Bidding farewell to a wacky U.S. Open
Novak Djokovic moved to 64-2 on the year after winning a wild U.S. Open. (Simon Bruty/SI)
That ... was a weird two weeks. From Hurricane Irene to bubbling courts to the introduction of the "hindrance rule" into the mainstream, it was a wacky 15 days at the U.S. Open.
Here are a few of my parting thoughts, relayed via high-fives, head smacks and hugs. Because that's pretty much how my parents have always shown me their approval/disapproval.
• Aggression: If the 2011 U.S. Open taught us anything, it's that if you find yourself in the vicinity of a match point, grip it and rip it. Of course, we all know about “That Forehand” that Novak Djokovic hit when down match point to Roger Federer in the semifinals. But how about “That Other Forehand” that Sam Stosur hit on match point to clinch the title? With Serena Williams serving, Stosur ran around a soft second serve and rifled a cross-court forehand deep in the corner that left Serena flailing as she tried to get a racket on it.
Nike's advertising slogan for the U.S. Open was “Take Every Advantage.” A bit ironic that Djokovic and Stosur bounced two of its marquee players doing exactly that.
• The Big Four: Thank you, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray for making the semifinals. Those are the matchups we want to see and they delivered for the second time this year (all four made the semis at the French Open as well).
• Britain and Australia: For all the talk over the last few years about the shambolic decline of the traditional tennis powerhouses, the United States, Great Britain, and Australia had fine tournaments given their current prospects. Stosur ended a 30-year Grand Slam drought for the Aussie ladies, shedding her head-case image for two weeks to fight her way through to the final and then, in the face of chaos, play the match of her life.
The Brits whine and complain about their current crop of players (or lack thereof), but sometimes you just have to accept what you have, and those you have are progressing. If Grand Slams are all that matter and Murray will always be judged for not having one, then he should also get a pat on the back for his improved performance in them. It used to be that you could always count on Murray to crash out of at least two of the four Slams. His inconsistency from match to match made him unreliable. Not so this year. He made the semifinals of all four Slams, the seventh player to accomplish the feat.
Combine Murray's performance with Oliver Golding's U.S. Open junior boys title; a strong run by Laura Robson through qualies and into the second round of the main draw; and Heather Watson's solid performance in a tight first-round loss to Maria Sharapova and maybe, just maybe, the Brits could give their frown lines a rest for at least 48 hours. It's exhausting trying to cheer you guys up all the time.
• Les Miserables: Kudos to the guys for leading the way and causing a complete PR nightmare for the USTA with respect to scheduling issues. I maintain that the USTA's biggest mistake of the fortnight was bringing out the players on that fateful Thursday to play three games on damp courts during a 30-minute window for dry play. Had the players been kept in the locker room instead, who knows if they would have vented the way they did.
As it was, that decision triggered a series of events that led to more scheduling controversy, a Monday final (again) and some very unhappy players who finally felt free to complain openly about the commercialized nature of the U.S. Open. Here's hoping it leads to a new schedule (sans Super Saturday) next year. Without a roof, that schedule is just not feasible.
• Rafael Nadal: He is that rare athlete who shows more about his character and makeup in losing than he does in winning. This post-finals quote, about his 0-6 record against Djokovic this year, was refreshing for its honesty and simplicity:
“I always had big trouble to beat him here [on] this surface in the past. It's not an exception now, especially because he's doing better than ever. But you know what? I go back home knowing that I am on the way. You know, I like to fight, I want to enjoy this battle against him. Six straight losses, for sure that's painful. But I'm going to work every day until that changes. So I have a goal, easy goal for me now. It's going to be tough to change the situation, but the goal is easy to see. To have a goal always you know how to work every day.”
When he said it, you believed him. He is going to figure out the Djoker. No doubt about it.
• The Russians: In order to get to the final, Stosur had to beat surprise semifinalist Angelique Kerber. From whose quarter did Kerber emerge? Sharapova's. Sharapova is 9-0 against Stosur, who hasn't even won a set off her since 2005. Huge opportunity lost here, and a number from her countrywomen as well.
Svetlana Kuznetsova was up a set and 4-1 on Caroline Wozniacki before choking the rest of the match. Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko had Stosur on the ropes and couldn't close her out. Perhaps the lone bright spot was Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who made the quarterfinals against Serena, but got blown off the court. Does that count as a bright spot?
• Sore losers: For all that was inspiring about the play of young U.S. players during the first week, it's unfortunate that this tournament will be remembered more for the classless acts of American veterans. Mardy Fish referred to an umpire as a “dumb a--." Mike Bryan was fined $10,000 for making contact with an official. And, of course, Williams called an umpire “a loser” and “unattractive inside” on her way to another YouTube clip. This U.S. Open left me shaking my head time and time again.
• Serena Williams: The most frustrating thing to me about HaterGate is that it will completely overshadow Serena's amazing summer. It was a dominant summer, one that truly felt miraculous. Six months ago, Williams was in the hospital because of a blood clot in her lungs. This summer, she won two Tour titles, beating the likes of Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Stosur and Sabine Lisicki, and on Sunday she stepped onto Ashe with a bouquet of flowers, seemingly poised for her coronation. She ran into a tougher opponent that night, and while she may have been fatigued from her late semifinal the night before, she couldn't find a way to bring her best. A loss to Stosur would have been fine. We would have still celebrated her remarkable two months and looked forward to more to come.
Then she lost her cool. Watching it all unfold I found myself muttering, “Oh, no no no no no. Not again. No no no no no.” I couldn't even find a way to laugh about it at the time, though since the incident I've found myself bursting with laughter out loud. You have to admit, it's a comical diatribe on paper. But regardless of whether the incident was funny, shocking, disappointing, offensive or whatever you want to call it, the fact is it's the only thing people will remember from that match. That's unfair to Stosur and it's definitely unfair to Serena, even if it was her own doing.
While I do sympathize a bit with Serena for her “it's intense out there” explanation, her decision to sidestep any act of contrition after the match was almost worse than anything she said on the court. People lose their cool all the time during matches and unfortunate things can happen in the heat of competition. But after having more than an hour to cool down, talk to her team, decompress and then come into the media room, it's disappointing that Williams still refused to take any responsibility for her actions despite having ample opportunity to do so.
Williams did tweet a statement Wednesday morning, saying her emotions got the better of her. While it's no apology (and I'm not sure she owes anyone an apology other than the umpire and maybe Stosur), it is an admission that she lost her cool and went overboard on Sunday. Knowing Serena, that's probably all we can expect.
• Brian Earley: Here's the thing: Viewers should never know a tournament referee's name, let alone what he looks like. He must have spent more time on court than Serena did. Poor guy. That was a rough two weeks.
• Caroline Wozniacki: Look, none of this is your fault, Caroline. You have the game that you have and until you decide to make some significant changes, then it's the game you'll always have. But please tell me when the last time a player who routinely hits fewer than 10 winners per match has ever won a Slam? And if that shellacking at the hands of Serena wasn't a wake-up call, I don't know what to tell you. That match confirmed everything everyone's been thinking since you ascended to the No. 1 spot. So, yeah, I feel bad and I don't know what to say. So I'll give you a hug instead. I'm sorry if this is awkward. • Everyone who got drawn too early against Serena Williams: Tough luck, Victoria Azarenka. Try again, Ana Ivanovic. Maybe next year, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.