US Open Report

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Jerry Balsam


Spanish Southpaws


As is the practice with these dispatches, 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.


I prefer to skip the cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium and get closer to the players in the other venues. On a comfortable Sunday, the searing heat of the first week forgotten, that meant the Grandstand, where three competitive singles matches were on tap. Grandstand spectators got to see the second- and third-best Spanish lefthanders — or the top two, if you want to exclude a countryman who was born right-handed. The latter two matches were throwbacks, in that there was nary a two-handed backhand to be found.


Grandstand: David Nalbandian (ARG) (31) v. Fernando Verdasco (ESP) (8)


I hustled to get a seat for the first match of the day. The place was packed — on “lockdown,” in the parlance of the ushers, with access and egress limited — for this contest between the Spanish eighth seed and the resurgent Argentine. In the early stages of the match, I was stuck in a seat in the northwest corner of the Grandstand, with my view partially obscured by a pillar. It put me in mind of old baseball stadiums and the brilliant first chapter of Don DeLillo’s Underworld (also published on its own as the novella Pafko at the Wall). Eventually, I got an unobstructed view.


It was Nalbandian’s view that remained obstructed throughout. From early in the match, he was having trouble holding serve. The statistics tell the story: Verdasco won a robust 47% of receiving points, Nalbandian (a great returner) only 31%. Nalbandian saved three break points in the opening game, two more in his second service game, and two more in his third, till Verdasco broke. When the Spaniard garnered a second break and then served out the first set with an ace, Grandstand seats began to open up.


Nalbandian finally broke Verdasco to take a 2-0 lead in the second set, but Verdasco immediately broke back. A graphic on the scoreboard showed that, at that point, Nalbandian had won his one break point, while Verdasco was 3 for 10. Nalbandian cashed a second break opportunity to go up 5-3. Even then, he had trouble serving out the set, needing a service winner to save a break point in the ninth game. But square the match he did, and perhaps now we would have a contest.


The pivotal game of the match was the eighth of the third set, with Nalbandian scrambling back from 0-40 to 30-40, only to miss on overhead (and bring an unsuccessful Hawk-Eye challenge) to fall behind, 5-3. Verdasco made no mistakes, serving out the third set at love.


In the fourth set, Verdasco scored breaks in Nalbandian’s second and third service games and cruised to victory. While Nalbandian has a better backhand than Verdasco, especially his down-the-line shot, the edge on serve and forehand had to go to Verdasco. For a four-set match, the statistical battle was not that close, with Verdasco pocketing 29 more points than his opponent. Strangely, these players had met only once before, in the third round of Wimbledon 2006. Verdasco had won that in two long tiebreaks followed by a 6-2 runaway; Sunday’s match, though it went four sets, might be deemed less close.


Final Score: Verdasco d. Nalbandian 6-2 3-6 6-3 6-2


Grandstand: Feliciano López (ESP) (23) v. Sergiy Stakhovsky (UKR)


The second match of the day posed the question of what Stakhovsky would have left after his epic comeback win over Ryan Harrison. His back was taped up, but that would not prove his downfall. López, perhaps the leading matinee idol on the tour, is a better player than he once was, having developed a topspin backhand that is a weapon. Both players hit the backhand with one hand and both liked coming to net, though Stakhovsky was the more likely of the two to come in directly behind his serve, while López was serving bigger bombs. Stakhovsky was wearing the same Lotto outfit that Robin Söderling had sported against Taylor Dent. Stakhovsky is not built as substantially as Söderling, and the contrast made him look almost gaunt.


Stakhovsky saved break points in the third and fifth games, in the latter case by pounding serves at López’s backhand. Serving at 3-5, Stakhovsky fell into another hole at 15-40. Though he got back to deuce, he faced three more set points, the last of which he lost, anticlimactically, with a double fault.


In the second set, Stakhovsky seemed truly out of gas. Down one break at 0-3, he called for the trainer, who looked at his foot. López broke serve again, and Stakhovsky threw in the towel. The ATP’s official e-mail said that he had retired because of “right toe.”


Final Score: López d. Stakhovsky 6-3 4-0 ret.


Grandstand: Michaël Llodra (FRA) v. Tommy Robredo (ESP)


It feels blasphemous to let anyone but Stephanie Myles chronicle the adventures of M. Llodra, which she of course did with respect to Sunday’s match. There’s so much to like about Llodra: he’s 30, a married father of two, and offers a decided case of nostalgia, throwing caution to the wind and following serve to the net (very often on his first serve and not infrequently on his second). As Stakhovsky emulated Söderling’s outfit, Llodra wore the same Lacoste outfit as his countryman Richard Gasquet. Robredo, long among the top 25, was now unseeded, but he still has solid groundstrokes, decent hands at the net, and a sneaky fast serve. And, oh yes, a nice wristwatch.


This was shaping up as a wonderful match between contrasting styles, as Llodra took the net at every opportunity, scooping volleys off his shoetops, and Robredo ran everything down and sent it whizzing over the net. When they rallied, Robredo grunted heavily on almost every shot, while Llodra played silently. (I told you he’s a throwback.) In the first set, Llodra got the only break in the fourth game, ripping a crosscourt backhand winner to go up 3-1. He served the set out at love, with Robredo unable to get a single ball back.


There was a troubling pattern, however: Llodra was lingering in his chair on changeovers, reluctant to call back until Norm Chryst warned “15 seconds.” With Robredo up 5-2 in the second set, Llodra had a medical timeout, with the trainer and someone who looked like a physician. Llodra dragged himself back into contention, holding serve and then breaking Robredo, who slammed his racquet to the court after missing a backhand pass down the line. With the score 5-4, the trainer returned and worked on Llodra’s neck as he lay on the court. When play resumed, Llodra looked unsteady, perhaps nauseated, but held at love for 5-5. The players eventually went to a tiebreak, which went as follows:


Robredo serves and wins the point with a forehand volley. 1-0, Robredo.

Llodra serves, and Robredo hits a running crosscourt backhand pass. 2-0, Robredo.

Llodra serves, comes in, gets chased back, returns to the net, and nails a crosscourt backhand volley. 2-1, Robredo.

Robredo serves. His lob elicits a weak overhead from Llodra, and he wins the point with a crosscourt forehand pass. 3-1, Robredo.

Robredo serves and Llodra steers an inside-out forehand wide. 4-1, Robredo.

Llodra serves and wins the point when Robredo’s backhand pass sails long. 4-2, Robredo.

Llodra serves and, faced with a strong return, plunks a forehand volley into the net. 5-2, Robredo.

Robredo serves and hits a lunging forehand lob long. 5-3, Robredo.

Robredo serves. Llodra stops play and challenges the call. The serve is deemed on the line. 6-3, Robredo.

Llodra serves an ace to Robredo’s backhand side. 6-4, Robredo.

Llodra serves and wins the point with a forehand drop volley. 6-5, Robredo.

With set point on his serve, Robredo hits a forehand long after a lengthy rally. 6-6. Thus, Llodra has saved three set points.

Robredo serves again, and now Llodra drives a crosscourt backhand into the net. 7-6, Robredo.

Llodra serves — a double fault. 8-6, and the second set, to Robredo.


In the third set, Llodra seemed even more unsteady, and had trouble returning serves of 110 mph or less. He was broken in the opening game, and he held his forehead after falling behind 3-1. While he held serve with difficulty at 3-5, saving a set point along the way, Robredo was able to serve out the set at love.


Llodra barely showed up for the fourth set. In the first game, when Robredo challenged a call, Llodra sat down and didn’t even look up at the screen for the Hawk-Eye result. By now, Llodra was hitting both softer and harder than usual: softer, because he could not muster the same effort as usual; harder, because he was going for shots to end points quickly. Robredo got the first break of the set at 1-1, with a topspin lob that Llodra was too weak to chase, though it landed only inches beyond the service line. This was the end for Llodra: unfortunately, he had to retire, with what the ATP report characterized as “dizziness.”


Final Score: Robredo d. Llodra 3-6 7-6(6) 6-4 2-1 ret.


It was a pity that both Stakhovsky and Llodra, who offer entertaining styles of play, could not go the distance. At this point, Armstrong was full for Stanislas Wawrinka’s upset of Andy Murray, the conclusion of which I watched with many fans on the TV screen outside Ashe. There was only one more non-night match on the card, Liezel Huber/Nadia Petrova v. Timea Baczinsky/Tathiana Garbin in women’s doubles on Armstrong. Saving my energy for one last trip to the Open on Monday night, I left for home at the end of Wawrinka’s win, at about 7:00 p.m. The late nights of the first-week day sessions seemed a thing of the past, as did summer on this cool September Sunday.