End of Summer

September 3, 2017


There’s a bittersweet element to the US Open. On Labor Day weekend, it seems like the whole world descends upon the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. After Labor Day (for non-US readers, that coincides with the second Monday of the tournament), the crowds thin out until the culmination of the tournament, and even then they are almost all packed into Ashe. And then, in the blink of an eye, another summer is gone.


At age 18, Denis Shapovalov is probably not too wistful about the end of summer. He’s in a hurry chasing tennis balls, ranking points, and, incidentally, dollars. On a rainy Sunday morning, his match against Pablo Carreno Busta, under the roof in Arthur Ashe Stadium, was the only game in town. Shapovalov made a splash this summer with his upset wins in an oversized white baseball cap, but today the cap was navy blue (italicized links refer to photographs). His game remains the same: aggressive groundstrokes, including a one-handed backhand, pretty big serving (but with some yips on the toss, which he caught fairly often), and an affinity for the net, albeit one that was not always rewarded. Carreno Busta is in the classic Spanish mode: he’ll stay out there all day and keep getting the ball back, in the expectation that eventually you’ll miss or give him an opening. Thus, he ventured to net 15 times on the match, and Shapovalov came in 44 times. Their success rates were 73% and 61%, respectively.


Shapovalov drew first blood, breaking for 4-2, and he served for the first set at 5-3, but then his serve deserted him and Carreno Busta broke at 15. When the Spaniard served at 5-6, Shapovalov earned two set points at 15-40 and another after deuce, but Carreno Busta hung on to force a tiebreak, which he dominated, 7-2.


This became the pattern of the match, albeit with Carreno Busta taking the lead in the second set and Shapovalov in the third – but it all came down to the tiebreaks. In the end, Carreno Busta prevailed in all three of them, easily, resulting in a score of 7-6(2) 7-6(4), 7-6(3). Cumulatively, then, Carreno Busta won the tiebreaks by a tally of 21-9. In the match as a whole, Carreno Busta’s edge in points was only 128-124, which means that Shapovalov had an edge of 115-107, or 51.8%, on the non-tiebreak points. Usually, winning that percentage of the points is a sure path to victory, and maybe one day it will be for the young Canadian. On this day, the veteran was too steady when it mattered.


The rain having stopped, my next stop was the Grandstand, where I saw the top seeds in the men’s doubles, Henri Kontinen and John Peers, grab the final three games in a 7-6(3) 6-4 win over the Russians Mikhail Elgin and Daniil (The Coin Tosser) Medvedev. Whenever I’ve seen Kontinen and Peers, the Finn has always seemed like a much better player than the Aussie. Maybe Kontinen sees something subtle about Peers’s game that I’m missing; maybe he’s a loyal guy; or maybe he figures it doesn’t pay to tamper with success – regardless of the tendency of doubles specialists to change partners faster than a National Enquirer­-friendly movie star.


The next match on the Grandstand was the highlight of my day, as I got to see the little grinder Diego Schwartzman take on the Frenchman Lucas Pouille. Pouille is listed at 6’1”, but he seemed like a giant next to Schwartzman, generously listed at 5’7” but looking like he still shops in the boys’ department. Schwartzman has the ability to drive opponents crazy, most notably last year, in the final of the one ATP event he has won, when he sent Grigor Dimitrov into a racquet-smashing frenzy. His success at this US Open has prompted learned analysis of the importance of height in tennis.


Pouille, who eliminated Rafael Nadal at last year’s US Open, took an early lead, breaking Schwartzman in the fourth game after the Argentine had taken a 40-15 lead. The Argentine broke back in the next game. The point of the match came in the eleventh game, when Schwartzman poked a lob volley over Pouille’s head, and Pouille then pulled off a tweener lob for a winner. Schwartzman won the ensuing tiebreak 7-3, closing it out with an inside-out forehand that clipped the tape but still went for a winner.


Pouille led for most of the second set, breaking Schwartzman twice, but the persistent Argentine secured a second break of his own to level the set at 4-4. With Pouille serving at 5-6 30-40, Schwartzman delivered the goods and a decisive third break with a forehand passing shot, and thus a sudden two-set lead.


With the sun a factor early in the third set, Schwartzman turned his baseball cap forward for a period, using the bill to shield his eyes. Pouille came back, dominating the set with two breaks of serve. At 5-2, the trainer worked on Schwartzman’s legs, and the Argentine barely ran in the eighth and final game of the set before receiving more treatment, standing during the break between the third and fourth sets. It seemed questionable whether Schwartzman had anything left to give.


Early in the fourth set, Pouille broke Schwartzman at love for a 2-1 lead. But Schwartzman broke back – also at love – for 2-2; gifted with a double fault on break point, he broke again for 4-2. Pouille’s last stand came in the seventh game, when Schwartzman saved three break points, closing it out with an 86 mph second-serve ace up the T. Schwartzman sealed the win, 7-6(3) 7-5 2-6 6-2, with another break of serve, again at love. The match concluded on a review of a double-fault call. Pouille’s challenge was overruled, the US Open had an unlikely quarterfinalist, and I had a picture of a US Open scene: a couple who brought their baby (one of many) to the tournament, near a guy dressed in ’70s garb who was toting a wood racquet.


Though Schwartzman is hardly an imposing figure, he somehow managed to serve 9 aces in the match, compared to 15 for Pouille. He won 64% of his first-serve points, not to the standard of the Frenchman’s 69%, but shone on second serve, with an edge of 53% to 41%. The match provided a change from groundstroke grinding, as the players showed creativity in combining drop shots and lobs, as well as frequent forays to the net – 34 for Schwartzman and 28 for Pouille. After the match, Schwartzman said he had worried about his leg in the fourth set, but perhaps Pouille did, too – a theory confirmed by the loser. As the fourth set went on, Pouille appeared to manifest a belief that Schwartzman was fine, as the Frenchman stopped playing drop shots to test his opponent’s mobility. Pouille’s lament was: “It’s not easy to play against someone you’re not sure what’s going on with. I’m hesitating between just putting the ball in the court or being aggressive, and at the end I lose my timing, I get tight and I can’t stay in the match at all. He seemed to get better and better, but I lost my mind on my own and it’s a pity.”


Every year, I try to see some doubles and some juniors at the Open. I saw plenty of doubles last week, and I filled my junior quota by journeying to Court 13, where the sixth seed in the boys’ singles, the lefthander Yshai Oliel, faced an American wild card, Ryan Goetz, who sports a one-handed backhand. It seems that the USTA is cutting costs: at the junior matches, there are no linesmen on the baselines, with the job of calling those lines falling to the umpire. There is also a 25-second clock intended to keep play moving, but at least in this match it was not enforced.


I arrived early in the first set, after the players had exchanged breaks of serve. From there, the players held serve until the tenth game. Goetz was up 40-30 on his serve, but Oliel won a long rally for deuce. Goetz bravely served and volleyed, but he left Oliel’s return go, only to see it land in the court. At set point, Goetz netted a forehand, and Oliel was up 6-4.


Starting the second set, Oliel scrambled out of a 0-40 jam, broke for 2-0, and held for 3-0, a run of five straight games. Goetz pulled off a three-game string of his own, with a hold, a break, and a hold. Again, it was the tenth game that decided matters: serving at 4-5, Goetz fell behind 15-40 and put a forehand into the net on match point. While Oliel had won the contest, 6-4 6-4, he hardly dominated his lower-ranked opponent, and I have to wonder whether he’s got the goods to make a splash on the tour. This being the US Open, however, there is always something new to see: on this occasion, a dog wearing Burberry paid a visit to the court. I can only guess that the fashionable pup was some kind of service animal, a status that can be gamed by a cagey owner.


I then repaired to the temporary Armstrong, where Kevin Anderson had won the first two sets against the 35-year-old Italian “foot soldier of tennis” and major-league grunter Paolo Lorenzi, but the Italian had taken the third and was up a break in the fourth. The stadium is not the most comfortable place to watch a match, but fortunately the USTA allowed everyone into the premium seats, so I was able to get closer to the action and have the benefit of a seatback.


We can forgive Lorenzi his grunting, because a man of his age and stature should not have to retrieve the rockets coming off the racquet of a 6’8” behemoth. But, as any good foot soldier might say, this is the business we’ve chosen.


Shortly after my arrival, Anderson broke back to level the fourth set. Serving at 3-4, Lorenzi fell behind 0-40, but reeled off five consecutive points to stay alive, including one where he had to run down a lob and eventually won the point on an inside-out backhand. The next time Lorenzi served, he fell behind by 0-40 again, and this time there were no answers: a missed backhand on triple match point gave the contest to the South African, 6-4 6-3 6-7(4) 6-4, who improved his career record against Lorenzi to 4-0.


I stayed for the night session, or at least its outset. With the roof open on Ashe on a moonlit night, the third seed, Garbine Muguruza, was taking on Petra Kvitova. Each has won two major titles; the Czech is coming back from a stabbing sustained in a horrific home invasion, but didn’t show any obvious ill effects. Coming into the match, Muguruza had won the first meeting between the pair and Kvitova the next two.


Kvitova was the aggressor throughout the match: she was responsible for ending 66 points (with a winner/error ratio of 24/42), as compared to only 32 for Muguruza (7/25). Muguruza broke first for a 3-1 lead, but Kvitova saved three break points in the sixth game to stay in the set and then broke back in the seventh. Muguruza saved a break point at 4-4 but was broken at 5-5. At 6-5, however, Kvitova could not serve out the set, broken at 15. Kvitova fell behind in the tiebreak, losing the first point on her serve, but ran away with it from there, 7-3.


Muguruza broke serve to open the second set but Kvitova returned the favor twice. She reached a match point when Muguruza served at 2-5, but misfired, and then it was her task to try to serve out the match. The final game was arduous, as Kvitova had to save three break points, but she was up to the task and closed out the win, 7-6(3) 6-3. With a margin of 81-67 in points won, Kvitova had earned her victory. She had had problems on second serve, winning only 38% of those 37 points, but bagged 78% of her 45 first-serve points and 48% of Muguruza’s service points.


There was one more match in the night session, between Sam Querrey and Mischa Zverev, but I was worn out and opted for the subway home. This was either the right call, because the match was no contest, with Zverev netting only five games, or the wrong one, because Querrey reportedly played excellent tennis and, in any event, wrapped up the proceedings in 76 minutes, but my US Open, and thus my summer, were already over.