The All-Important Pity/Shame Distinction
by Jerry Balsam

I returned to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8 for my second trip to this year’s US Open. As with last week’s dispatch, my report is supplemented by photos, the full album of which may be accessed by clicking here. Italicized hyperlinks in the report refer to individual photos in my album.


A sign of the recession: In past years, American Express offered rides along the boardwalk from the subway station to the Tennis Center. Last year, Amex also lent mini-television sets on which viewers could watch matches on various courts. This year, neither amenity is available, though Amex remains a presence at the Open, most prominently with its radios offering the live audio feed of the US television broadcast.


Ashe: Bob Bryan/Mike Bryan (USA) (1) v. Carsten Ball/Chris Guccione (AUS) (Alt.)


The celebrated Bryan twins, featured recently in a profile in The New Yorker, faced off against two tall Aussies, Ball checking in at 6’3” and Guccione at 6’7” (or, for our non-American readers, 2 meters). As is fairly common for identical twins, one of the Bryans (Bob) is left-handed and the other (Mike) right-handed. Indeed, Mike was the only righty on the court for this match, and Ball — son of Syd Ball, a doubles runner-up in the 1974 Australian Open — the only one to hit a two-handed backhand.


I do want to support the doubles game, but this match was short on brilliant exchanges and long on domination by the serve. The first twenty-one points of the match were won by the serving team, till Mike Bryan nailed a backhand return up the line for a winner off Ball’s serve on the second point of the sixth game. (As is well-known, the Bryans do not use the usual configuration for a team with one lefty and one righty. Instead, Mike, the righty, plays the ad court, while left-handed Bob plays the deuce court.)


In the seventh game, the Aussies had two break points on Mike’s serve, which they failed to cash in. Ball and Guccione were sailing along on their own serve till the former toed the line in the tenth game and opened with a double fault. Before you knew it, the Bryans had broken at love, taking the first set in a brisk 26 minutes.


In the second set, the Bryans continued to have Bob serve first, to get the benefit of his heavier delivery, even though this meant that both of the twins would have to serve on an unfamiliar end of the court. While Ball opened the match, the Aussies now started with Guccione, obviating that concern. The Bryans got a break point that was a match point when Guccione served the tenth game, but the Aussies escaped the crisis. The set went to a tiebreak:


  1. Bob Bryan served and put away a high forehand volley. 1-0, Bryan/Bryan.
  2. With Guccione serving, Mike Bryan passed Ball with a forehand down the line. 2-0.
  3. The Aussies won a long rally with a backhand drop volley from Guccione. 2-1.
  4. Mike Bryan served and elicited an inside-out backhand service return from Ball that sailed wide. 3-1.
  5. Bob Bryan put away a high forehand volley. 4-1.
  6. After Ball served, he hit three overheads that the Bryans retrieved, till Guccione put the fourth away. As the teams changed end, the Bryans led, 4-2.
  7. Bob Bryan’s forehand pass up the middle added a second mini-break. 5-2.
  8. Bob Bryan resumed serving. With all four players at the net, Bob hit a forehand pass up the middle. 6-2.
  9. Guccione’s forehand return of Bob Bryan’s serve found the net. 7-2.


Final Score: Bryan/Bryan d. Ball/Guiccione 6-4 7-6(2)


Court 5


I watched a couple of minutes of the doubles team of Andy Ram and Max (The Beast) Mirnyi practicing. You know Mirnyi has become a doubles specialist when you see him stand in the middle of one of the service boxes rather than near the center service line to practice his volley.


Court 7


I caught a couple of minutes of Laura Robson’s three-set win over Lauren Embree. I spent enough time to learn that Robson is left-handed, which is never a bad thing. (Do you detect a southpaw bias here?)


Court 10: Christian Lindell (SWE) (Q) v. Suk-Young Jeong (KOR) (Q)


If you want to get close to the action, it’s not a bad idea to watch a second-round junior match between two qualifiers. I got a front-row seat behind the court as the unknown Swede, soon to be 18, blasted serves and forehands in the third set of his match with the unknown South Korean, only 16. Interestingly, Lindell is a big-time grunter, except on his serve. When I arrived, the score was 1-1 in the third, but Lindell then stepped it up, racking up two breaks and holding from 15-40 in one of his service games to get to 5-1. He served out the match, 6-2, finishing by running around his backhand and pulling a big forehand down the line for a winner.


The vicissitudes of junior tennis life: Lindell wore wristbands from Nike and an adidas baseball cap. Maybe Jeong is a bigger prospect, because he’s younger: he wore a Fila ensemble from head to toe.


Final Score: Lindell d. Jeong 4-6 6-3 6-2


Armstrong: Lukas Dlouhy (CZE)/Leander Paes (IND) (4) v. Wesley Moodie (RSA)/Dick Norman (BEL) (7)


The fourth-seeded team had opened a 4-1 lead in the third set by the time I arrived, and they held serve for 5-1. It was interesting to see the teams use the I formation, especially in contrast with the Bryan Brothers, who did relatively little outright poaching, though the twins are certainly active at the net. I felt sorry for Norman, 6’8” and 38 years old, as he crouched in the I formation on Moodie’s serve. A man of that age and size is no more meant to kneel on a tennis court than to fly coach.


To make things interesting, Dlouhy was broken — broke himself, with a double fault — when serving for the match at 5-2. Norman saved a match point on his serve in the next game, but the great doubles veteran Paes, whom I saw beat Pete Sampras in singles in New Haven in 1998, served out the match at love.


Final Score: Dlouhy/Paes d. Moodie/Norman 6-3 5-7 6-4


Armstrong: Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG) (6) v. Juan Carlos Ferrero (ESP) (24)


Though Ferrero has made a noteworthy comeback this year, this match proved a nice opportunity for Del Potro to hit some balls and not worry about losing. Arguably, the only major difference was the serve, but what a difference! I say this because Del Potro was +21 on aces versus doubles faults (22, 1), whereas Ferrero was only +2 (4, 2). Del Potro won 99 points in all, to Ferrero’s 75. Thus, 19 of the 24 points of Del Potro’s edge came purely from aces versus double faults, and you can be sure that Del Potro had a fair number of unreturnable serves that were not aces.


Stated simply, Del Potro is a monster. He’s listed at 6’6”, but everyone thinks he’s taller, and his wingspan is condor-like. His fitness is questionable, particularly after he ran out of gas against Andy Murray this summer in Montreal, and maybe his ability to control a match and himself is not what it could be (consider his loss to Roger Federer at Roland Garros), but you would not want to be on the wrong side of a tennis ball struck by this man.


Early in the match, a mighty Del Potro groundstroke elicited a lob from Ferrero. Del Potro ran forward to hit the smash, and blew it. A young man sitting in front of me sighed that Del Potro always misses those. He and his wife were Argentines, and they’ve watched Del Potro play any number of times. I asked if they had any residual sympathy for Spanish players, because of the common language, and they said no. The husband added that he really doesn’t like the Chileans Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu. But he also said that Argentina doesn’t have big football rivals, because Brazil is the clear power of Latin America. Needless to say, the Argentines expressed themselves in flawless English (with the wife drawing a distinction between a “shame” and a “pity,” the former implying a level of embarrassment, while the latter expresses non-embarrassing disappointment), my Spanish being non-existent.


When Ferrero served at 3-4 in the first set, a number of spectators surmised that Del Potro would turn it up a notch in this game, and he did, breaking at love. Del Potro served out the set, closing with an ace at 135 mph and a big forehand.


In the second set, Del Potro escaped two break points in the fourth game. He got two break points in the next game, cashing the second when Ferrero’s forehand flew long. Del Potro broke again in the ninth game to take the set 6-3.


Ferrero saved two break points at 0-1 in the third set, and Del Potro averted two in the fifth game. Ferrero’s resistance finally broke in the eighth game. He fought from 15-40 to deuce, but then netted a forehand and sent a backhand long for the final break of the match. Del Potro held to take his third consecutive 6-3 set.


Final Score: Del Potro d. Ferrero 6-3 6-3 6-3


Ashe: Marin Cilic (CRO) (16) v. Andy Murray (GBR) (2)


Well, I didn’t see this one coming, though I’d heard intimations of what was going on by listening to my American Express radio. When I got to Ashe, the powerful Croat was leading Murray by two sets and a break, at 3-2. Murray fell behind, 15-40, on his serve at 2-4. Cilic pulverized forehands till Murray missed one of his own, and thus the break. Serving for the match, Cilic opened with a double fault, then won four straight points to end the match.


I think of Murray, Del Potro, Cilic, and Ernests Gulbis as in the same generation, just behind Novak Djokovic. The first two have made the top ten, the last has fallen badly and is thought a slacker. Cilic is an interesting case: obviously a top player, but capable of wide variations in the quality of his play. The big matches at major tournaments carry extra weight, leading an observer to wonder whether Cilic is ready to make the leap.


Final Score: Cilic d. Murray 7-5 6-2 6-2.


Armstrong: Samantha Stosur/Rennae Stubbs (AUS) (3) v. Bethanie Mattek-Sands (USA)/Nadia Petrova (RUS) (8)


What must it be like to discuss fashion matters with Bethanie Mattek-Sands? On this day, as in the past, she featured basketball-style tube socks: well, basketball-style from the George Gervin era. The Aussies, for their part, wore sunglasses and baseball caps on an overcast day. The caps might not have been a bad idea. At the end of the cloudy day, my hands, nose, and ears, the only parts of my body that were not covered, were all bright red. I guess the experts are right when they say you are exposed to ultraviolet rays through the clouds. As for the shades, MaliVai Washington asked Stosur about that after the match. She joked that she had had a late night.


The match turned into a comprehensive win for the Australians. They served and volleyed effectively, and they know how to play doubles. Mattek-Sands generally stayed back on her serve, Petrova often did on hers, and they were just not as deft as their opponents. This, although Petrova has been at least to the doubles quarterfinals of each of the majors and Mattek-Sands has won seven doubles titles. The winners’ dominance is evident from their garnering 63 points to 34 for the losers.


Final Score: Stosur/Stubbs d. Mattek-Sands/Petrova 6-2 6-3


Armstrong: Fernando Gonzalez (CHI) (11) v. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) (7)


I’d been waiting for this match all day, and it did not disappoint. Gonzo, a free swinger, as all tennis fans know, goes for broke off both the forehand and the one-handed backhand. This was my first time seeing Tsonga, a/k/a Ali, in person. He has an impressive serve, a commendable affinity for the net, and a powerful forehand. On the other hand, two aspects of the scouting report make one wonder how he has made the top ten. First, his backhand is a problem, which can be addressed in three ways: (1) run around it and hit a forehand; (2) hit a one-handed slice and hope to keep the point going till he can get a forehand; (3) hit a stiff-looking two-hander that he shovels over the net with his left hand remaining rigidly on the racket handle through the follow-through. Second, while he looks wonderful going to the net and setting himself up to take over the point, he misses relatively uncomplicated volleys. Against, Gonzo, he missed many.


In the first set, Tsonga jumped out ahead by 3-1, needing four break points to get through Gonzalez’s resistance. Gonzo slammed his racket against the IBM speed monitor, then handed it to a fan, to great applause, and tried another one. Tsonga faced only one break point in the set, incurred when he netted a makeable backhand volley, and served it out at 6-3.


In the second set, Tsonga, serving at 0-1 30-40, popped up a backhand volley, giving Gonzalez the opportunity to pass with his lethal forehand for the break. The break stood up all the way, and Gonzo won the second set, 6-3.


The third set proved crucial. Before Gonzalez served at 2-3, the fans started doing the wave and were reluctant to stop. Chair umpire Lars Graf finally put a stop to it with: “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much.” Gonzo fell behind 0-30 and then double-faulted at deuce for a break point. Tsonga tried a crosscourt forehand passing shot that landed just wide. Gonzo saved a second break point with a swinging forehand volley and a third with a 129 mph serve that Tsonga returned long. Tsonga missed another return and then Gonzo held for 3-3 with a run-around forehand pulled down the line for a winner.


At 5-5, Gonzo got to 15-40 and eventually a third break point on Tsonga’s serve, but the Frenchman escaped. Gonzalez held at 15 to force a tiebreak:


  1. Tsonga opened the tiebreak on his serve, and he pulled a crosscourt forehand wide. 1-0, Gonzalez.
  2. The serve shifting to Gonzo, he netted a forehand. 1-1.
  3. Gonzalez combined a swinging forehand volley and a forehand drop volley. 2-1, Gonzalez.
  4. Tsonga followed his serve to net and put away the second volley on the backhand side. 2-2.
  5. Tsonga’s second smash was a winner. 3-2, Tsonga.
  6. Gonzalez blasted a 128 mph serve and a series of hard forehands. He opened up enough of an angle that Tsonga tried to pull a backhand around the net post. The ball did not hook in. 3-3.
  7. Tsonga netted a forehand. 4-3, Gonzalez.
  8. The key mini-break: Tsonga popped up a backhand half-volley, and Gonzo hit a forehand pass down the line. 5-3.
  9. Another mini-break, as Tsonga netted a forehand volley. 6-3.
  10. Gonzo closed out the set in style with a 126 mph ace up the T. 7-3.


Gonzalez faced a crisis in the first game of the fourth set, saving two break points, one when a Tsonga forehand pass just missed the line, as confirmed by the post-challenge review. The set went on serve till the tenth game. With Tsonga serving at 0-15, the players contrived a great point, with Gonzo sprinting wide to hit a backhand pass, which Tsonga stretched to retrieve from behind him and flick with his forehand for a crosscourt winner. But then Tsonga double-faulted to 15-30 and missed a sitter forehand for 15-40. He saved the first match point with a 116 mph ace wide to the forehand. The match concluded with an emblematic point, as Tsonga missed a backhand volley long. The Chilean fans, needless to say, went crazy.


Final Score: Gonzalez d. Tsonga 3-6 6-3 7-6(3) 6-4


Good News Postscript: My first dispatch reported Sabine Lisicki’s gruesome ankle injury and wondered how severe the damage was. The AP has since reported that an MRI came back clean and the sprain should sideline Lisicki for only about three weeks.