NEW YORK – Three thoughts from the final day of quarterfinals matches on Wednesday at the U.S. Open.
• You’d be challenged to find another sporting event that bridges seasons quite the way the U.S. Open does. It starts in the summer, in the hot days of August, with sessions filled with frivolity. It ends in autumn, with crispness in the air and early sunsets. Like a vacation town after Labor Day, the players’ lounge and locker rooms have cleared out; only the residents—the stalwarts—remain. The kids are back at school and the tone is serious. We have four days left at the 2016 U.S. Open and, after Wednesday, only four players remaining in both the men’s and women’s draws.
• Karolina Pliskova picked up where she left off after winning in Cincinnati. On Wednesday she spent less than an hour on court, beating 18-year-old Ana Konjuh 6-2, 6-2. We were waiting for Pliskova’s Grand Slam breakthrough. Now we have it. But keep Konjuh on your metaphorical radar. She’s much better than her ranking—No. 92 before this event—suggests. And now she’s finally healthy.
• Two years ago, Kei Nishikori notched what was the perhaps the win of his career, beating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals here. On Wednesday, he may well have recorded his second biggest win. Overcoming some fifth set nerves, Nishikori broke Andy Murray in the penultimate game and served out a 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 upset, prolonging his stay in New York. This match will be recalled by a distracting mid-point gong you will be able to GIF soon; but remembering, it, too for Nishikori's stellar performance against the world's second-ranked player. For Murray, it was a sensational summer, but one that will end in disappointment. And somewhere, Novak Djokovic smiles.
The Mailbag has suffered from neglect this week, so let’s take to the questions:
After the retirements and the walkover, I assume Djokovic has a new training regimen making voodoo dolls. Can you investigate?
—Charlie, Washington, D.C.
• Neither the ATP nor ITF rules books make no mention of voodoo. So Djokovic’s practices—he is, after all, staying in New Jersey—are likely to survive a rules challenge. In all seriousness, this is unprecedented. He has won only eight sets in getting to this point in the tournament; even playing best-of-three matches, each of the female semifinalists has won ten sets. Djokovic has been good for so long; it’s only fitting that he gets a little lucky, too.
I watched the Bryans throughout the last two years and there is no doubt that they have slowed considerably. I hope I'm wrong, but I think they will not win another Slam. Do you still believe that they can still win another major?
Do you think it's time to replace them in Davis Cup? Right now there isn't a better U.S. team, so it's not an easy answer. Strangely, all of their Davis Cup losses have been at home. They are only 2-3 in their last five home matches. Maybe they should play only the away matches?
—Andy, Hummelstown, Pa.
• The Bryans haven’t won a major since the 2014 U.S. Open and they were thwarted here, losing to the “No Relation” team of Marc and Feliciano Lopez. True, at 38, the Bryans are getting on in years. But if “30 is the new 20” in singles, “40 is the new 30 in doubles.” Some of this is regression to the mean. The Bryans were so good for so long, inevitably there would be a slip. They have a new coach, Dusan Vemic, and I wouldn’t write them off quite yet.*
*Does anyone write anyone off? I hate that cliché. It doesn’t hold literally and, at least in tennis, it doesn’t hold figuratively. Has anyone really said, “Nope, no way Venus or Federer or Nadal will ever win again. Off the board.”
OK. Now it's time to ask. What is the record for fewest sets actually played en route to a major title?
—Mike Oelrich, Dunn Loring, Va.
• We’re still figuring but, among men, Djokovic has definitely played the fewest sets to get to the semis.
I’m glad I didn’t pay for Ashe tickets last night. An evening’s entertainment for thousands depends on the well-being of four players—I’m surprised real competition happens as often as it does. It strikes me that the injury problem is structural (pun intended)—not only the equipment and schedule but also the incentive for playing, even when not 100%. I know you’ve argued that the frequency of injury bears some more analysis, but I don’t see how it changes with self-employed players trying to maximize their income.
—Barbara Katzenberg, Lexington, Mass.
• My take: I don’t know what is causing these injuries. Five sets? Hard courts? The calendar? Over-practicing? Non-standardized balls? Unchecked string technology? Here’s what I do know: too many people are unconcerned. And in the absence of a union, nothing is getting done about it. And in the absence of a union, there is no push.
Do tennis journalists like @jon_wertheim who grew up watching 80s tennis truly believe that Murray-Djokovic metronome matchups are exciting?
• Aesthetically, is this my favorite rivalry? No. But there’s always something gripping about watching the top two athletes, one versus two, squaring off. Especially given the context this year—Murray ruling the summer; Djokovic trying to defend his title and win his Slam for the second straight year; top ranking potential at stake—I’ll relish this match if it’s the final.
Did you actually reference @eddievanhalen jamming scales on U.S. Open live? I like it!
• Watching Monfils play measured tennis is like hearing Eddie Van Halen play scales.
• Who wants to coach a Hall of Famer? Petra Kvitova needs one, having parted ways with Fran Cermak.
• Brian Hainline, M.D., alumnus of the University of Notre Dame Class of 1978 and the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, will receive the highest honor bestowed by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association when he is presented with the 2016 ITA David A Benjamin Achievement Award on Saturday, September 10, 2016, at the International Tennis Hall of Fame's Board of Governors Meeting at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York. The ceremony will be hosted by the ITHF and presented by Rolex Watch, U.S.A.
• Kris of Connecticut has today’s reader rant: Hi Jon, Why don't we just hand Novak the trophy now? This has gone from comical to farcical. I know he can only play the players put in front of him (or not, in his case), and this is the last slam of the year so players are more beat up (especially when you throw the Olympics in there), but something's got to be done. If I was a ticket holder I'd be asking for a refund at this point.
One of my pet peeves is when a player is injured, plays on and wins, then withdraws from the following match, sometimes without even picking up a racket. Why don't they just stop and let the guy on the other side of the net move on, especially when it's an obvious significant injury that won't heal with a day's rest? At least the other guy has a chance. That being said, had Novak done that in his first match, he wouldn't be in the semi's today due to the withdrawal gods. (BTW: if I was a conspiracy theorist, I'd say there's something going on here...) I realize it's a fine line between a "real" injury (for lack of a better word) and a "tweak" than can be worked out with a day's rest, and the player often doesn't know until a day or so later, but nonetheless, it's disappointing as a fan to see withdrawal after withdrawal or players playing at subpar. I don't know what the answer is, but this has been one of the most frustrating slams in a while.
Thanks for letting me rant.