Fifty parting thoughts from the 2015 U.S. Open
NEW YORK – There will be no calendar Grand Slam in lunar year 5775. But there will be 50 thoughts wrapping up an unexpectedissimo 2015 U.S. Open.
• Your 2015 U.S. Open men's singles champion is Novak Djokovic. Playing in a creepily hostile environment, he overcame Roger Federer and the crowd, winning a demi-classic 6–4, 5–7, 6–4, 6–4. Not unlike the Wimbledon final, the match came down to a few points in each set. A peerless defender with nothing resembling an exploitable weakness, Djokovic is a maddening opponent. Federer feels like he needs to go for such precise shots, he gives himself so little margin. And this makes all the difference.
• On Monday, anyway, Federer will be disappointed by this result. He came to win his first major title since 2012, not play six immaculate matches and then lose to Djokovic. But with some detachment, he must be pleased with his level of play. And while the pragmatic importance of SABR was overstated, the symbolic value cannot be exaggerated: "I'm not just still here, boys. I'm in the basement, tinkering and still trying to innovate."
• Congratulations and goodbye Flavia Pennetta, your 2015 U.S Open champion. Retiring as you receive a Grand Slam trophy is the ultimate mic-drop.
• Roberta Vinci not only pulled off the upset of the decade (ever?) in beating Serena Williams in the semifinals and endeared herself to the masses, but also a day later she collected herself and played an admirable and unflustered final. So much that, while Vinci is likely pleased with her tournament overall, she— and here’s something we never thought we’d write—is likely disappointed that she didn’t win the title. Against a beatable opponent whose game she knew well, she was right in this and had a chance to steal the title.
• Firmly entrenched as the best doubles team in the business, Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza backed up their Wimbledon title by winning the U.S. Open, defeating Casey Dellacqua and Yaroslava Shvedova in the finals. The men's doubles draw made the women's singles draw look like an exercise in predictability. In the end karma won. Specifically, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert took the title, beating Jamie Murray and John Peers 6-4, 6-4.
• Not unlike Vinci's game, there are so many angles to the defeat of Serena Williams, one of the great upsets in sports. We learned how exposed a tennis player can be, even the best tennis player ever. We learned about the burden of expectation. We learned that Drake should stay at home next time. (Joking...sort of). But we also learned that sports clichés, annoying as they can be, bear some truth. Anything CAN happen. The underdog sometimes does have nothing to lose. The player (and fan and network) who looks ahead and declines to take it one match at a time, does so at its peril. You just hope that Serena is galvanized by this; that such a disappointment doesn’t send her on a tailspin.
• The Williams-Williams match was both a triumph and a fraught occasion. This storyline should not go overlooked: At age 35, Venus Williams is playing top-shelf tennis again. If somehow she had beaten Serena—overcoming the world No.1, pushing sororal feelings aside—she could easily have won the title.
• What a bittersweet event for Simona Halep. The second seed won the match of the tournament, beating Victoria Azarenka in a spellbinding quarterfinal. Then, against a lesser opponent (Pennetta), Halep came out flatter than the court itself. Whether it was the occasion, or the nagging thigh injury or simply just an off day for the Romanian, it was an awfully dodgy performance. Halep had certified herself as a top player. But after her vacant performance, she must be asking herself some uncomfortable questions.
• Same song different verse. Defending champion Marin Cilic reached the semis. Then he simply failed to put up a fight against Djokovic, falling 6–0, 6–1, 6–2. Stan Wawrinka, too, reached the semis and then wilted. Despite having beaten Roger Federer in their previous Grand Slam match, Stan (on a much faster court) reverted to Swiss beta mode and barely offered resistance.
• Leander Paes and Martina Hingis—combined age 76—won the mixed doubles title, beating Sam Querrey and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the final and adding to their Wimbledon title.
• In the boys' final, top-seeded Taylor Fritz beat fellow-American Tommy Paul, a rematch of the French Open final won by Paul. On the girls' side Dalma Galfi of Hungary beat American Sofia Kenin. Much was made, fittingly, about the prominence of American juniors in the latter rounds of the boys' draw. I think the play here is guarded optimism: The correlation between junior success and pro success is shaky. But there are a good half dozen top players from the U.S. and, critically, no two play alike. Similar to a diversified investment portfolio—you just need a few positions to do well and you're happy.
• The last few days of the tournament might have been a mess in terms of scheduling. But it sure validated the decision to build—and fund—the roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium.
• Bravo to Donald Young for winning a pair of five-setters and reaching the Round of 16. He should be proud of the way he competed and also the way he handled himself off the court, speaking openly about the sine wave that is his career. One hopes he can keep this going during the fall and winter, when he won't be playing in front of galvanizing American crowds.
• Bravo, as well, to Kevin Anderson, who won the match of his career against Andy Murray on Labor Day. You hope some of the mental demons that have hindered his progress are now roadkill. That match, though, depleted Anderson physically, but also emotionally, and the gas gauge was empty when he faced Wawrinka in the quarters.
• If you have to close the paved paradise that is the Grandstand—the court with the most soul—at least the joint went out in style. The last two main draw singles matches? Young, recovering from a 0–2 deficit and beating Viktor Troicki in five rollicking sets. And Sabine Lisicki, trailing 1–5 in the third set and then zoning to beat Barbora Strycova, while their respective coaches nearly came to blows.
• Another Slam, another early exit for Rafael Nadal. Not only did he fail to win at least one major for the first year since 2004, but also he didn’t even make it beyond the quarterfinals of any. At the U.S. Open, of course, he lost to Fabio Fognini in five sets. The notion that he needs a new coach is as simplistic as it is unlikely to happen. You know what he could use: a sports psychologist to change his risk-reward ratio. Too often Nadal is playing with caution, positioning himself deep in the court, playing passively—especially on the forehand side, especially deep in matches.
• So the week before the tournament, I attended a Rafael Nadal/Tommy Hilfiger event a few blocks from my office in Bryant Park. The conceit was a strip tennis match. The makeshift court in the Hilfiger logo was ringed with models and slick publicists and fashion world types. Jane Lynch was, inexplicably, a mock chair umpire. Nadal was admirably game, but the whole thing—not to mention the highly risqué underwear commercials that followed—was so…off. It was just so wildly at variance with Nadal’s personality and sensibilities. You get the feeling that if Nadal’s friends back in Mallorca had seen this, they’d sit around the fishing boat, drink beer and give him endless rations of grief. He’d sheepishly take it, knowing it was richly deserved. But you won't believe what they paid me, no?
The whole affair was weirdly depressing and it took a while but I finally figured out why. It wasn’t the Wisconsin-level cheese factor, or seeing Nadal—one of the all-time greats—reduced, almost Kournikova-style, to a sex symbol, replete with the Cheshire cat look at the end of the commercial. It wasn’t knowing that Nadal—a simple guy with humility, who’d rather eat a burger at a sports bar than go to a hip new restaurant—was out of place, surrounded by all these climbers. It was the message of resignation as it pertained to his career: The air is leaving this balloon and I need to capitalize on these opportunities while I can.
It's been a privilege and pleasure to cover his career. But between the retrospectives he has been offering on career—translation: “If I don't win another match, it’s been a good run.”—and some of these commercial decisions that are out of his character, one wonders about his mindset. We all always suspected that his body would doom his career and prevent him from playing into his 30s. This year has been much more about his lack of confidence and conviction. It is as though he doesn’t believe the ride is lasting much longer. Here’s hoping he is wrong.
• The USTA takes its share of abuse from fans, the media and, not least, the players. Some of it is warranted. Some of it is not. Some of its is a function of the persistent tension between enjoying non-profit status while overseeing this deliriously profitable event. But the USTA gets plenty right, too. Some examples:
a) The construction plan continues apace. May we all have a contractor this committed to meeting deadlines.
b) The move away from Super Saturday and Monday finals benefits everyone.
c) Naming the press room after Bud Collins was a nice touch.
d) The pipeline of American players is not only fluid, but this appears to be a good group of kids without a lot of ancillary drama.
• Lleyton Hewitt and Mardy Fish weren’t the only players to compete in their final U.S. Open. Jarkko Nieminen, a quarterfinalist a decade ago, is Finnished. (Sorry.) Robbie Ginepri, a semifinalist a decade ago, announced his retirement on the morning of the draw ceremony. And Lisa Raymond, 42, finally decided to call it a career as well. Raymond is a two-time U.S. Open doubles champion and was once a top 20 singles player as well. On a personal note, she is one of those people who, to an immeasurable degree, enriches the tennis caravan. She’ll be missed. But expect to see her in the coaching manifest.
• Make any mention of “oddsmakers” to players and they are trained to recoil and dismiss the question, this Pavlovian reaction to whispers of gambling and match-fixing. The betting line on matches and tournaments, though, is often highly instructive. This isn’t some degenerate in a basement or some pit boss laying odds. It’s an aggregation of where people are putting their money, thus a reflection of human behavior. When Victoria Azarenka was, despite her 20th seeding, the player given the best odds of facing Serena in the final, the vox populi spoke.
• After getting assaulted in daylight by New York police—a bizarre case of mistaken identity—James Blake struck a perfect balance between measured and, rightfully, irate. There are a lot of angles here, of course, but I was really struck by this letter sent to Mary Carillo by her friend Gemma Alexander-Mozeak who saw this as part of a larger issue.
• This will not go down as one of Andy Murray’s better majors. In fact, he lost before the quarters for the first time since 2010, getting the short end of that demi-classic against Kevin Anderson. Murray played Nick Kyrgios (and all that came with it), then needed five sets to beat Adrian Mannarino. He suffered from a cold. His coach, Amelie Mauresmo, was home with a newborn. At least he doesn't have the pressure of a home Davis Cup tie to worry about. Oh, wait….
• The good news for Victoria Azarenka: She’s playing in this transition year and fell to No. 2 Halep in a terrific women’s match. The bad news: she still hasn’t quite gotten over the proverbial hump and it's been two years since this former No. 1 player appeared in the final four of a Slam.
• The young guns are aging. And their rankings are trending in the wrong direction. For different reasons, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov were non-factors at this event.
• To an unprecedented degree, there was pre-tournament chatter about injured players. Take Lucie Safarova for example, who pulled out of doubles—this despite winning multiple majors this year—and was conspicuously grimacing in practice, suffering from an abdominal injury. She lost her first singles match and was in Corfu by the middle of the first week. Likewise, Serena Williams’s first opponent, Vitalia Diatchenko, was in no condition to play either and retired at 0–6, 0–2. We now know why:
• Jim Courier has a sensible idea for solving the vexing issue of unfit players competing anyway so they can pocket the first round losers’ money ($39,500 in this case): give all eligible players their first-round money. They are entitled to it by virtue of their ranking. If they can’t post, they still get paid. The lucky loser takes their spot. If the lucky loser wins s/he gets second-round prize money. This doesn’t cost the tournament a dime in incremental costs. The fans get legit matches.
• Before losing to Venus Williams, Belinda Bencic lost her mind in her second-round match. She was admirably apologetic afterwards. And her gripe underscores a larger issue: why is there no Hawkeye on all courts? An event that can afford to build a roof on a 23,000-seat stadium should be able to afford an innovation that gives all players the same advantages. I can’t think of another example of this inequality in sports, competitors at the same event without equal access to the same technology. Imagine if the Golden State Warriors could use replay technology but the Milwaukee Bucks could not.
• The most bizarre story of the tournament had to be the drone that crashed into the stands during the Flavia Pennetta–Monica Niculescu match. The security at the U.S. Open is a massive undertaking—replete with teams of snipers on the roofs—and comes at a huge cost. Strange that this was allowed to happen. Oh, for the quaint days when Air Traffic Control/tennis overlap entailed diverting patterns from LaGuardia so the jet noise didn't affect the players.
• Like many of you, I was mystified by the USTA decision to deny a wild card to Vicky Duval. A 19-year-old, who beat a former U.S. Open champ at this event two years ago, Duval nearly qualified based on her ranking. And, oh right, she’s coming off a bout with cancer. Think maybe that’s the kind of player you might want to support? This was hardly the only whiff. Sachia Vickery received a wild card. Shelby Rogers did not and had to qualify. When they met in the first round, Rogers won 6–2, 6–2.
• The Every-Match-Tells-a-Story-Don’t-It? segment of today’s show goes to the second rounder between Lesia Tsurenko and Varvara Lepchenko. In an inter-enko battle, Tsurenko led 5–2, serving for the first set. Tsurenko tightened, threw in three double faults to get broken. Visibly unhinged, she won just three games the rest of the afternoon, falling 7–6, 6–2.
• The most bizarre story of the tournament, non-drone division: Genie Bouchard beats Dominika Cibulkova, her signature win of 2015 and proof positive that her long, national nightmare is over. She then wins her mixed doubles with Nick Kyrgios. (Oh, and she is kinda-sorta being coached by….Jimmy Connors.) Because this story needs another level of irony: her next opponent, Robert Vinci, had beaten her in the previous tournament. Bouchard does press. Then she requests an ice bath. One problem: It’s close to 11 p.m. and everyone has left. The floor has been washed and is, apparently, slippery. Bouchard goes to the back of the room in the dark and falls backwards, hitting her elbow first and then her head. She suffers a concussion and is unable to play her fourth-round match, forced to withdraw from the tournament and giving a walkover to Vinci.
• Still more irony: at least in New York, the U.S. Open coverage on ESPN was peppered with commercials for Better-call-Saul personal injury lawyers. One suspects that a negligence suit is a-coming.
• Granted we all make decisions and have to live with the consequences, but spare a thought for Sam Sumyk. He is the coach of Azarenka, making a nice living coaching a No. 1 player, earning Grand Slam bonuses and living the life. He plays the long game and decamps to work with Genie Bouchard, a younger player with Tennis Canada funding behind her. To truck in understatement, that relationship doesn’t work. And suddenly Sumyk is on site in search of opportunities, a jockey looking for a new ride.
• A few of you asked about the mid-match, on-court interview with players. I heard that it wasn’t popular in the locker room; but so long as the players have a right of refusal, I don’t see how it's a problem. And I applaud ESPN for the innovation. It was funny that Coco Vandeweghe was Patient zero in round one, chatting with Pam Shriver after winning the first set against Sloane Stephens. By round two, suffice to say that Coco was in a less sociable mood in between sets.
• Nice job by the qualifiers in this event. Shelby Rogers, Anett Kontaveit and Johanna Konta all made it to the middle weekend. In the case of Konta, she had a terrific run coming in on the ITF circuit. Added together, she won 16 straight matches. (And more than $250,000.)
• The Bryan Brothers, Bob and Mike, are still the world’s best team. But in their 37th year, they failed to win a major. Here, they were first-round losers, falling to Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey.
• Two quick thoughts on Mardy Fish who—playing in his final U.S. Open—served for the match against 18th seed Feliciano Lopez before capitulating. 1) In the past month, Fish beat Victor Troicki and very nearly beat Lopez. Perhaps he should reconsider his retirement? 2) Fish always had a sort of Fifth Beatle status, obscured as he was by Andy Roddick, James Blake and the Bryans. Lot of talent, some nice results, but not an easy-to-categorize personality. (a la, the Grand Slam champ! The Harvard guy! The twins!) If this is, finally, Mardy’s legacy, he’s done okay for himself.
• Spare a Thought, Part II. This one is for Donna Vekic. She was collateral damage in L’Affaire Kyrgios. Lost in the discussion: the puzzling state of her game. Not long ago, she was among the brightest young prospects in the WTA cosmos. A few weeks after turning 17, she was encroaching on the top 50. That was two years ago; she is currently ranked No. 129 and lost in the qualifying rounds here. The good news is that—and perhaps you heard this—she’s only 19.
• Hat-tip—the new version of “props”—to the cheeky monkey that is the P.A. dee-jay. Next year, pay attention to the choice of music that blares during breaks in play. Our favorite: playing “More Than a Feeling,” while Andrea Petkovic got an on-court massage.
• In a bit of underreported news, the Memphis and Atlanta tournaments were sold to a group backed by New York financier. We’re told that the events are likely to go on as planned in 2016 before possibly relocating. And that the contract contains a clause forbidding the event from being moved outside the U.S. for a specified period of time.
• One of our favorite lost-in-the-folds-of-the-draw stories: Matt Seeberger tried to play professionally but quit almost a decade ago to enter a career in finance. He left tennis but the pull was irresistible. He returned to tennis as a coach, working with CiCi Bellis, among others. At age 30, he wanted to give pro tennis one last shot. (Cue the music.) He entered an ITF Futures event at the end of June 2014 in Canada. He had one point and almost no ranking at all. Seeberger won the event. (He also met a woman there. He married the woman and settled in Vancouver.) And in one year, his doubles ranking surged from 1,500 in the world to inside the top 160. Seeberger won the doubles wild card at the U.S. Open National Playoffs event and earned his spot in the main draw of the men’s doubles event at the U.S. Open. Playing with a racket called a Bubba, which is massive, Seeberger (partnered with Julio Peralta) fell in the first round to Santiago Giraldo and Rameez Junaid.
• Is there a more absurd sponsorship in sports than the U.S. Open Series bonus? It has zero relevance to players, none of whom are changing their schedule to pursue this bonus. The concept is thoroughly lost on fans and media—even when given the 1970s style conversion chart. This year, Andy Murray “won” the title. How? By, respectively, winning and reaching the semis of two ATP events he is required to play. (His only other summer event was Washington, D.C. which is, pointedly, not part of the U.S. Open Series.) And the women’s “winner” Karolina Pliskova? She entered four eligible events but won none of them and was bounced in the first round of one. And at the U.S. Open she lost (unaccountably) in the first round, earning a whopping bonus of $15,000.
• A lot of grumbling about Steffi Graf’s declining to make an appearance at the U.S Open this year. Yes, it's a shame that she is fiercely opposed to these appearances and has been so determinedly out of public eye. But in a way, you have to credit her for having convictions and principles—and sticking to them.
• Robin Roberts is a bona fide A-list media personality and, justifiably, incredibly well-liked and well-regarded. Getting her to host the women's trophy presentation would have been a great idea...if Serena had won. But having a non-tennis type to interview two relatively little-known Italians made for some awkward television. And that was before Pennetta sprung the retirement announcement. Chris Evert or whomever would have asked, "Wait, you're retiring now, Bartoli-style? Or you're waiting until after Singapore?...A year ago at this time, it was Li Na; now you?" No one is to blame, but it was unfortunate that an outsider was put in that position.
• Sloane Stephens loses her first match to Coco Vandeweghe, and is visibly disappointed. Here’s the first exchange from her press conference:
Q. Curious about the business side of things. Last year enjoyed seeing your photo walking the boardwalk with American Express. Are you still with American Express for endorsements?
A: No. They decided to go in a different direction.
• We will be charitable and spare the name of the player. But a few minutes before she played the night match on Arthur Ashe stadium, a player ran into the referee’s office with an urgent question. “Do you know who controls the head shots they show on the big screen?”
“I have photo of myself that I want them to use. And it’s not the one on the tournament website.”
Suffice to say that player did not win.
• Spare still another thought, this one for Juan Martin del Potro.
• I’m too close to speak about the TV coverage with objectivity, but, from where I watch, ESPN did an admirable and thorough job. One of the frustrations of TV—and one reason egos can be as fragile as they are sizable—is the absence of a scoreboard. Some of you deplore the perceived blandness of broadcaster X; others see it as restraint. Your goofball is my comedian. A lot of critiques I get cancel each other out. (“You’re a journalist; stop making jokes.” Or, “You're too serious. It’s TV! Have more fun.”) Anyway, I was pleased to see Jason Goodall added to the team. I don’t care what anyone says: Pam Shriver’s sheer hustle demands respect. And, maybe above all, playing both finals on the weekend, is, unquestionably, the way to go.
• The USTA, not unreasonably, wants to appease its $75 million partner/sponsor ESPN. But this goes a wee bit far, no? Coaches must sign a form in order to be granted credentials (see photo below). What would happen if, say, Stefan Edberg, said, “You know, I’m here to coach during the match, not be interviewed. I ain’t signing that.”
• On the Tennis Channel front, we were all exceptionally proud of the three-hour pregame show. Thanks for your various notes. I couldn't reply to them all, but know they were all read. Thanks for kind words on the features; please know you were admiring the handiwork of Loy Maxon, Shelby Campbell, Tiffany McLoughlin, Angela Evans, Brian Nelson, Nick Eisenberg, Justin Stokes and Troy Barruso.
HAVE A GOOD WEEK, EVERYONE!