Three Big Servers

August 29, 2013


I began my second visit to this year’s US Open with a match on Armstrong between the eighth-seeded lefthander Angelique Kerber and the promising 19-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. Bouchard was more of an attacker, while Kerber was a resolute defender (see photo; for a complete set of photos from the day, click here) who turned to offense when the opportunity arose (see photo). Part of Kerber’s defensive posture, literally, was her use of what I’d call the “Radwanska crouch” on balls hit low and deep to her backhand. Bouchard served much harder, averaging 98 and 78 miles per hour, respectively, on first and second serves, while Kerber’s numbers were 86 and 71.


There were five breaks of serve in the first set, with Kerber scoring the decisive one at 4-4. She then saved three breaks of serve in the tenth game and put the first set in her pocket.


Bouchard looked like she might fade away after she dropped serve in the opening game of the second set, but then she reeled off five straight games. Though she dropped her serve at 5-1, she broke Kerber in the next game to bag the set, 6-2. For the set, Kerber never held serve in four tries.


Kerber righted the ship in the third set, which began with a black-clad Brad Gilbert walking to his ESPN perch. Not only did she hold serve throughout, she never faced a break point. She broke Bouchard in the first game and again in the ninth to close out the match. The final score: Kerber d. Bouchard 6-4 2-6 6-3.


It’s easy to picture a bright future for Bouchard, who entered the tournament ranked 59th in the world. She has excellent groundstrokes (see photo); her nearly flat backhand is a weapon both crosscourt and down the line. At 5’10”, she’s got the height to compete with the big hitters. If you watched Bouchard play Kerber and never paid attention to the score, you might well conclude that Bouchard was the better player. Only by following the score would you realize that Kerber was winning more of the points (not so many more: 98 to 96), and more of the points that mattered.


My next stop was the Chase Lounge (see photo), where my father showed off his seat cushion (see photo) from the 1987 US Open. After that pit stop, I headed out to Court 8 for the conclusion of the latest installment in the ongoing drama of Yoni Erlich and Andy Ram. This on-again/off-again doubles team had its greatest moment when they captured the Australian Open in 2008. Reunited for the Open, they were facing the eleventh-seeded team of Santiago Gonzalez and Scott Lipsky on Court 8. When I arrived, Erlich was preparing to serve for the match at 6-2 5-3. He went 0-for-5 on first serve, but his team prevailed all the same (see photo).


I then staked out a place in the Grandstand for the match between Ana Ivanovic and Alexandra Dulgheru. I was not so interested in this match – nor, as it turned out, did the match warrant much interest – but I wanted to get a decent seat to see Sam Querrey and then Milos Raonic. Part of going back to the US Open every year is the feeling of tradition, which was underscored for me when I saw the familiar dreadlocked usher (see photo) who regularly works the shaded side of the Grandstand.


Ivanovic, once No. 1, is the thirteenth seed this year. Dulgheru has been ranked as high as No. 26 but sat at No. 214 going into the Open. That she was not required to play qualifying is attributable, I’m guessing, to an injury-protected ranking. This certainly seemed to be the case if you saw her protective gear: a brace on her left knee and extensive physio tape on her right shoulder (see photo).


With Dulgheru serving in the second game, there was a break in play when an elderly spectator received medical attention (see center of photo, above the exit from the Grandstand) – but then it turned out that Ivanovic was also being treated by the trainer. Whatever was troubling her did not persist, as she breezed through the match, 6-2 6-1.


There followed a compelling match between Sam Querrey, the twenty-sixth seed, and France’s Adrian Mannarino. The French lefthander, beginning at age 25 to show signs of male pattern baldness (see photo; been there, done that), reached the fourth round of Wimbledon this year. Querrey stumbled out of the gate and, after a lengthy game, had his serve broken. Mannarino played with guile, using his slice serve in the ad court to trouble his opponent (what Bud Collins called a “can opener” when used by John McEnroe) and often deliberately hitting short, low approach shots. In both the ad and deuce courts, he lined up to serve at some distance from the center of the court, and he handled high backhands in the Marcelo Rios “jump shot” manner.


Mannarino cruised through his service games till he served for the first set, at which point Querrey broke at love. Mannarino overcame the disappointment and won the set in a tiebreak, 7-4.


The second set saw no breaks of serve, but Querrey found himself in big trouble when he fell behind in the tiebreak, 3-6. He saved two set points on his serve, but Mannarino closed out the set when Querrey shanked a forehand.


The third set was also devoid of breaks. It didn’t feel as though the returners were without possibilities, but that’s how it went. The key mini-break came with Mannarino serving at 4-5. He hit his usual slice serve to Querrey’s backhand – over the course of the match, he kept Qurrey honest by mixing in a flat serve up the middle – and then tried to wrong-foot Querrey, but pulled the ball wide. Mannarino hit a beautiful crosscourt backhand to save Querrey’s first set point, but Querrey finished off the set with a 131 mph serve up the middle, followed by an unreturnable inside-out forehand.


The fourth set looked like it would follow its predecessors into a tiebreak, but Querrey suddenly broke down at 4-5 30-30. Mannarino belted a forehand down the line, and Querrey’s forehand reply sailed long. At match point, Querrey pulled a backhand wide, and it was over. His serve had been broken only twice all day: in the first and last games of the match. The score was 7-6(4) 7-6(5) 6-7(5) 6-4.


Querrey was the first big server I had seen on Thursday, and two more were to follow. Staying on the Grandstand, I watched the tenth seed, Milos Raonic, face off against Pablo Andujar. This match had about as much drama as Ivanovic’s had, because Raonic clearly had too much firepower for his Spanish opponent, whose 7-17 record in majors prior to this year’s US Open concealed a slate of 2-11 outside Roland Garros.


This was the first time I had seen Raonic in person. His service motion was just as I had recalled it from television: he holds his racquet flat, like a frying pan, as he prepares; when he uncoils, the ball comes off his strings with a loud report. His fastest serve of the match traveled at 143 mph. If you’re sitting behind the receiver as Raonic serves up the middle, you had better pay attention.


Raonic cruised through the first two sets, 6-1 6-2. He mixed in some serve-and-volley: not behind his cannonball, but on occasion when he used his kick serve, on either the first or second ball. He ran around many a backhand, but he also hit his backhand well, except for times when he tried to pull the trigger too early in a rally or from too defensive a position. Sometimes, he volleyed with devastating effectiveness, and it looked like a big man was taking on the junior varsity. He also missed a lot of volleys, however, evincing sloppiness that will not fly against the top players. (According to the US Open’s website, Raonic hit 15 volley winners but also missed 10 volleys.)


In the third set, Raonic seemed to take his foot off the gas. After he broke serve in the opening game, Andujar broke back. Having regained the lead with a break in the seventh game, Raonic fell behind 0-40 in the eighth, and looked plaintively at his coach, Ivan Ljubicic, before digging out of the hole. By my count, Raonic had four break points (and thus match points) when Andujar served at 3-5, but he could not cash them in. Finally, he served out the match in the tenth game and seemed relieved (see photo) that what had once been a cakewalk had ended.


Raonic is one of the outstanding young talents in the sport, and it often takes attacking players longer to develop. Still, does he have what it takes to reach the top five? To win major titles? I am unsure. For what it’s worth, I cannot think of a more likely candidate to break into the winner’s circle at the majors, unless one is very fond of Jerzy Janowicz’s prospects.


My third big server of the day was the thirteenth seed, John Isner. This match, played on Armstrong, began after nightfall. It was to conclude after the night session was done, just before midnight, but it was technically a day match.


Isner, plodding and uncreative, faced the enigmatic, athletic, entertaining Gael Monfils. It’s hard to believe that Monfils is younger than Isner, as he’s been playing the majors since 2005 and has lately been dealing with knee and back injuries, so that it feels like his career is winding down.


As I arrived, Monfils was serving at 5-6 in the first set, and Isner cashed in the last of four break points to grab the set. In the second set, Isner looked like a dynamic player, hitting effectively off the ground and even running for balls more than is his wont. He broke serve twice and cruised, 6-2. For the most part, Monfils was hitting his first serve from the mid-eighties to 100 mph, evidently in furtherance of a strategy to deny Isner a look at second serves. For the match, Monfils made 83% of his first serves, which is remarkable, but perhaps not as remarkable at Isner’s 70%, since the American was trying to pulverize the ball. While Monfils averaged 100 mph on his first serve and 93 mph on his second, Isner’s figures were 128 and 108.


Monfils, clad in orange and black (see photo), came to life in the third set, even after collapsing behind the ankle with what looked like an ankle problem. Isner came to check on his opponent (see photo), and Monfils got up and continued to play. By the time Isner served at 4-4 0-40, the crowd was chanting Mon-fils, Mon-fils, which only got louder when the Frenchman cashed in the third of the break points and danced off the court. Monfils served out the set at love.


The crowd got increasingly exuberant in the fourth set, especially as Monfils climbed out of 0-30 deficits at 4-5 and 5-6. The ride came to a sudden end in the tiebreak, when Monfils served at 4-5. First, Isner grabbed a mini-break with an inside-out forehand winner. On match point, Monfils’s forehand passing shot found the net, and Isner had a 7-5 6-2 4-6 7-6(4) victory. The players hugged at the net.


Isner later complained that the American crowd had not supported its countryman, but New York is a cosmopolitan city, and the fans (many of whom come from overseas to attend the Open) rooted for the more creative player. It didn’t help that Isner seems to give up on balls that are within reach, while Monfils dives recklessly for anything within reach. Isner won fair and square, but Monfils won the fans’ hearts – fair and square.


Of the three big servers, Querrey is out of the tournament, and it’s hard to imagine Isner winning it. Indeed, his next opponent, Philip Kohlschreiber, beat him at the Open last year. Raonic is the big question mark. He could be great, or his story may always be “what might have been.”