Tuesday September 8th, 2009

NEW YORK -- Reaction to a big Day 9 surprise and your mail ...

1. So it's not just the women's draw that can yield the unexpected. No. 16 Marin Cilic dominated second-seeded Andy Murray 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the fourth round Wednesday. Taking nothing away from Cilic -- a future top five member with a gargantuan forehand -- Murray took a step back in playing weirdly timid tennis. Despite the strides he made this year and his titles at Masters Series events, he's underperformed in Slams, none more than this one. Up 5-4 in the first set, Murray lost seven straight games and never recovered.

I'm already getting questions about why Murray doesn't face the same scrutiny for coming up short in majors that Dinara Safina does. Well, Murray hasn't been ranked No. 1, the source of Safina's troubles; and his winning record against Roger Federer helps his credibility.

But the knives will come out after this one. A favorite going into the Australian Open, Murray fell to Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round, a loss that looks worse in retrospect. A favorite going into Wimbledon, Murray fell to a red-hot Andy Roddick in the semifinals. Disappointing. A favorite and second seed coming into the U.S. Open, he loses, somewhat shockingly, with a lacking effort against a guy outside the top 10. That's not going to cut it.

"I have to make sure I work on my game a lot to make sure that when I go into the Slams next year ... I'm ready to win one," Murray said.

2. The stats say Kim Clijsters was absent for more than two years before returning last month. But you'd never know it watching her cruise through this tournament, playing as well as ever. A wild card (WTA players can't be ranked until their third event), Clijsters rolled into the semis with a 6-2, 6-4 victory against Li Na. Perhaps the best athlete on the WTA Tour, Clijsters goes from offense to defense better than any player in the game. If semifinal opponent Serena Williams isn't on her game, Clijsters has a real shot to win this event for the second time.

3. While Clijsters was continuing her run and Murray was aborting his on the Big Stage, Juan Martin del Potro continued his tear in the boonies, hitting through Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Del Potro has won 12 of 13 sets he's played here, and is imparting the most authoritative tennis in the men's draw. With these benevolent conditions, which won't expose his suspect fitness, he has a real shot at the title. Maybe then we'll see him play on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Nicole from Chicago is right in her comments about how the Williams sisters were received when they arrived and how Melanie Oudin is being received now. I grew up black playing tennis, often isolated. I remember very well how the Williams sisters were received. Perhaps you're glossing over it because you're white or it was your white colleagues, but they were received very icily by the press. They didn't receive the level of glee Oudin receives from Dick Enberg or John McEnroe, who wrongly proclaimed her the sole remaining American in the draw. I distinctly remember for years after their arrival McEnroe's fixation on their physicality, often comparing them to men. I remember Chris Evert openly pulling against them and issuing veiled insults by referring to their opponents as "thinkers." Sadly, the Williams sisters are maybe only two years out of overly suspicious treatment by the press after nearly a dozen years on the scene. You were dismissive of Nicole and wrongly so. You don't know what it felt like as a black person to witness their treatment. -- Chrichelle, Cupertino, Calif.

• I wasn't dismissive of Nicole. From my perspective, I saw it differently, that's all. I agree that there is something over the top about the Oudin worship. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt; it breeds fawning. My point was simply that, despite some controversy, the Williams sisters were -- and are -- generally admired and well received.

Not to criticize America's sweetheart, as I believe CBS just passed a law making that illegal, but I've noticed her "C'mon!" exhortations often come when her opponent has sprayed a shot wide or long. Isn't that the sort of thing that will make you very unpopular with your peers very quickly (see Hewitt, Lleyton)? Have any of them made even oblique references to it? -- Craig Berry, Park Forest, Ill.

• Honestly, this hasn't bothered me, especially against Maria Sharapova. (Hard to cite opponent A for a breach of etiquette when opponent B is grunting so audibly.)

Three things of interest to note in the women's draw: 1) With Svetlana Kuznetsova's loss, this marks the first time since the 2002 French Open that no Russian women advanced passed the fourth round of a Grand Slam. 2) The top half of the women's draw features all first-time quarterfinalists, guaranteeing two first-time semifinalists and one first-time finalist. 3) There is a possibility we could have two women playing for their first Grand Slam title.

And Serena's remark that women's tennis is more interesting to watch is true for this year's U.S. Open. Just some food for thought. -- Emily, Los Angeles

• Thanks for the comestibles.

I'm watching my man Dick Norman in the midst of a tight doubles match (thanks, USOpen.org!) in what appears to be a rather sparsely populated Armstrong Stadium. I visited the Open last Thursday and saw Norman and Wesley Moodie's first-round match on Court 12. The crowd was small, but because of the intimate court, there was a real energy there. For the one happening now, the minimal reactions of the small crowd are pretty conspicuous. How do touring pros feel about playing on the "big stage," but with few fans? I know most of the musicians I know (myself included) would prefer to perform in an intimate but packed space vs. a large but largely empty one, even if the number of fans is identical. -- Noah Baerman, Middletown, Conn.

• I suspect tennis players are like musicians. You'd rather play in front of 2,500 rabid fans on the Grandstand than 2,500 fans scattered in cavernous stadiums.

During the Kuznetsova/Caroline Wozniacki match, ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez repeatedly praised Kuznetsova for playing "within herself." Then in her postmatch interview, Kuz says, "You know, I think I played within myself too much." I'm not sure I liked the phrase when the commentators were using it, but now I don't even understand it. Thoughts? -- Greg Smiley, Washington, D.C.

• It all sounds so metaphysical. Presumably, "playing within oneself" means playing measured tennis and controlling your base instincts (i.e. taking too many risks, attempting shots with too great a level of difficulty). And presumably Kuznetsova's self-assessment was she was too measured and imprudently conservative. I suspect the moral here is this: Let's bury this cliche.

• Props to Guery Smith of New Orleans for this assessment.

Record attendance and increased viewership on both network and broadcast television for Week 1.

John Lawson Thornton, a 1976 graduate of Harvard University, has been named the winner of the 2009 Intercollegiate Tennis Association Achievement Award.

David of Cincinnati submits long-lost siblings: Caroline Wozniacki and Taylor Swift. A bonus one: Ivan H. of New York, N.Y., offers up Marc Gicquel and actor Brad Sherwood.

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