We wound up two weeks of watching the US Open last Monday, and we enjoyed the whole event. As somebody who’d never even seen TV before his sophomore year in high school, I still find the medium to be a miracle. For all practical purposes, we were right there in front row seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium (actually much closer – right there on the court) and enjoyed the benefits of expert commentary, instant replay, fantastic graphics, etc. Who could have imagined?
Katja and I have watched professional tennis together, live or on TV, since we got married in the days of wood rackets. Rod Laver and Billie Jean King were among our early favorites, then Borg and Connors and Navratilova. Nowadays we are big Roger Federer fans, and we were excited about the prospect of Roger winning his sixth consecutive US Open and tying Bill Tilden’s all-time record from the 1920’s. Sadly, of course, this was not to happen.
U.S. tennis has fallen on hard times. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that European tennis – and particularly Russian and eastern European tennis – has become dominant. Andy Roddick was the only American seed in the top 20, and he was defeated in the third round by fellow American, John Isner, ranked 55th in the world. Isner, at 6’ 9”, is the tallest player on the men’s tour, and his game rests upon his powerful serves. His groundstrokes, though, are shaky, and he lost in his next match. It’s the first time in the Open era that there wasn’t a single American male in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.
American women did a little better, thanks to Venus and Serena Williams and newcomer Melanie Oudin. Oudin, in particular, was a highlight of this year’s Open. Before the tournament she was the third highest ranked U.S. woman at number 70 in the world, and she wasn’t expected to do much. A gritty teenager with powerful groundstrokes and good court coverage, she singlehandedly proceeded to eliminate much of the Russian contingent: number 4 seed, Elena Dementieva; 29th seed and former U.S. Open champion, Maria Sharapova; thirteenth seed, Nadia Petrova. Oudin finally lost to Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinal round, but not before improving her ranking, taking home a pot of prize money, and becoming a media darling.
The other woman with a newsworthy story was Kim Clijsters of Belgium, who had won the U.S. Open in 2005, then retired in 2007 to begin a family. Her cute little baby was there throughout the tournament. Clijsters received a wild card to get into the Open because she hadn’t played enough this year to be ranked. After winning three straight set matches, she then beat third seed Venus Williams in the fourth round by the improbable score of 6-0, 0-6, 6-4. These were two equally powerful woman, matching groundstroke for groundstroke, and I think Clijster’s composure under duress made for the difference. After a win against Na Li of China, Clijsters and Serena Williams had another knock-down, drag-out match. Clisters, who played more consistently and was in command throughout, won on a very unfortunate circumstance when Serena reacted emotionally and hostilely to a lineperson’s foot fault call on the point before match point. The line judge reported that Serena had threatened to kill her, and the referee administered a point penalty which ended the match in Clijster’s favor. Commentator John McEnroe said that he didn’t see a foot fault from the TV coverage, and, even if a slight foot fault did occur, it was an inappropriate call at that critical moment. Other commentators severely criticized Serena, suggesting that a $10,000 fine was a mere slap on the wrist. I personally think that Serena probably did scare the wits out of the tiny linesperson, but that her behavior wasn’t any more out of line than, say, McEnroe’s or Connors’ in days gone by. Clijster’s, who appeared likely to win the match in any case, then went on to defeat Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3 in a well-played final and became the first mom since Evonne Goolagong in 1980 to win a grand slam final.
The dark horse on the men’s side was fifth-seeded Argentinian Juan Martin Del Potro, age 20, who was playing in his fourth U.S. Open. Del Potro met Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals and gave Nadal his worst career loss in a grand slam tournament, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. Nadal was suffering an abdominal injury, which appeared to affect his serving power, but Del Potro impressively dominated him throughout the match with powerful, accurate groundstrokes. We’ve never seen Nadal look so chagrined. Roger Federer, in the meantime, had a straight set victory over Novak Djokovich in which he hit what he described as the greatest shot of his career, a behind the back passing shot through his legs which just cleared the net at a high velocity and landed in the back corner for a winner. Following the Nadal rout, Del Potro looked like a scary opponent, even though Federer had beaten him six times in the past. Federer started out strong, in command throughout the first set, and he continued that way into the second. He got cutesy, though, hitting a couple of stupid drop shots that he lost, and Del Potro, who’d been looking dejected and lackadaisical to that point, worked his way back and took the second set in a tiebreaker. When Federer won the third set, it once again looked all over. Del Potro, though, kept elevating his game and his confidence, relying extensively on his impressive forehand, while Federer became increasingly unsettled and inconsistent. He actually snarled at the referee a couple of times in the match’s later stages. We remained confident that Roger would win when they went into a fifth set, but it wasn’t to be. Final score: 3–6, 7–6, 4–6, 7–6, 6–2. Federer looked pretty miserable receiving the runner-up trophy, and we fans were even more miserable for him. Now we wonder how Roger will do in 2010.
Katja suggested afterward that we subscribe to the Tennis Channel, but I wasn’t that carried away. It’s a long wait till next year’s French Open, but we’ll follow the Cincinnati Bengals in the meantime (even though they continue to be very un-Federer-like).