An Artist in the Ring of Fire
by Jerry Balsam

The second Thursday of the US Open is a relatively quiet day, notwithstanding the presentation of a trophy to the mixed doubles champions. By this time, the tournament has morphed into a juniors event, with a few grownups (and some old-timers) playing their matches. The grounds are no longer teeming with fans: there are no more grounds passes, and, to my chagrin, Louis Armstrong Stadium and the Grandstand have been shut down. (During the Thursday night match between Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick, Ted Robinson said that the tournament this year is projected to reach an attendance total in excess of 700,000, in comparison with 97,000 during the first US Open, in 1968 at Forest Hills. So, while I occasionally lament how crowded the grounds become, and even making allowances for the extra attendance made possible by night sessions, which did not exist in 1968, it’s worth remembering that this is a good problem for tennis to have.) Not to beat a dead horse, but would it be so terrible if the juniors got a chance to play on one of the show courts? What is more, with the sun beating down on the beleaguered fans, wouldn’t it be nice to use a couple of venues where there is at least some shade to be had?


As usual, I provide a Snapfish album of my photos, which is available here.


Thursday, September 4, 2008


Women’s Doubles, Quarterfinals, Ashe

Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur (10) d. Katarina Srebotnik/Ai Sugiyama (4), 7-5 6-1


As on Tuesday, I saw Raymond and Stosur win a tight first set and moved on before they closed out the match easily. In Tuesday’s match, however, the first set went to a tiebreak after no breaks of serve. On Thursday, it seemed for a while that there would be no holds of serve. Srebotnik and Sugiyama both stayed back on their serves, and Sugiyama was the less imposing server of the two. So, of course, it was Sugiyama who held serve in the seventh game for a 4-3 lead, after the teams had exchanged six breaks of serve, typically in long, deuce-laden games.


With Sugiyama holding, the phenomenon suddenly became catching, as Raymond held serve for 4-4 and then Srebotnik — obviously the most talented singles player on the court, as you could see from the power of her groundstrokes — for 5-4. Stosur had a hiccup at 4-5, but she fought back from 0-30 to knot the score at 5-5. Sugiyama, having pioneered the hold of serve, lost the knack, and she double faulted at 15-40 to give Raymond and Stosur the decisive break. Raymond served out the set at 30, and I ventured out to the field courts.


Boys’ Singles, Third Round, Court 10

Chase Buchanan d. Daniel Cox, 6-3 7-6(7)


These young men already have ATP rankings, with Buchanan (an American) just ahead of Cox (a Brit), 767 to 768. Buchanan has pocketed $4,625 in career prize money, while Cox has raked in $11,891. It’s a long climb to the summit.


When I arrived, Buchanan was leading 6-3 1-2. I sneaked into a corner of Court 10 where I was totally protected from the sun. There was only one problem: the protection was provided by a brick wall that blocked my view of one side of the court. After a few games, I realized this was not the way to go, and I went around to the other side of the court, finding a place to stand in the shade of a light pole.


Buchanan opened a 3-2 lead in the second set when he punished a second serve from Cox and secured the break. Cox broke right back, at love, and then Buchanan broke again for a 4-3 lead. At 5-4, his face red with exhaustion, Buchanan served for the match. At 40-30, he whacked a forehand into Cox’s open forehand corner for a winner. The line judge on the baseline called it good, and Buchanan whooped with relief and happiness at his win. Remarkably, for it was a close call, the chair umpire overruled and called the ball out. An incredulous Buchanan complained to the umpire, but there would be no reversing the reversal. Cox quickly broke serve to tie the set, and he went ahead 6-5 when a frustrated Buchanan kept hitting long.


Buchanan pulled it together to hold serve at love and force a tiebreak. But Cox raced to a 5-1 lead in the tiebreak, which he extended to 6-2, giving himself four set points. Still serving, Cox sprayed a backhand long, and it was 6-3. Buchanan saved two more set points with a service winner and a backhand volley. Now came the point Cox really had to have, the second chance to serve out the set. He didn’t get it, as he was wide with a forehand down the line. With the score tied 6-6, Buchanan exhorted himself with a loud “Come on!”


Cox got himself to a fifth set point with a forehand winner for 7-6, but the serve now returned to Buchanan. He won a long rally when Cox netted a forehand. Buchanan followed with a service winner up the T to get to 8-7 and his second match point. Serving to stay in the match, Cox hit a forehand long, and this time there was no reversal of the call. Buchanan exulted in the victory, and shook the umpire’s hand after Cox’s. I was not sure he would do so, but it was the right thing to do. It would have been a lot more difficult if he’d lost the match.


Next up for Buchanan is the Bulgarian third seed, Grigor Dimitrov, whom one fan complimented for a graceful one-handed backhand, rare among today’s juniors. While the Buchanan-Cox match was going on, I also watched a few minutes of the match on Court 9 between two lefties, Cedrik-Marcel Stebe and Guido Pella. One of Pella’s partisans (for all I know, a family member) was riding the line judge on the baseline, who eventually told the fan to “shut up.” Stebe, the 11th seed, won by the interesting score of 6-0 5-7 6-1. I also saw a couple of minutes of Gail Brodsky’s 6-1 7-6(1) win over Ajla Tomljanovic on Court 6. Court 5, meanwhile, had been converted into a tent city as the Open continued to wind down. Finally, I watched a few minutes of Filip Krajinovic’s defeat of Guillaume Rufin, the sixth-seeded boy, on Court 10, 6-4 7-6(4). Krajinovic wore a sleeveless red shirt, while Rufin wore all white, including a white baseball cap that he removed during change-overs so that he could put an ice bag on his head. (Have I mentioned that it was hot in the sun?) Based on their ensembles, one of the fans styled the matchup as between a nerd (all-white Rufin) and a macho guy (sleeveless Krajinovic), adding, in an echo of Cousin David’s meme, that Rufin’s mother must have picked out his clothing in the morning.


Mixed Doubles, Final, Ashe

Cara Black/Leander Paes (5) d. Liezel Huber/Jamie Murray, 7-6(6) 6-4


Black and Huber, the top-seeded team in the women’s doubles, faced off across the net in the mixed final. Their partners were, respectively, the venerable Indian Paes and Andy Murray’s older, left-handed brother. (When his partner serves, Jamie Murray takes a stance diagonal to the net as though interested only in hitting a forehand volley, but he straightens out by the time the serve is hit.) I arrived at 6-6 in the first set tiebreak, which Black and Paes quickly captured with a service winner from Black to Huber and then, on Huber’s serve, a Paes backhand volley up the middle off a poach.


The match went quickly because the mixed doubles is played with no-ad scoring. If the first two sets had been split, the proceedings would have concluded with a match tiebreak in lieu of a third set.


Murray was broken in the fifth game of the second set when Black found a gap between him and Huber for a winning volley. While Huber escaped three break points (one a 40-40 “deciding point”) in the seventh game, she and Murray were unable to break back against Paes and Black, who were playing together for the first time. Serving at 5-4, Paes held at 15 for the title, adding a fourth mixed title in the majors to his four men’s doubles titles. Of his eight major championships, three have come at Wimbledon, two at the US Open, two at Roland Garros, and one (with Martina Navratilova) at the Australian. For her part, Black now four major titles in women’s doubles and three in the mixed. This was her first US Open title, along with one each in France and Australia, and four at Wimbledon.


Men’s Singles, Quarterfinals, Ashe

Roger Federer (2) d. Gilles Muller, 7-6(5) 6-4 7-6(5)


It goes so fast in tennis. The first time I saw Federer play, he was a promising youngster who had not harnessed his talent, and he lost a rain-delayed match at the 2000 US Open to Juan Carlos Ferrero, 7-5 7-6(6) 1-6 7-6(6), despite winning 150 of the 286 points. Eight years later, Federer has gone through the phases of learning how to win, becoming one of the greatest champions of all time, and now, in my opinion, beginning the descent down the other side of the mountain. There is something poignant about the artist in his decline. You can still see the artistry, but he no longer can summon it at will. He has become more an artisan, less a man who hits shots that make you wonder how he conceived them.


All this was evident during this tight straight-set victory over the qualifier who has remade his career during the fortnight. Before we were to see the results on court, however, there was a brief glimpse backstage into the world of television confusion. Michael Barkan conducted pre-match interviews with the players. When he got to Federer, he asked him about exhaustion after the five-set match against Igor Andreev. After Federer’s anodyne answer, Barkan got that deer-in-the-headlights look as he concentrated on the voice coming through his earpiece. After an awkward pause, he asked Federer the same question again, and Federer gave a different but similar anodyne answer. I gather that only the second exchange was seen on USA Network. Then, Barkan asked Federer about what it’s like playing Muller, and Federer said he had never played him before. As another observer has noted, Federer in fact defeated Muller twice in 2005. (In fact, the public address announcer was soon to recount that history.) Federer’s forgetfulness probably says something about what it was like to be the nonpareil that he was. Who can be bothered remembering matches against mere mortals? It also reminds us that he doesn’t have a coach, because a coach at least would tell his charge: “Well, Roger, you beat this guy twice a few years ago….”


For this match, Muller had his left knee taped from the outset, an adjustment that was made during his memorable victory over Nikolay Davydenko. He did not seem to be impeded in his movement.


In recognition of the late summer conditions, during change-overs, the public address system played, among others, (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave, by Martha and the Vandellas, Walking on Sunshine, by (the ironically named, in retrospect) Katrina and the Waves, and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. To confess my cultural illiteracy, I had never heard the last song until a few weeks ago, when the two-year-old daughter of friends — the young lady in her uncle’s arms in this photo — recited the lyrics for me with minimal prompting.


In the first set, Federer and Muller chugged along on serve. Federer saved a break point in the seventh game, and then Muller saved five break points — set points, at that — while serving at 5-6. Muller’s serve is far from the hardest in the game, but it is well-placed, and he gets a lot of free points with it, especially, it seems, in clutch situations. Federer grabbed a 3-0 lead in the tiebreak, including two points on Muller’s serve, but Muller clawed back to 4-4. Serving at 4-5, Muller came to net. Federer retrieved a Muller overhead and eventually passed his opponent with a beautiful backhand down the line for the decisive mini-break. It was a glimpse of the “real Federer,” and it left Muller sprawled on the court. Each player then held a point on serve, so Federer captured the tiebreak, 7-5.


In the second set, Federer saved a break point in the second game. Though he never really pulled away from Muller, this break point, only the second he faced in the match, was to be the last. Federer went up 0-40 on Muller’s serve in the ninth game, giving him three of the ultimate total of eleven break points he was to see. After Muller saved two break points to get to 30-40, Federer finally broke through with a forehand pass for a 5-4 lead. Federer served out the set, coming up with two big serves at 30-30 to close it out.


Muller faced more break points in the third set, saving one in the first game and two more in the ninth. (Federer ultimately converted only one of his eleven break chances.) Muller again broke out his drop shot — the one that got him into trouble against Nicolas Almagro — and coupled it with a topspin lob to hold for 6-5. When Federer held at 15, the players went into another tiebreak.


This time, Muller got the first mini-break, as Federer was long with a backhand at 1-1. The lead stuck till Muller served at 5-3, and it looked like we were headed for a fourth set. But Muller netted a forehand to reduce his lead to 5-4, and now Federer had the ball. He evened the tiebreak at 5-5 when Muller’s backhand pass landed wide and came up with his own backhand pass to get to 6-5 and match point. Serving to stay alive, Muller netted a backhand, and his odyssey through the qualifying and main draw had ended abruptly. On his way off the court, Muller saluted the fans, and the gesture was reciprocated.


In his post-match interview, Federer said that it was a close match, but he felt like he was “playing great.” Part of being an outstanding athlete is self-confidence bordering on hubris. For all the pleasure Federer has given tennis fans over the years, one can hardly begrudge him the hyperbole. As I said last time, I hope to be proven wrong, but I think Federer’s chances of surpassing Pete Sampras’s tally of 14 majors are dwindling if not vanished. Even if he doesn’t reach the record, he still has the most beautiful game I’ve been privileged to see.