US Open Report

Monday, August 30, 2010

Jerry Balsam


Hawk-Eye Nearly Saves a Former Champ


Opening Day at the 2010 US Open was not sold out, but it was crowded, with waves of humanity joining me in avoiding Arthur Ashe Stadium and trying everything else. Most of us sought out the shade on a day of baking heat.


My new toy this year is an iPod Touch, which has a free US Open app that works well with the free WiFi at the National Tennis Center. If you have an iPhone or iPad, it’s worth downloading the app before heading out to the Open. Among other things, you won’t have to guess what the scores are on various courts, or trudge to the big board outside Ashe to find out.


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.


Court 10: Simon Greul (GER) v. Richard Gasquet (FRA)


A word to the wise: the line at security is shorter if you enter the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at the South Gate, away from the boardwalk leading directly from the subway to the grounds. Conveniently, the South Gate is next to Court 10, where I saw my first match of the day. One little highlight: I believe that one of the line judges was Shino Tsurubuchi of Serena Williams foot fault fame.


Gasquet, who has been ranked as high as seventh in the world, is still recovering in the rankings from his brief provisional suspension for a positive cocaine test. His opponent, 29, achieved a career-high ranking of 55th earlier this year. He is remembered in these parts for giving Roger Federer a tussle at last year’s Open.


Although styles are more homogeneous these days, even a casual observer could tell that Gasquet is the more accomplished player. His strokes, especially his beautiful one-handed backhand, just flow. For his part, Greul has an idiosyncrasy in his service motion: a hitch at the top of the toss that makes it look like he’s going to catch the ball and start over again. He also uses only one ball to serve, so he must call upon a ball boy for a replacement after a fault or a let.


Gasquet mixed things up, tossing in an occasional serve and volley or an off-speed kicker to Greul’s backhand on the first ball. He did not seem perturbed by the music playing at the south end of the court, or the periodic announcements, such as Betty Blake’s afternoon appearance to sign her new book. (Meanwhile, on Court 9, where no matches were scheduled, a shirtless Horacio Zeballos practiced.) For a player unafraid of the net, Gasquet plays a long way behind the baseline when receiving serve, even on second serve and even after Greul took a medical timeout for the trainer to treat his back. The treatment took place with Greul trailing 3-6 3-3, shortly after he had broken Gasquet for the only time in the match, and his serve was slower afterward, though he was still able to stretch. While his shirt was still off, one could see a patchwork of blue tape on his back. Greul labored on, but he is not in Gasquet’s league, and it proved a routine win for the Frenchman.


Final Score: Gasquet d. Greul 6-3 6-4 6-2.


Armstrong: Nikolay Davydenko (RUS) (6) v. Michael Russell (US)


I caught only the last two games of this one, as Davydenko, already up two sets and a break upon my arrival, held and broke to close the match out. Russell, best remembered for an epic Roland Garros loss to Guga Kuerten, wore a sleeveless shirt of the sort that has invaded tennis in recent years. Davydenko next faces Gasquet.


The real lesson of this match: Bring two ice water bottles with you to the Open. I tried to get by with one, which meant I had to refill at the water fountains more often, which meant that I stood on long lines a few times. Water fountains and restrooms are rather available in Ashe and are rationed everywhere else on the grounds. A Berkshire Hathaway shareholder once asked Warren Buffett whether the company maintained a key man insurance policy on his life. As memory serves, he answered that the company held no such policy, because it was in the business of selling insurance, not buying it. So, too, for the US Open: it’s in the business of selling water (at eye-popping prices), not giving it away.


Final Score: Davydenko d. Russell 6-4 6-1 6-3


Court 4: Shahar Peer (ISR) (16) v. Jelena Kostanic Tosic (CRO)


Kostanic Tosic, a southpaw, has won eight doubles titles, but there are limits to what she can do on the singles court. She almost invariably slices her two-handed backhand, though she occasionally musters topspin for a passing shot.


Peer was trying to attack, standing well inside the baseline to receive second serve, but she was not doing a good job finishing points. I arrived at the start of the second set, in time to see Peer smack two rare aces on consecutive points to close out the first game, but she was not playing well, and Kostanic Tosic went up a break. The Croat served for the set at 5-4, but then the wheels came off, as Peer broke, held, and broke to take the match.


Toward the end of the match, spectators high in the Court 4 bleachers saw a comical sight, as a man who towered over a seemingly pint-sized entourage walked off the practice courts in the distance. We could not make out his face, but we immediately knew it was John Isner. Whether he should be playing this tournament on a bum ankle is quite a different question.


After I left Court 4, I saw Kostanic Tosic hanging out with friends and chatting on her cell phone on a shaded patch of grass outside Ashe. She was remarkably calm, as though she had expected to lose and was pleasantly surprised to have made a match of it.


Final Score: Peer d. Kostanic Tosic 6-4 7-5


Grandstand: Robin Soderling (SWE) (5) v. Andreas Haider-Maurer (AUT) (Q)


I arrived in the middle of the fourth set, with Haider-Maurer, a 23-year-old qualifier, having taken the third after Soderling had gone up two sets. Haider-Maurer came into the tournament ranked 214th in the world, off a career high of number 164, yet he played a fearless match against the fifth seed. His serve regularly topped 130 miles per hour — at match’s end, he had 34 aces against 9 doubles faults, compared to Soderling’s 8 and 13 — and he hardly seemed awed by the occasion or venue.


Serving at 5-6 in the fourth, Soderling was in a 15-40 jam. He saved one set point but tossed away the second with an overhead into the net, so the match went to a deciding set. Soderling asserted his authority in the fifth. With Haider-Maurer serving at 2-2, 15-30, Soderling hit an outstanding crosscourt forehand passing shot to get double break point, which he cashed in. He then seemed to play with more confidence, including a beautiful forehand lob volley, as he held serve the rest of the way to claim the match. Not only did Haider-Maurer have a big edge in serving statistics, but he was -7 in his winners/errors ratio, while Soderling was a whopping -30. Part of being number 5 in the world is winning close matches when you’re not playing well, and Soderling got the job done, to the particular satisfaction of a contingent of yellow-shirted Swedish fans who had chanted “Robin, Robin” and many other things I could not understand nearly as well.


As I left the Grandstand, I passed Taylor Dent as he was walking into the court for the next match. He is listed as 6’2”, but he seemed shorter in person.


Final Score: Soderling d. Haider-Maurer 7-5 6-3 6-7(2) 5-7 6-4


Armstrong: Samantha Stosur (AUS) (5) v. Elena Vesnina (RUS)


When I arrived, Vesnina, already up a set, was serving to force the second into a tiebreak. That she did, but she quickly fell behind 4-0, and then Stosur won three of the next five points to tie the match. The two women wore identical Lacoste outfits, the only difference being their headgear: a baseball cap for the Aussie and a visor for the Russian.


On her service games, Vesnina emits a loud “ah-ya” after the serve and just about every shot, but she is quieter in her return games, perhaps because she is playing more defensively. As the third set rolled on, a large contingent of Australian fans cheered Stosur on, with “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie — oi, oi, oi” and “Let’s go, Sammy, let’s go.” It was all flowing for the fifth seed by that time: at match point, Stosur, handcuffed by Vesnina’s serve, popped up a short return, but then followed with a passing shot winner to claim victory.


Final Score: Stosur d. Vesnina 3-6 7-6(2) 6-1


Armstrong: Lleyton Hewitt (AUS) (32) v. Paul-Henri Mathieu (FRA)


I’ve been watching Hewitt at the Open since he beat countryman Wayne Arthurs in the second round in 1999, in a match on Court 11 watched by a number of great Aussies, including the Woodies, Tony Roche, and my hero, Rod Laver (then still recovering from a stroke), whose hand I got to shake after it was over. It’s easy to understand why the Australians turned out to see Hewitt, as he was their great hope, and indeed he went on to reach number one in the world and win two majors, including the 2001 US Open. He just wasn’t a very likeable bloke, and that has not really changed, even if one must give him credit for continuing to grind away with a diminished game.


As for Mathieu, I’m guessing Mats Wilander had nightmares: first coaching Marat Safin, and then another guy with a million-dollar game but questionable management skills, most memorably on display when he squandered a two-set lead to lose the deciding rubber of the 2002 Davis Cup Final to Mikhail Youzhny. Mathieu’s skills and debatable judgment were both on display in this match, in which he held a lead of at least one service break in four of the five sets. Mathieu refuses to treat his receiving games as occasions for passive defense. Instead, he rips the service return, even on the first ball. If the return goes in, the server has problems; if not, such is life.


Mathieu began the match bare-headed but joined Hewitt in wearing a backward baseball cap before receiving in the fourth game. It was a strange decision, as the court was already covered in shadows, but it “worked,” as Mathieu nabbed the first break of the match. Mathieu nearly squandered the lead with two double faults as he served for the set, but he righted the ship and held. Neither player could take care of serve in the second set: Hewitt broke twice, but Mathieu pulled off the feat three times to take a two-set lead.


As Hewitt served to begin the third set, opening night fireworks were shooting above Ashe. By this time, many fans were moving down near the court. A rowdy group of Aussies wearing Socceroos T-shirts and hats with indecent expressions and drawings moved all the way down into the box seats. Their hats identified them as Herby, Smithy, and Otter (shades of Animal House). I would attach a link to photos of the hats, but that would not be appropriate for a family-friendly Web site. Hewitt saved two break points in each of the seventh and ninth games. The last of the four break points was one to remember. At 4-4, 30-40, Hewitt’s second serve, kicked to Mathieu’s backhand, was called wide. With the break in hand, Mathieu was prepared to serve for the match: but wait. Hewitt called for a Hawk-Eye challenge, and the ball was ruled on the line, an ace. Hewitt went on to hold serve and, after his remarkable escape, nabbed the set on two Mathieu errors at 5-6 30-30. As the match went on, a nearby fan attributed Hewitt’s escape from the precipice of defeat to divine intervention.


Mathieu was cruising through the fourth set, eight points from victory with a 4-2 lead, but two bad forehands into the net cost him the eighth game, and he was broken at love in the tenth game to give Hewitt the set. With the match squared and memories of the meltdown against Youzhny fresh in my mind, and presumably Mathieu’s, I did not expect the fifth set to go as it did. Hewitt climbed out of a 0-40 hole to deuce in the first game, but Mathieu took the early break with a huge forehand down the line for a fourth break point and then a pass off a lazy drop shot from Hewitt. Mathieu broke again for 3-0 and Hewitt did not get on the board till he held serve for 1-4. Serving at 1-5, a spent Hewitt — who had given us few of his trademark “Come on”s during the comeback — lost the match with a double fault.


The temperature was still over 80 degrees when the match ended at 9:52 p.m., and the functional air conditioning on the subway was particularly welcome after a long day of roasting. So let’s put in a good word for the New York subway, which is outstanding when it works, and look forward to our next day at the Open.


Final Score: Mathieu d. Hewitt 6-3 6-4 5-7 4-6 6-1