SI.COM AT THE U.S. OPEN
From the conspicuous "WC" next to her name on the overhead draw sheet to the "#9999" in place of her official ranking in the WTA Tour media notes, the evidence of Kim Clijsters' wild-card status is everywhere at the U.S. Open.
Everywhere, that is, except the court.
Just three weeks after returning to competitive tennis and ending her 27-month retirement/maternity leave, Clijsters showed flashes of championship form today while securing her most scintillating comeback victory, 6-0, 0-6, 6-4 over third-ranked Venus Williams.
"Very weird," Clijsters said of the unusual final score, quite possibly the first time so deep into a major that players traded bagels in consecutive sets.
An instant classic it was not. And the crowd in Ashe Stadium -- about 80 percent full on an afternoon when the day-session attendance record was matched -- didn't create the electric atmosphere typical of such hotly anticipated showdowns.
But it sure was entertaining. Clijsters, playing in her first U.S. Open since lifting the trophy in 2005, was able to subdue Venus early with a steady diet of booming serves and powerful, angled ground strokes. Venus followed the same formula to success in the second. Not until Clijsters broke Venus early in the third -- a gripping final set that ran longer than the first two combined -- did the 26-year-old Belgian wrest the momentum for good.
"She just played more consistently at the end," Williams said. "Just played really consistently and aggressively at the right times."
Clijsters' charmed run continues Tuesday against Li Na, the No. 18 seed, with the winner advancing to a possible semifinal date Thursday against Serena Williams -- the defending champion, top remaining seed and prohibitive favorite.
A player must earn points in three valid tournaments to appear in the computer rankings. Since the Open marks the third event of Clijsters' comeback, Sunday's fourth-round victory means she'll enter the rankings no worse than No. 77 after the Open -- and she'll require no more wild-card invites anytime soon.
But that's only if she loses in the quarters. Clijsters, who extended her U.S. Open winning streak to 11 matches (with two wins over Venus during that span), seems a serious threat to become the Grover Cleveland of U.S. Open champions -- a non-consecutive winner of the blue cement.
"It's not that I came back because I wanted to be embraced by the crowd," Clijsters said. "I came back because I wanted to play tennis -- and good tennis."
Of her decision to retire and start a family in 2007, Clijsters said: "I had other things in my mind that I wanted to achieve as a woman and as a person. That made me not be so disciplined anymore in my tennis career."
Now officially in the mix for another major crown, Clijsters hopes credits her family life for the balance in her game that wasn't there before.
"There's also that other life that I have that keeps me away from tennis, whereas in the past, it was 24/7 tennis," Clijsters said. "It's nice now to have that change. When I go home after I've been training here during a day off, it doesn't matter to our daughter or our husband whether I won the day before or not."
Tonight started smoothly for Vera Zvonareva. The seventh-ranked Russian took the first set 6-3 against Italy's Flavia Pennetta, reached match point six times in the second set and appeared poised to advance. Then, she unraveled. The long, physical rallies wore on her knees -- both of which were wrapped with tape before the match -- but it was her failure to close out the match that opened Pandora's Box. In between sets, Pennetta remained on the court for a trainer to knead her lower back as Zvonareva retreated to the tunnel beneath the stands to cry hysterically.
Here are Wertheim's thoughts on some of the hottest topics at the U.S. Open:
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When the women's draw was released 11 days ago, most observers took one look at Dinara Safina's first-week cakewalk, uncapped a Sharpie and scrawled the top-ranked Russian into the Round of 16.
Say what you want about Safina's ability to win the big matches, but no one could doubt her ability to dispense of the minnows. She entered today's third-round match against 72nd-ranked Petra Kvitova with a 54-12 record and the best winning percentage on tour (.818) in 2009. She'd also made the semifinals or better at the last four major tournaments dating to last year's U.S. Open.
Yet that assured quarterfinal berth never came to pass, not after Safina's nightmarish performance over the past six days, which came to a merciful conclusion with a 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5) loss to a 19-year-old Czech so anonymous that many in the Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd spurred her on with shouts of "Yellow!" -- the color of her Nike tank top.
Safina will keep her No. 1 ranking no matter who wins the Sept. 12 final, but her dismal run at this year's Open has undercut her claim to the title of "best player in the world" beyond any imaginable repair short of a Grand Slam title.
When play began Saturday night, Safina perpetuated an alarming trend in spotting Kvitova a one-set lead.
She'd also dropped the first set in her opener against the anonymous Olivia Rogowska, an 18-year-old wild-card entrant from Australia ranked 167th, then needed two hours and 35 minutes to avoid the historical ignominy of a first-round loss as the No. 1 seed. Same thing against Kristina Barrios in the second round, when Safina again fell a set down before turning on the jets.
Each time, Safina was able to escape to avoid the embarrassment of an early-round loss and the heckles from her detractors. But early Sunday morning, the world's top-ranked player was -- as they say in Queens -- a day late and a dollar short.
When she emerged from the locker room at 2 a.m. local time for the postmatch press conference, her voice quivered with anger and despondence. She spent the first several minutes berating tournament officials for moving the match from Ashe to Armstrong Stadium, a hurried decision in the wake of the Andy Roddick-John Isner match, which delayed the start of the night session a full two hours.
"This is not an excuse," Safina said. "I just feel that it is very unfair how they did this, to both of us."
In the end, she chalked up her underperformance to the "tension" that's marked her reign atop the rankings and the way it bubbled over during the past week.
"I go on the court and I really want to do one thing," Safina said, "and I step on the court and I do completely the opposite thing.
"Everything is in the head."
A reputation for wearing down late in matches has dogged Isner for much of his young career. A lot of the blame for that goes to Isner's subpar conditioning, which was completely eroded by a bout of mononucleosis that knocked the Greensboro, N.C., native out of commission for two months this year. But in Saturday's 7-6 (3), 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5) victory against Roddick, a rejuvenated Isner proved he can indeed summon his best tennis down the stretch.
For proof, look no further than his service game, which peaked during the fifth set. That's when he won his most first-serve points (88 percent), clocked his fastest first-serve average (126 mph) and smacked his quickest second-serve (118 mph).
Melanie Oudin, the 17-year-old with the taped-up left thigh, proved capable of surviving on the big stage. While Maria Sharapova, a former Open champ known for acing mettle tests, double faulted away crucial points, Oudin kept charging, pumping her fist and yelling, "Come on!"
Her gait was confident from the start, fast-walking out to the baselines and asserting -- then maintaining -- a confident image. She told her longtime coach, Brian de Villiers, before the match, "I cannot let Sharapova intimidate me." Despite dropping the first set, she lived up to that vow until she had a chance to serve for the match in the third set. Tightening up, she failed to convert, but maximized her second chance.
After her final cross-court forehand silenced the grunting Russian, Oudin said, "I think the biggest weapon can be mental toughness. It doesn't have to be a stroke or a shot or anything. If you're mentally tough, you can beat anyone."
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When Lleyton Hewitt took the court against Roger Federer for the U.S. Open championship nearly five years ago, the pugnacious Aussie had reason to be confident. They'd played a dozen matches, with Hewitt owning a 7-5 edge.
Yet over the next 109 minutes, Hewitt found himself on the receiving end of a 6-0, 7-6 (3), 6-0 thumping,
Much has changed in the half decade since that one-sided meeting. Federer has added a dozen more major trophies, cementing his place in the greatest-of-all-time discussion. Both men -- longtime friends and former doubles partners -- have married and become fathers. But one thing that's remained constant is Federer's command of Hewitt, a 13-match winning streak dating to 2004.
"It's an incredible run for me against him," Federer said in advance of Saturday's third-round clash with Hewitt. "I cannot believe I've beaten him that many times in a row. But we've had some close ones during those 13. Every [match] starts from zero, unfortunately for me."
The frustration Hewitt has felt throughout the 13-match skid only mirrors what Federer experienced early in the rivalry, when the Aussie won seven of their first nine matches. Federer once considered the formerly top-ranked Hewitt one of the primary thorns in his side on tour, along with nemeses like David Nalbandian and Tim Henman -- opponents he credits with helping make his game complete.
Hewitt, a two-time Grand Slam winner, dipped to No. 108 after undergoing season-ending hip surgery in August 2008. But he's enjoyed a successful '09 campaign while rebounding to No. 32.
"You've got to respect the player he is and the champion he is. A player of this caliber can have a good day," Federer said. "On any given day, a former world No. 1 -- a guy who's won majors -- is very, very dangerous. That's why I have to make sure I get into the match quickly."
Coming off two straight-set victories here, Hewitt is relishing another opportunity to end his losing streak to Federer.
"This is why I still play the game," Hewitt said, "to face challenges like this."
3. A/C Del-Po: You won't see him playing a night match and he was conspicuously absent from the pre-tournament sponsor schmooze-o-rama. But don't fall asleep on Juan Martin del Potro. Been fortunate enough to catch his matches and he is playing well enough to win. If it stays cool and he conserves energy in Week 1, look out.
Jon Wertheim and Richard Deitsch examine the upsets on the women's side, assess Rafael Nadal's chances of a deep run and marvel at the publicity machine that is the Bryan brothers.
This was in 2005 when Taylor Dent was a hot story in American tennis. A stocky Californian with broad shoulders and an anachronistic serve-and-volley game, Dent had a big personality (he sported a tattoo of American and Aussie flags on his right shoulder) and an even bigger serve (he consistently cracked the 130-mph barrier.)
In the opening week of that year's U.S. Open,
Then he disappeared.
Dent's career spiraled downward because of his spine. He missed more than two years after retiring at the 2006 Rotterdam tournament with a back injury. That injury was later diagnosed as
"I had pretty much, after I kind of succumbed to the fact I had to have the surgeries to have a normal life, I came to grips with the fact that I wasn't going to be able to play professional tennis anymore," said Dent now 28.
He married another tennis pro (Jenny Hopkins) and returned to the Open as a commentator for Tennis Channel, among other outlets. He was into his second career long before 30. "It was tough coming back in those couple years I was commentating and watching these guys," Dent said. "I was jealous."
One last surgical procedure, a spinal fusion in September 2007, proved successful. "They took out the bottom half of my L-5 vertebra and put a rod in there, some cages and some screws, and fused it all up," Dent said.
He returned to the tour in May 2008 after a 27-month absence, playing Challenger tournments and retooling his body to the grind. This year he has mostly entered tournaments as a qualifier or wild card. Dent, ranked 196th, does not have a coach -- but he does have his first Grand Slam win since 2005. He upset No. 37 Feliciano Lopez on Tuesday and faces Spain's Ivan Navarro on the Grandstand this afternoon.
"The only word to describe it is elation," Dent after his first Open victory in four years. "It's pretty cool. But I can't get wrapped up in it too much. I have a second round match coming up. I don't want to just win one round here. I'd like to win a few."
The first time she heard the news, 17-year-old Christina McHale thought there had to be some mistake. The night match? Arthur Ashe Stadium? She was able to calm herself some, but each time a new text popped in, each time someone mentioned it, she felt this small vibration again, a buzz in the pit of her gut. Then Wednesday turned to Thursday morning, 9 a.m., and her eyes opened in her New Jersey bedroom, just a 25-minute drive from the 2009 U.S. Open, and McHale asked herself again, just to be sure, Am I actually playing Sharapova tonight on Ashe? Or was that a dream?
Sometimes, we forget. By tournament's end, everything about a Grand Slam event is massive -- the winner's check, the TV audience, the mountainous pile of a fortnight's worth of video and data and words and photographs, the very idea of history being made. Roger and Rafa and Venus and Serena and the rest of tennis' stars have heard the thunderous crowds, seen the winking, uncountable flashbulbs, for years. They are used to living large. We forget that somewhere, at some point, they all started small.
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After missing most of the summer hard-court season with a broken right toe, James Blake is slowly trying to get his groove back. Backed by an enthusiastic crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the popular American survived 53 unforced errors to gut out a 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3 victory against Belgium's Oliver Rochus and advance to the third round.
The win was a big confidence booster for Blake, whose injury-plagued season saw him drop out of the top 10 for the first time in two years as he recovered from a badly rolled ankle, a bruised knee and that nagging injured toe.
"I haven't played my best tennis most of this year," said Blake, who is ranked 23rd. "I've had all of these little injuries that just frustrate you because you want to be on the court right away. If you're not playing match after match, you're losing your rhythm and you don't have your confidence."
Blake served at only 43 percent, but he cracked 64 winners and had 21 aces. In the third set, Blake fell behind 6-3 in the tiebreak, but staved off three set points on his way to winning the last five points of the set.
"I had some nail-biting moments there in the tiebreaker," Blake said. "Could have gone either way. To get through that and feel good and feel the crowd getting into it ... everything about it was really good for me."
Blake said he feels as good as he has all year and that he's looking forward to his next test, against 14th-seeded Tommy Robredo. That's if he can stay healthy and keep his toes away from things that go bump in the night.
"Breaking my toe and missing so much time this summer just seemed so foolish," Blake said. "It happened in July when I was in Croatia for Davis Cup. It was a misstep in the dark when you're getting up in the middle of the night kind of thing. I'm a bit of a slob and there were bags thrown everywhere and I just walked into the side of one of those plastic roller bags. I think it's karma for making fun of my brother doing the exact same thing three or four years ago."
It's not often you see Tommy Haas smiling on the court. The uber-intense all-court player from Germany is known in part for his surly attitude and for feverishly berating both himself and his coaches during matches. John McEnroe, who knows a thing or two about boorish behavior between the lines, once said of Haas, "Tommy's only enemy in a match is himself because he is quick to lose control of his temper, and with that he loses focus of the match."
Today the world's 21st-ranked player actually seemed to be in a good mood. In fact, an unruffled Haas was all smiles during his 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (3) second-round victory over American Robert Kendrick.
So what's the source of Haas' recent transformation? The 31-year-old former No. 2-ranked player chalks it up to maturity and his ability to still compete with the world's best. Haas this year has beaten fourth-ranked Novak Djokovic twice (once in July to claim the Gerry Weber Open title in Halle, Germany). His three losses in Grand Slams have come against the eventual champions; he lost to Rafael Nadal in the third round of the Australian Open and to Roger Federer in the fourth round at the French Open and in the semifinals at Wimbledon, his best performance at the All England Club.
"I've been around the game a long time yet it seems like over the past year every part of my game is falling into place," Haas, who began the year ranked 82nd, said of his resurgence. "Deep down, I'm pretty happy for what's been happening on the court this year and I think it shows."
Haas had many reasons to sulk in the past. He missed most of 2002 to care for his ailing parents after both were seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. He sat out most of '03 after surgery on his right shoulder. Then there was the twisted ankle while warming up for his first-round match at Wimbledon in '05, a wrist injury in '06, allegations that he was poisoned before a Davis Cup match in Russia in '07 (the ITF investigated and found no evidence), and torn stomach muscles during Wimbledon last year.
"After everything that has happened over the course of my career, I'm sure some people thought I was jinxed and wondered why I still picked up a racket," Haas said. "But I love tennis and I love to compete, and at 31 I know my time is limited. But if the success of this year so far is any indication, then it will continue to get better, and maybe the laughs and good times will keep coming."
For most of Melanie Oudin's second-round match, heavy bandaging had been effective in keeping her tender left thigh from howling. Her nerves, however, were another matter.
The more they jangled, the more she felt it in that leg. Never was that more obvious than in the last game of her upset of fourth-ranked Elena Dementieva. On a serve at triple match point, the 70th-ranked Oudin felt her leg go numb. "I just think it kind of started cramping a bit," said Oudin, who went on to lose the point. When she reared back for match point No. 2, it was the same sharp pain, same sour result. "The nerves and the tension play havoc with the body," said her coach, Brian de Villiers. "You're burning a lot of energy and tend to cramp up a little bit more."
It wasn't until her third match point that Oudin finally settled in. "I knew if I wasn't going to win that last point, then she was going to come back," Oudin said. Her mind quieted, she went for broke, uncorking a 98 mph serve wide. When Dementieva dumped it into the net, Oudin raised her arms in triumph as the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium cheered her 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 victory.
The result extends a breakout summer for the 17-year-old Marietta, Ga., native, who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon. The win was hard fought, but the battle to keep her wits was even more intense. It seemed to exact the steepest price on that injured leg. She took a medical timeout early in the third set to have it rewrapped. Strangely, Dementieva made no attempt afterward to exploit Oudin's injury, which she suffered in an awkward fall five weeks ago. Instead of running her around the court or forcing her to come to net, Dementieva settled for trading blows with Oudin from the baseline. That played right into the 5-foot-6 American's strength as a counterpuncher.
"I wanted her to keep the points as long as possible," de Villiers said of his charge. "If she takes care of her game, then she's going to have opportunities to win."
When she takes care of her mind, the opportunities seem endless.
At the final Grand Slam of the year, the all-white outfits from Wimbledon and clay-stained duds from Roland Garros have given way to some of the season's loudest fashion statements. From Venus Williams' unique dress to Rafael Nadal's "bumblebee" look to Maria Sharapova's flashy earrings, SI.com presents a
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Not long ago, a first-round matchup between Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet in a Grand Slam seemed unthinkable. But a lot has happened in the last six months -- especially to the Frenchman Gasquet.
After opening the 2009 season ranked in the top 25, the 23-year-old Gasquet tested positive for cocaine in March. He was suspended in May, two weeks before the French Open, but then cleared to return July 15 (after serving a 2½-month retroactive ban) when an independent anti-doping tribunal agreed with him that he had inadvertently ingested the drug after kissing a woman at a nightclub. (The International Tennis Federation has appealed the ruling.)
Still, a lot of people had a hard time buying the excuse -- but Nadal wasn't one of them. If he wasn't Gasquet's earliest supporter, he was certainly one of his most vocal, saying at the French Open that he was "certain that he's not taking anything." Gasquet has said he "will never forget what [Rafa] has done for me. If he ever needs me to help him, I will do what I can."
A rusty Gasquet, his ranking down to No. 46 and having played only two competitive matches since May, was unable to push Nadal at Arthur Ashe Stadium. His trademark one-handed backhand -- widely touted as the best on tour -- lacked accuracy, and his legs were heavy. Nadal, who himself is trying to find his form after an extended layoff, routed Gasquet 6-2, 6-2, 6-4.
"I practiced a month ago, so it's not a long time to be ready for the U.S. Open," Gasquet said, "especially to play against Rafa. But I tried my best."
Is this the new and subdued Gael Monfils? Nicknamed "Sliderman" for the way he covers the court, Monfils showed few signs of his trademark flamboyance in his 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 first-round victory against Jeremy Chardy today on the Grandstand. There were very few slides (five in the entire match), one measly split and no handstands or backflips. When the crowd began to chant "Allez Monfils, Allez Monfils," the 23-year-old Frenchman simply smiled toward the stands but offered no response. Even the victory dance was a restrained fist pump and slight boxing motion followed by a gracious bow.
This was mild stuff for a premier showman who has been known to violently pump his chest and beckon the crowd into engaging him in a fiery call-and-response ritual. During last year's French Open, his post-match victory dances included his own interpretation of rapper Soulja Boy's Superman dance from the song
Monfils, ranked 13th, has missed several tournaments this year, including Wimbledon, with nagging wrist and knee injuries. Still, he maintains he is feeling healthy and that the injuries have not affected his play.
"I have not toned down anything," Monfils said. "I'm still going to be aggressive with my serve and play close to the baseline and try to use my ability to cover the entire court against my opponent. I still have the same game plan."
And what does he have in store to pump up the Open crowd?
"It's early so I'll have to see how I feel and what inspires me," he said. "There are some new moves out there that I'm ready to try out but it has to be after the right play. I promise I won't disappoint."
He slices, he dices. He volleys, he lobs, he dinks, he hits the craziest you-must-be-kidding-me shots. Except now, sadly, Fabrice Santoro does none of the above.
Around the same time Marat Safin was wrapping up his career in majors on Arthur Ashe Stadium, Santoro played his final Grand Slam singles match out on Court 11. One of the
Santoro hit a few vintage shots. But at age 36, he has an awful lot of miles on the odometer. And his sorcery is no match for younger, stronger players (and their Luxilon strings.) There is a nagging sense that tennis didn't just see off an exquisite player today. It saw off an entire style of play.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Marat Safin hasn't made any firm plans for his life after tennis. But he may have a future as his little sister's official spokesman.
Speaking in what will likely stand as his final U.S. Open news conference as a player after his four-set loss to 38th-ranked Jurgen Melzer of Austria, the 29-year-old Russian spiritedly defended Dinara Safina against critics who have questioned the legitimacy of her No. 1 ranking.
"You have this [constant] issue: Is she a real No. 1 or not?" Safin said, before taking aim at the negative bent of the coverage of Safina's narrow first-round victory against 167th-ranked Olivia Rogowska on Tuesday. "You open the [sports pages and read] she made eight [actually 11] double faults, 43  unforced errors. She struggled, almost lost to an 18-year-old.
"Everyone is giving her a hard time, [asking] 'Are you really No. 1 in the world?' Yes, yes, she's really No. 1 in the world. Go check the ranking. She didn't do the ranking."
One of Safina's most vocal cynics is No. 2 Serena Williams. She cites her victories in three of the last four majors -- and Safina's victory in none -- as the main reason why she should hold the top spot. Safin met her criticism head-on: "On this ranking, [Safina] is No. 1 in the world. Serena, even though she won two Grand Slams this year, she's No. 2. Sorry, but that's the way. Deal with it."
Jon Wertheim and Richard Deitsch preview the best matches on Day 3 and discuss a new wrinkle to the night session.
We should've known when they wheeled the liquor cart into the press conference, bottles clinking, laughter rising. "Are you going to get drunk tonight?" someone asked Marat Safin. He was the new champion of Flushing Meadow then, at 20 a shockingly easy winner of the 2000 U.S. Open over the unbeatable Pete Sampras. "Between us?" he grinned. "I hope so."
We didn't know that night that he'd be, for the rest of the decade, pro tennis' biggest puzzle. All we saw in Marat Safin then was the total package: TV handsome, fluent in English, Spanish and Russian, oozing talent, humor, a biting intelligence. All we knew is that he had a killer backhand and an all-surface game, that he wasn't a grind: The liquor cart told us that. Marat looked like fun. He looked like the future.
We were all searching for the next star then. No one figured that a man can actually have too much charisma, that a searching mind can be the worst enemy of great physical gifts. The liquor cart was different, yes, but he was Russian and we added it up: Russians ... vodka ... sure. Who knew that he'd go down, even with another Grand Slam title and two more major finals, as one of the game's great wastes? As the head case who somehow gave head cases a good name? As a figure who still leaves even his devoted sister, Dinara, confused?
• "I'm dreaming, I'm yelling in my dream. It's out, it's not out, it's in. I'm still playing tennis sometimes at night, which you got to understand. We play a lot of tennis. We are competing every time. Some of those things that happen during the day, you're dreaming about at night. But what can you do? Many times I wake up in the morning and I have no idea where I am, which city I am [in], all these things. But that's the case of a professional tennis player."
• "Well, look, I mean, this is past. What happened last year, the way I get it, to be honest, was like, I don't know, a fight with a girlfriend. Just a little fight with a girlfriend. These things happen."
• "When I'm in the draw, I'm a contender."
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Even Ana Ivanovic's opponents don't understand what is going on when she serves. During her 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 loss to Kateryna Bondarenko, the 21-year-old Ivanovic repeatedly threw the ball in the air for her first serve, then caught it instead of serving. In recent weeks the former No. 1 shortened her service swing to "protect her shoulder," but her mechanics clearly remain a problem. Her road to recovery begins with the serve.
When were Olivia Rogowska's chances of upsetting world No. 1 Dinara Safina officially doomed? How 'bout around 3 p.m. ET, when she was tied at 4-all in the third set. To that point, the 167th-ranked Rogowska had run the Russian ragged in long rallies that highlighted her low, powerful forehand. She had even broken serve early in the final set to take a 3-0 lead.
But a late charge by Safina shook Rogowska's nerves. Serving at deuce in that pivotal ninth game of the final set, Rogowska chipped a backhand deep into the corner. When Safina returned it with a gift lob, Rogowska hit an alligator-armed overhead -- then followed that up with an even meeker volley on Safina's ensuing shot, a floater. When she was passed on Safina's next stroke, Rogowska stuck her racket head into the center line, clasped her hands over her racket handle and buckled, burying her head. Safina would break and then hold serve to close out a 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4 victory at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
It was a valiant effort by the 18-year-old Aussie, who nearly got her second win over a top-100 player. Her ability to dictate pace with that booming forehand sharply contrasted with the play of Safina, who struggled to find a rhythm. She hit 19 winners against 48 unforced errors and 11 double faults. No wonder Safina often celebrated Rogowska's mishits and errors with a relieved fist pump.
"I was not playing good," the often-rattled Safina said after the match. But once Rogowska's nerves became evident, "That calmed me down," the Russian added. "She's not very comfortable to close the match. So I said, 'I will not give [it to] you easy.' "
Rogowska admitted to growing more nervous as the moment -- and crowd -- built. "At first, it wasn't packed," she said, "but as the match went on, I could tell that lots more people came. They were really loud, and I thought they were actually going for me a bit more than they were going for Dinara."
Despite the loss, Rogowska could take solace in the words that one tournament official spoke to her as she ducked into the locker room: "You made a lot of fans today."
With the first round of the U.S. Open in full swing, here's an alphabetical look at the people, places and things that make the two-week tournament such a colorful experience.
I recently took the No. 7 train to a New York Mets game and was nearly blinded by an assault of orange and blue. Virtually everyone crammed into my car was wearing a Mets cap. The majority of the fans wore jerseys of Mets, current and past, including a replica
Contrast this with the scene at the same stop today, as the tennis fans filed off the 7 train and headed to the other side of the tracks to watch the Open. There were a few earmarks, but it was mostly the Brooks Brothers shirts and the industrial-sized canisters of sunblock. No caps or T-shirts or skirts. While the players are individual contractors, free to craft whatever deals they can -- and while they can -- I can't help thinking that tennis is blowing a big licensing opportunity here. A uni-style shirt with "Federer" or "Nadal" on the back? How many thousands of those could you sell on the grounds here? A cultish "Pavlyuchenkova" jersey? Where do I put down my cash? Some ambitious agent needs to get on this.
Jon Wertheim examines the Day 2 action, breaks down Venus Williams' narrow escape and sizes up the early crowds.
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Venus Williams' left knee is not her only concern after a 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-3 victory against
Billed as a soiree hosted by the Williams sisters, Andy Roddick and James Blake, the official U.S. Open Player Party had all the glitz you'd imagine at a tennis party presented by Heineken.
Blake talked about injuries (his own and the ones that have plagued his beloved New York Mets), and vowed to drink nothing but water during the party and to retire early for the night.
In other words: Let's get this party started, right.
He shouldered his hosting duties alone for most of the evening -- Venus Williams made an appearance a few hours late, and disappointingly, Serena Williams and Roddick never showed.
The biggest surprise was the sight of a certain Gael Monfils, who led a line dance to Michael Jackson tunes, outside of the VIP section and among the more plebian guests. The Frenchman's entourage claimed he was trying to stay incognito ("He's not supposed to be here," they said, as they allowed fans to pose with him for pictures).
Around midnight, with the U.S. Open still two days away, the piggies in blankets had disappeared and Blake's fun-filled night of drinking water was all but over. The only thing left to do was play tennis.
Kim Clijsters, who ended a two-year retirement earlier this month, received a wild-card invitation to this year's tournament. But it won't be much longer before she regains an official WTA ranking.
A player must earn rankings points in three valid tournaments to appear in the computer rankings. Since the U.S. Open marks the third event of Clijsters' comeback (following appearances in Cincinnati and Toronto), her first-round victory today against Viktoria Kutuzova means she'll enter the rankings no worse than No. 148 after the Open.
Here's a quick glance at Clijsters' projected ranking based on her potential results (she entered the tournament with 310 points):
Clijsters' second-round opponent is No. 14 Marion Bartoli, whom she defeated in straight sets at Cincinnati. Should Clijsters advance, a probable third-round meeting with No. 20 Anabel Medina Garrigues awaits.
Despite her tennis-friendly name, Sybille Bammer is hardly a household name in Austria, let alone America. The No. 28 seed at the Open has won two career singles titles (including Prague this year) and $1.7 million in prize money since turning pro in 1997. Last year in New York she enjoyed her greatest career success at a Grand Slam, reaching the quarterfinals before losing to No. 2-ranked Jelena Jankovic She has a pedestrian 20-17 record this year and is 340-302 lifetime.
Normally, Bammer would have gone through the Open draw fairly anonymously. But there will be decisively more interest in Bammer this year after
"At 29, when most players have burned out and retired, Ms. Bammer is entering the United States Open, which begins Monday, ranked No. 29 in the world, a tribute to her perseverance and the commitment her boyfriend made," Araton wrote. '"So many people made jokes" back home about Mr. Gschwendtner's role as Mr. Mom, Ms. Bammer recalled last week, curled up on one of the twin beds of the family's cramped hotel room in New Haven, where she played in the Pilot Pen tournament. Tina, now 8, lay horizontal across her lap."
After reading of the duo's spartan lifestyle and commitment to both Bammer's career and each other, it will be hard not to root for the Austrian. Bammer reached a career high of No. 19 in December 2007 and upset Serena Williams at Cincinnati earlier his month -- her third victory over a top 10 player in 2009 and second win over Williams in two career meetings. She debuts at the Open this afternoon on Court 11 against Spain's Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. If she advances, Serena looms again, in the third round.
Assessing talent is most always an imprecise science. But it's a particularly iffy exercise in tennis. How many junior champs have never made the transition to the pros? How many stars were late bloomers? Growth spurts (or lack thereof), teenage drama, injury, burnout a new love interest -- each can derail the most promising career. On the other hand, everything can magically click and suddenly you're surpassing expectations.
This is laid bare in the excellent tennis documentary
Later today, Young will take the court against Tommy Robredo. [
Andy Roddick will headline the night session on Day 1 of the U.S. Open. Before the tournament, he answered questions from
Question: Do you believe that you are unfortunate to play tennis in the era of Federer and Rafael Nadal and hence not able to win as many Grand Slams as you deserve?
Roddick: No. You know, I feel fortunate that I get to play tennis at all. There have been great champions in every generation. Maybe not as dominant as Roger has been, but I'm certainly not going to complain about the hand that I've been dealt.
Question: Your famous temper has mellowed. What do you attribute this change to?
Roddick: I don't think it's rare for a 26-year-old to be more mature than they were at 19. I think I've just had an audience for a lot of it. With that come some good decisions, some bad decisions. I certainly like to think I learned from a majority of them.
Question: Why don't you like chair umpires?
Roddick: Because they're the ones who have a lot of the control at our matches, and if it doesn't go my way, I'm a little annoyed. I talk to them, and they're like, "You're fine away from the court, and we actually like you. But you are evil when you're on the court." They say I'm getting a little better.
More from the U.S. Open ...
U.S. Open media day kicked off Saturday when
Over the past four months, the 23-year-old Russian has devoted as much time to defending her No. 1 ranking off the court as she's spent on it. Safina, still on the hunt for her first major championship, holds the top ranking ahead of Williams, an 11-time Grand Slam winner who holds three of the four major trophies.
Since Williams famously proclaimed herself "the real No. 1" in May, Safina has become a computer-rankings whipping girl, a symbol of misguided contempt for a system many dismiss as recklessly counterintuitive.
"It was the dream of my life to become No. 1 in the world," said Safina, whose frustration became apparent when pressed about Serena's public objections. "I'm not doing the rankings system. What can I do? If you look at the rankings, I'm No. 1 in the world."
Williams seemed just as perturbed by the rankings questions during her interview session, despite her principal role in kick-starting the controversy.
"I don't talk about that anymore, I'm sorry," Williams said, forcing a smile. "I've talked about it a lot and if you want to read some answers that I've said, you can. But I think we should talk about something else more exciting, more new."
"I'm excited to have won Wimbledon, Australia and this tournament last year, so I have no regrets," Williams said.
Safina has been prone to spectacular implosions in her most visible matches, including three lopsided straight-set losses in three Grand Slam finals. But her results over the past four Slams -- two appearances in finals and four in the semis -- aren't exactly lamentable. And while she's anxious to break through for that first major title here at Flushing Meadows, she's not going to let the questions affect her focus.
"I don't care," Safina said matter-of-factly. "Really."
More from the U.S. Open ...
Some day-after impressions and observations now that we've had a chance to sleep on the men's and women's draws:
1. I considered tabbing No. 1 Dinara Safina for biggest flameout in SI.com's picks (see below), but a quick glance at her first-week cakewalk slammed the lid on that idea. Safina's first true challenge likely won't come until the quarters and a possible meeting with Jelena Jankovic or Ana Ivanovic.
2. Ivanovic's brief spell atop the rankings came to an ignominious end at last year's Open, when she became the first No. 1 seed in the history of the event to lose to a qualifier. It's been a long way down for the 21-year-old Serb over the past year, as she's struggled with injury, hired and fired a coach and dropped from the top 10. I'm optimistic Ivanovic can regain form and challenge for Grand Slams again; I just don't expect it to happen here.
3. Elena Dementieva, for my money the most accomplished player in tennis never to win a major, is my pick to edge Serena Williams in the final. (Make your predictions
4. Caroline Wozniacki has already won 50 matches and cracked the top 10 in her breakout '09 season. But the 19-year-old seems to be running on fumes near the homestretch. I don't expect much.
5. Kim Clijsters was a wild-card entrant, meaning she could have drawn anybody from Safina to Serena in the first round. Instead, she'll face Viktoriya Kutuzova in her first U.S. Open match since winning the '05 final. Her likely second-round opponent would be No. 14 Marion Bartoli, one of four top 20 opponents she's beaten during her two-event comeback. Here's hoping she makes it through to the fourth round and a clash with ...
6. ... Venus Williams, whom many have tabbed for an early exit. The elder Williams sister may not have won the U.S. Open since 2001, but that's mostly due to her running into the wrong opponents at the wrong times. In 10 career appearances at the event, Williams has twice won the whole thing and six times lost to the eventual champion (including Clijsters in '05).
7. If you're looking for a first-round upset, Kateryna Bondarenko has the goods to make Ivanovic's Open a short one. Also, keep an eye on teenage wild-card Alexa Glatch, a confident player who should give no quarter to defending champion Serena Williams in their all-American clash.
8. If you think the tournament officials gifted Safina with an easy draw, they may as well have sent Roger Federer a box of Manhattan's famous Magnolia cupcakes. Lleyton Hewitt, a likely third-round opponent, is just 7-15 all time against Federer (and 0-6 in majors). Eighth-seeded Nikolay Davydenko, a potential quarterfinal hurdle, is 0-12 against the Swiss master.
9. Another beneficiary on the men's side is No. 5 Andy Roddick, who managed to avoid Federer, Murray and Rafael Nadal until the semis.
10. Jeremy Chardy, the unseeded 22-year-old who earned his first career title at Stuttgart in July, is another potential bracket-buster. Inconsistency has dogged his first-round opponent, fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils.
11. It's not going to be easy for No. 2 Andy Murray. The 22-year-old Scot has a bevy of big hitters in his half starting with an opener against Ernests Gulbis, an underachiever whose results haven't come close to matching his ability. Not quite an upset watch given Murray's maturation, but something to think about.
12. Nadal, seeking to become the fourth player in the Open era (since 1968) to complete a career Slam, faces Richard Gasquet in a first-round match between players with something to prove. Both players enter the Open on the comeback trail, Nadal from tendinitis in both knees and Gasquet from a drug ban.
13. Look for Sam Querrey to advance to the second week. He's been in excellent form throughout the summer -- right up through Thursday's victory against Davydenko in New Haven, Conn. -- and stands to double his prize money as winner of the U.S. Open Series.
14. The men's draw features two must-see swan songs. The Magician, Fabrice Santoro, a 20-year veteran with a record 68 Grand Slam appearances, is set to pack up his arsenal of trick shots and bid
The SI.com writers and reporters who will be covering the Open have weighed in with their picks. Make sure to
Andy Roddick warmed up for the Open with new hitting partner David Letterman. For more from Roddick,
More from the U.S. Open ...
1. Dinara Safina: If only to see her spared more criticism, how do you not pull for Safina to win her first major and -- all together now -- validate that top ranking? Alas, there are few indications she'll do so. Her play on the hard courts was patchy and she seems genuinely unhinged by the rankings controversy.
2. Serena Williams: She's done virtually nothing since Wimbledon, but so what? She's like the kid who annoys the other students by skipping all the classes, bombing the quizzes and then acing the final. She's the best, provided she wants to be (and there's a day to rest between matches).
3. Venus Williams: Always dangerous, but at some point when we weren't looking, Venus ceased becoming an A-list hard-court player. Very modest summer results and, unlike her sister, she hasn't won in New York since 2001.
4. Elena Dementieva: The hot pick coming in, based both on her fine play at the Rogers Cup and her fine match against Serena at Wimbledon. The problem isn't the serve so much as it's the confidence. Has she truly convinced herself she win finally win a major? If so ...
5. Jelena Jankovic: A finalist last year, Jankovic struggled through much of 2009. She's showed signs of life lately, but then backslid in Canada. She's too slight; she's too buff. She's too rusty; she's overplayed. At least you don't get cheated on the drama.
1. Roger Federer: After walking the desert for the first five months of 2009 and coming up only with mouthfuls of sand, Federer is suddenly the player to beat again. He looked like a world beater last week in Cincinnati (his first hard-court title of 2009) and has, of course, won the Open every year since 2004. As if he needed it, his draw is awfully soft as well. The rest of the field prays for colic.
2. Andy Murray: Lost a bit of momentum with a decisive defeat against Federer in Cincinnati. And his draw isn't easy, starting with Ernests Gulbis in the first round. Still, we'll stick with Murray as our pick. He's won two of the last three high-stakes hard-court events. His game and fitness are at "Slam-winning" levels. Above all, he can compete without the pressures he faces at Wimbledon.
3. Rafael Nadal: Odd to see Nadal seeded third -- and playing Richard Gasquet off the bat. The good news: Nadal ought to be fairly fresh for a change, having missed June and July to recover from the knee injury. The bad news: He's still not at full strength, as evidenced by his play in Montreal and Cincy. He may well complete the complete Slam. But not this year.
4. Novak Djokovic: The reports of his demise have been exaggerated. His downer year still has him squarely in the top five. Be interesting to see a) if he can (re)ingratiate himself to the NYC crowd. (Cut him some slack: You hate to see an entertainer repress his personality for fear of getting booed.) And b) how the addition of Todd Martin as consigliere figure affects his play.
5. Andy Roddick: Top American won over Tennis Nation at Wimbledon, and rebounded fairly nicely with solid, not great, results in the hard courts. Roddick unapologetically builds his year toward this event. Let's see what he's got. Look forward to the possible quarterfinal rematch with Djokovic.
How vulnerable is Venus? Can Kim Clijsters make a run? Is this Andy Murray's time? Can Andy Roddick win his second Open? SI.com's Jon Wertheim and Richard Deitsch answer the burning questions.
Serena seemed unruffled about being on the same side of the draw with her sister ("It's a pity," CBS announcer Mary Carillo said of a potential Williams-Williams meeting before the final). She spoke of her veteran status at the Open -- "Ten years," she exclaimed. "It's shocking" -- and hawked her upcoming book,
On the men's side, third-seeded Rafael Nadal was given no favors by drawing the talented Frenchman Richard Gasquet, who returned to the tour last month following a drug suspension. "He's now [dropped to] the No. 3 seed and it's not like he lost a bunch of matches," CBS and ESPN analyst John McEnroe said. "It does seem a bit harsh with the injury he had and with what he's accomplished that he would drop below Andy Murray [the No. 2 seed]."
Federer spoke about how 2009 has been his most rewarding year. He became the father of twin girls five weeks ago, won his first French Open and passed Pete Sampras for most Grand Slam titles. "We had a crisis in the financial world and I also had a crisis -- I dropped to No. 2," Federer said, smiling.
U.S. Open officials also confirmed what had been reported earlier: Some of the night sessions will feature the men playing the first match on Arthur Ashe Stadium (which usually starts at 7 p.m.) followed by the women. That sets up the potential of top-ranked female players slugging it out under the moonlight as the clock speeds past midnight on the East Coast.
Attending the U.S. Open for the first time this year? Herewith, various tips, culled from previous columns with a few new ones thrown in:
• The best value in sports: the U.S. Open qualifying rounds. And not simply because it's free. It's top-tier tennis featuring at least a few players down on their luck whose names will be familiar to casual fans.
• Check out the Tennis Hall of Fame Exhibit. It doesn't compete with a trip to Newport, R.I., but it's close.
• Take either the much-maligned No. 7 train or -- better still -- the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan, which is 15 minutes from Penn Station. At the risk of sounding like a tourist-bureau PR flack, you'll be surprised how civil and efficient the trains are. If you insist on private transportation, take a cab over a car service, which drops you off somewhere near Canarsie.
• Buy a daily program when you walk in.
• Take the grounds pass over reserved seating in Arthur Ashe Stadium, especially during the first week.