NEW YORK – Five thoughts from Day 9 at the 2016 U.S. Open.
• We all love Gael Monfils. But, at the wizened age of 30, he is marrying style with substance, sizzle with entrecote. Tennis’ lovable showman reached his first U.S. Open semifinal on Tuesday with a straightforward win over countryman Lucas Pouille, who was clearly still depleted from his win Sunday over Rafael Nadal. “Straightforward” is seldom used in conjunction with this guy, tennis’ Meadowlark Lemon for so long. But this summer Monfils has been businesslike—while keeping his artistic license—and the results have been a joy to behold.
• Here’s a mark of a top player: you not only win playing less than your best, but you KNOW you can win playing less than your best. For the first 45 minutes of her quarterfinal against Roberta Vinci (still known in these parts as the Grand Slam thwarter) Kerber was as flat as the court. Looking disappointed but hardly flustered, Kerber soldiered through her rough patch, broke Vinci at 4-5 and then rolled to a 7-5, 6-0 win. At a minimum, in 2016 Kerber won a major (staring down Serena in the Aussie Open final), reached the final of another (Wimbledon), took silver at the Olympics, won five matches at the U.S. Open and more than 50 this year to date. Should she overtake Serena Williams and claim the top ranking, there should be no talk that she is somehow a counterfeit No. 1.
• The Tennis Republic seldom overlooks much having to do with Serena Williams. Usually, we hang on her every word and movement and outfit, the way Jeff Van Gundy hung on Alonzo Mourning. But she hasn’t gotten enough credit for her play here. Ten days ago, there were murmurs that her bum shoulder was inhibiting her serve. That her spirits were down after Rio. That she was returning to the scene of the bitterest loss of her career. That, at nearly 35, she was due for a software upgrade. In four matches, she has been untouchable. Literally. Her serve has not been broken all tournament. She hasn’t dropped more than six games in a match; and her four matches have barely spanned more than four hours. She plays Simona Halep on Wednesday in the quarterfinals, a significant step-up in competition.
• For a guy who is the tournament’s defending champ, the top seed and the gravitational center of the men’s game for the last few years, Novak Djokovic has been remarkably quiet here. He came in with little momentum, fresh off losses at Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics. After a dicey first round win, he advanced to the fourth without winning a proper set, on account of injured opponents. In the fourth round, he beat lightly regarded Kyle Edmund in a late holiday weekend night match. Plus, Djokovic has been staying in New Jersey so he hasn’t been prominent at the venue or the Manhattan scene. On Tuesday night, he plays against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—a rematch of the 2008 Aussie Open final—and, for the first time all tournament, will afford a real opportunity to examine the this state of his game.
• We had a little history here. If this were a jazz performance we’d say it ended with a nuanced grace note, not an improvisational fugue. But when Kei Nishikori beat Ivo Karlovic it marked the final singles match played on Louis Armstrong. The Satch (that nickname never caught on) was the venue for some of the most memorable moments in tournament history. Jimmy Connors’ 1991 run. Seles defeating Capriati. All but one of Peter Sampras’ titles. But the place had neither intimate charm of the Grandstand nor the lush amenities of Ashe. In fact, it was a bit of a dump. If the USTA does half as well with the “New Armstrong” as it did with the “New Grandstand,” we’ll be just fine.