Federer underspin “squash” forehands, and whipped it crosscourt for a clean winner. If the video has not been taken down yet by YouTube, you can see the point here, with French commentary to boot. It was an astonishing shot, insanely great, made under great pressure, and one that Davydenko probably could not replicate in a hundred chances.
  11. (GM) Things went from bad to worse for Muller, who now netted a forehand volley to fall behind 6-5 and, at the 3-hour mark of the match, give Davydenko a fifth set point.
  12. (ND) Davydenko’s backhand went long, and the players changed ends at 6-6.
  13. (ND) Muller successfully retrieved an overhead but then netted a backhand. Davydenko had a sixth set point at 7-6.
  14. (GM) Davydenko’s backhand service return was just wide and long. 7-7.
  15. (GM) A backhand pass by Davydenko found the net, giving Muller his first match point at 8-7.
  16. (ND) Davydenko had the brass to try — and make — a swinging backhand volley. 8-8.
  17. (ND) Stretching wide to his backhand, Muller netted the ball. Davydenko now enjoyed a seventh set point at 9-8.
  18. (GM) Davydenko’s forehand service return was long. The players changed ends at 9-9.
  19. (GM) Serving and volleying on the second ball, Muller got to a second match point with a winning backhand volley. 10-9.
  20. (ND) Davydenko went wide with a 91 mph second serve, and somehow it was an ace on Muller’s forehand side. 10-10.
  21. (ND) Davydenko misfired on his first serve and invoked a Hawkeye challenge, which was unsuccessful. He then double faulted, giving Muller a third match point, and the first one on his serve, at 11-10.
  22. (GM) Davyenko’s forehand pass landed gently in the net, and the tiebreak — and, with it, the match — belonged to Muller, 12-10.


MaliVai Washington, interviewing Muller on the court after the match, asked him how his attitude has changed recently. Muller said he’s more confident and added that, a couple of years ago, he would have folded up after Davydenko’s miracle shot, but now he said to himself he’ll never hit a ball like that again, smiled, and went on. Perhaps naively, I assumed that Davydenko’s amazing shot would be the turning point that brought him the match. Not against this version of Muller, it turned out.


While all this was happening, the Federer-Andreev match was going long, and the night session stood to be delayed. The crew took down the singles net on Armstrong and put up a doubles net for the match featuring the Bryan brothers. Then they returned, put back the singles net, and affixed the Chase logos, virtually screaming: “The next match will be a women’s singles contest!” Still, it took a long time for the tournament organizers to announce the obvious: the first night match, between Sybille Bammer and Jelena Jankovic, was being moved to Armstrong, while the Bryan brothers were going to the Grandstand. (That was to be the last Grandstand match of the tournament; regrettably, as in past years, the organizers have shut down the Grandstand during the second week. What would be so terrible if some juniors got a chance to play on a bigger court, and some spectators got a chance to sit in the shade and have backs on their seats?)


Women’s Singles, Quarterfinals, Armstrong

Jelena Jankovic (2) d. Sybille Bammer (29), 6-1 6-4


One of three mothers currently on the WTA Tour, Bammer is a hard-hitting lefty. Today’s New York Times says that Jankovic “largely overpowered” Bammer. That’s not what I saw. Instead, I saw Bammer string together two or three powerful shots, but unable to hit the clincher in court or, if in court, by Jankovic. Jankovic was not going for winners, but she was getting everything back. In the first set, she committed only four unforced errors, compared to 17 for Bammer. Since they each hit three winners, it was not a close set. Some errors crept into Jankovic’s game in the second set, but not enough to turn the tide.


I stayed on Armstrong for this match because I was not enthusiastic about sitting in the nosebleed seats in Ashe to watch the fifth set of Federer. As I later learned, had I left Armstrong, I would not have been allowed back in. Day session patrons were allowed to stay in Armstrong, but they were not allowed to enter. As the crowd streamed into Armstrong, the chair umpire asked spectators to take the nearest seat right away and use the change-over to look for a better seat. The admonition was not merely ignored, it was flouted with the derision that only a New York crowd can offer.


Jankovic and Bammer began their match with three consecutive breaks of serve, and then the second seed held for 3-1 as part of a run of 11 straights points that helped seal the first set. Bammer had her own string of seven consecutive points in the second set, to which Jankovic responded with a later streak of nine. Perhaps fittingly, the match ended just before 9:10 with a double fault from Bammer.


While the match was going on, the smell of barbecue wafted onto the court, and one could see smoke in the lights. Shortly after the second set began, Federer had completed his match with Andreev, and OrleansStill the One played loudly on Ashe, readily audible on Armstrong. Sad to say, I don’t think Federer is still the one, and it’s highly debatable whether he’ll break or equal Pete Sampras’s record of 14 major titles; indeed, I wonder if he’ll add at all to his current holdings of 12. On this one, I very much hope to be proven wrong.