A Foot Soldier of Tennis Gets Lucky

August 29, 2019

The bad luck of Wednesday’s spectators made for good luck for their successors on Thursday. Almost everything had been rained out on Wednesday, so there was a great deal of action as the tournament got caught up.

Upon arrival at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, I checked out the photo tribute marking the golden anniversary of Rod Laver’s second Grand Slam and the new statue of Althea Gibson before hustling to Court 5 to get one of the last seats in the shade behind the court for the continuation of the match between Christian Garín and Alex de Minaur, which had barely begun on Wednesday before being washed out. (You can see the Laver photos here and the Gibson statue here. Italicized hyperlinks appearing later in this dispatch refer to photographs.)

My day, however, began with a meditation on responsibility. As I waited on the subway platform in Manhattan, I saw a sign explaining why an escalator was not working. New York City Transit wishes to inform the riding public that the escalator, which is out of service for “extensive repairs,” is “privately owned.” Why should a subway rider care who owns the escalator? It is an integral part of a subway station. New York City Transit is responsible for providing accessible transportation, regardless of whether aspects of its operations have been privatized. Since when can a contractor excuse failure to perform by lamenting that its subcontractors are incompetent?

Court 5 featured a Canadian contingent, though I am not sure why, as the players were from Chile and Australia. There were also vocal fans from the home countries of each player, with the Australians chanting the familiar “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi,” and five of the Chileans wearing shirts spelling out their man’s name.

Garín, having won Houston and Munich this year, obviously likes clay courts, and this showed on some of his forays to the net, where he often missed volleys that a decent high school player should make. De Minaur is slightly built but sturdy. He stands near the baseline to return serve and digs for every ball, which enabled him to keep rallies going when it looked like the point was lost, reaping the rewards of persistence when Garín struggled at the net.

On his second break opportunity of the set, de Minaur grabbed a 4-2 lead. He fended off a break point when serving at 5-3, sealing the set with an ace on his third set point.

In the second set, de Minaur had four break points in Garín’s first two service games and also had to save one in his first service game. There were no breaks, however, until the eleventh game, when Garín lost four straight points after leading 30-0. When de Minaur served for the set, he hit a deft lob volley at 40-30, giving himself a chance to clinch the set with an easy overhead – which he hit into the net. On the next set point, Garín, stretched, hit an uncharacteristic one-handed backhand passing shot, which sufficed to draw an error from de Minaur. Garín canceled a third set point with a winning backhand return off a slow second serve from de Minaur. On the fourth, however, Garín dropped a routine backhand into the net, and the Australian had a commanding lead.

The third set was almost an afterthought. De Minaur raced to a 4-0 lead and even had a break point for 5-0. There was a hiccup when he was broken at 5-2, but he broke right back in the ensuing game to close out the match, 6-3 7-5 6-3. The stat sheet showed that de Minaur won 68% of his points at net (19 of 28), while Garín, surprisingly, came to net more often – 40 times – albeit with less success, winning only 23, or 58%, of those points. Garín is a quality player, but on this day de Minaur, still only 20, had a lot more to offer.

While this was going on, I saw snippets of the action on Court 4, where Karolína Muchová, a young Czech who likes to come to net, upset the crafty Su-Wei Hsieh, taking the match in a final-set tiebreak before the players exchanged a warm hug at the net.

I trooped to the Grandstand, where Daniil Medvedev was leading Hugo Dellien 5-2 in the first set and stayed long enough to see the Russian open up a 6-3 7-5 lead. After I left, Dellien surprisingly took the third set, 7-5, but Medvedev closed out the match in four, 6-3.

The match seemed plagued by a strange lassitude, perhaps because the fans congregated in the shade, at some remove from the court, and Dellien was unable to threaten Medvedev, at least while I was present. It seems possible, however, that the longueurs were attributable in part to Medvedev’s style of play. He stands very far back to receive serve, often rallies from deep behind the baseline, and doesn’t do anything that makes you feel like you’re watching a top-five player. Of course, one could respond that Novak Djokovic has won sixteen major titles without offering much flair.

Dellien — who, earlier this year, became the first Bolivian player in 35 years to win a match on the ATP tour — was game, but he just didn’t have the weapons to stay with Medvedev. Indeed, many of his first serves were under 100 mph. In the second set, Medvedev briefly fell behind by a break at 4-3. He threw his racquet, drawing a warning from the chair umpire, and promptly broke back as he plodded his way toward victory.

My next stop was Court 4, where two lefties were in the third set. Judy Murray’s third-favorite player (or perhaps her first), Feliciano López, was facing Yoshihito Nishioka. Nishioka, who prepares to return serve with a stance similar to Kei Nishikori’s, had taken the first set in a tiebreak, 9-7, saving seven set points along the way, and then López evened the match by serving up a bagel. That Nishioka has a career at all is praiseworthy: he is listed at 5’7” (1.70 m) (which may be generous), and he suffered a ruptured ACL in 2017.

López, at 37, is still able to attack effectively with a big serve and good feel at the net. His one-handed backhand is not cut out for topspin, so he keeps the ball low with slice and looks for opportunities to move forward. Standing behind the bleachers aside the court, I watched one set before seeking a seat elsewhere. López came back from 0-2 in the third set to get even in the set. At 3-3, he had four break chances, which he could not cash in, but he broke at love in the ninth game and saved a break point in the tenth on his way to capturing the set, 6-4. The final score in López’s favor was 6-7(7) 6-0 6-4 6-4, and he enjoyed big margins over Nishioka on both first-serve and second-serve points won: 86% to 57% and 63% to 51%, respectively. That the match was not a rout is attributable to Nishioka’s making 64% of his first serve, while López connected on only 47%. To give you an idea how effective López’s serve is, he made 50 first serves (on 107 service points) and served 28 aces.

I tried to get onto Court 10 for the young American Jenson Brooksby against Nikoloz Basilashvili, but I couldn’t get in. Brooksby had won the first set, and then Basilashvili took close second and third sets before closing the match out 6-2 in the fourth.

I snagged a seat on Court 14, where Paolo Lorenzi, who will be 38 in December, was facing Miomir Kecmanovic, who will turn 20 on Saturday. Kecmanovic, who looks somewhat older than his years, has just cracked the top fifty. Lorenzi, who fell to Jirí Veselý in the final round of qualifying and got into the tournament through the back door as a lucky loser, looks every one of his 37 years, with bags under his eyes and a scruffy beard suggesting he’s spent time in a war zone seeing things that you don’t want to know about. (Ironically, it was Kevin Anderson’s withdrawal from the tournament that opened the slot for Lorenzi. In 2017, Lorenzi’s deepest run in a major ended in the fourth round of the US Open, when he was eliminated by Anderson in a match covered on this blog.)

Lorenzi is a loud grunter, whereas Kecmanovic lets out puffs of air as he strikes the ball. The quieter Kecmanovic was more likely to show his frustrations, however, muttering in Serbian either to himself or to his supporters in the stands. Lorenzi’s four finals on the ATP Tour have all come on clay, which might explain why the brace on his right ankle had a red tinge.

When I arrived, Lorenzi was leading by two sets to one, all three sets having gone to tiebreaks. Lorenzi had taken the first tiebreak 13-11, saving five set points along the way. Lorenzi had served for the second set and lost two set points before being broken and finally dropping the set. The third set had been somewhat less topsy-turvy: Lorenzi had been up a break, Kecmanovic had gotten even, and then Lorenzi won the tiebreak easily.

Shortly after I arrived, Kecmanovic broke serve with a backhand down the line, roaring in self-approval as he took a 3-1 lead in the fourth. Lorenzi broke back with a forehand drop volley, but dropped serve in the eighth game. When Kecmanovic served for the fourth set, Lorenzi had two break points, but the youngster held on and sent the match to a deciding set.

Lorenzi nosed ahead in the fifth set when he won a long fourth game after Kecmanovic had taken a 40-15 lead. In the next game, Kecmanovic cancelled the veteran’s lead, finishing off a break from 30-30 with an inside-out forehand winner and an overhead. Lorenzi, the crowd passionately urging him on, reclaimed the edge when he capitalized on his third break point in the sixth game. From there, he closed out the match with a firm hand, holding to 15 for 5-2 and to love for the win, 7-6(11) 6-7(2) 7-6(2) 3-6 6-3.

My next stop, briefly, was Court 5, where I realized I could not get in to see Denis Shapovalov face Henri Laaksonen. I retreated to the Grandstand for the conclusion of Jelena Ostapenko’s 6-4 6-3 victory over the newlywed Alison Riske (whose husband is Stephen Amritraj). Ostapenko, who can be great (2017 Roland Garros champion) or terrible, served up 17 double faults in 92 service points on her way to victory over the American. She broke serve for 5-3 in the second set with a lucky net cord and, in a match that featured 17 breaks of serve, served out the final game at 15.

I stayed in the Grandstand to watch Nick Kyrgios toy with the French wild card Antoine Hoang, who has cracked the top 100 but has only one match win on the ATP tour. Before the match began, the songs on the public address system included Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, perhaps in anticipation of what Kyrgios can do – but it didn’t go that way. At most, toward the end of the match, there was an episode of Let’s Get Mildly Perturbed, but we’ll get to that later.

Hoang was never going to threaten Kyrgios unless the Australian went way off the beam, which he did not do. With his live arm, Kyrgios served up 24 aces and only one double fault. It’s not just that he hits his serve hard; he also places it accurately near the lines on either side of the box. His toss takes him well inside the baseline, so the ball comes upon the returner with even less time to react.

Kyrgios broke serve in the opening game and then took care of business on his serve, though he could not resist doing things like hitting a ball behind his back (unnecessarily) in Hoang’s second service game.

The second set featured more of the same, as Kyrgios registered two breaks while not facing any break points himself. He felt even less need to constrain himself: when Hoang served at 1-5, Kyrgios hit a slapshot forehand way long and then threatened a SABR (or perhaps, more accurately, SABN?) on Hoang’s first serve (which was a fault).

In the third set, the fun and games led to Hoang’s breaking Kyrgios’s serve twice. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, it was not all prosperity: he dropped his first three service games. Kyrgios had two points for a fourth break – and the match – when Hoang served at 3-5. After Hoang held on, Kyrgios served for the match at 5-4, opening with two aces, falling to 30-30 when he missed a forehand and witnessed Hoang pull off a lunging forehand pass, but then capturing the last two points, closing the proceedings with a service winner clocked at 131 mph.

As for the Let’s Get Mildly Perturbed Moment, that came when Kyrgios served at 4-3 40-15. He seemed to close out the game with a big serve, but Hoang’s challenge to the call was upheld. Kyrgios complained, with some justification, that Hoang waited too long to challenge, after the umpire had called the score. The storm clouds blew over, however, when Kyrgios quickly held serve.

I closed out my day with a little bit of mixed doubles on Court 5, as the top-seeded team of Michael Venus and Hao-Ching Chan faced Ken Skupski and Andreja Klepac. When I arrived, the favorites had one the first set in a tiebreak and were tied at 2-2 in the second set. With Skupski serving at 2-3, Chan hit a winning lob to get to break point and Venus finished off the game with an overhead. Chan served at 4-2 and found herself at deuce. As mixed doubles is played at the US Open – and as all doubles are played on the regular tour, with the no-ad scoring system – deuce is also a deciding point. In mixed doubles, that means that a man serves to a man and a woman to a woman. Chan served to Klepac, who nailed a hard return that Chan could not handle, and the teams were back on serve. At 4-4, a Venus double fault put him down 30-40, i.e., two break points, but he got out of the jam with a forehand winner and a service winner. Chan was broken at 30 in the 5-5 game, which gave Klepac a chance to serve for the set, but she was broken in turn at 30 to send the set to a tiebreak.

At this juncture, Skupski and Klepac had to win the ordinary 12-point tiebreak to qualify for a match tiebreak to decide the match in lieu of a third set. Serving at 4-5, Skupski left a volley hanging, and Venus put it away up the middle. Skupski saved the first match point on his ensuing service point, but then Chan served at 6-5 to close it out. The chair umpire called Skupski’s return long and Klepac registered a challenge. The video review showed the ball was indeed out, so Chan and Venus had won, 7-6(4) 7-6(5).

The stakes are lower in doubles, even more so in mixed doubles, and no-ad scoring makes for more random results, so it’s hard to predict what will happen from here. Chan and Venus hardly seemed dominant, but their opponents were both good doubles players. Don’t be shocked if an unseeded team wins the mixed.

My second day at the Open concluded at a relatively early 9:07 p.m., and I headed to the subway, hoping all the escalators were in good working order.