Skip to main content

Nadal's 'impossible' achievement and other U.S. Open musings


Some of the greatest players never adjusted, if they even bothered to try. Pete Sampras knew he was doomed before the French Open even started. Bjorn Borg couldn't get his mind around the madness of New York City. Ivan Lendl tried to embrace grass courts, but he wasn't fooling anyone. John McEnroe skipped the French Open six times, and Jimmy Connors barely acknowledged its existence until he was 26 years old.

Rafael Nadal gathered such a formidable tempest for his assault on the U.S. Open, his historic title is being described as inevitable, predictable, the natural order of things. That's so wrong. A lot of extremely sharp insiders gave him no chance to win the event, believing that the Arthur Ashe Stadium hardcourt was too fast and demanding to suit his game, that his knees may not hold up over the two-week grind, or that the tour's big belters would readily absorb his power and fire back with even greater force.

Part of Nadal's triumph was the residue of his desire, perhaps matched only by Connors' in the game's modern history. (How about a mythical duel between those two, each in his prime, on the New York stage?) But Nadal crafted some major adjustments to acquit himself so magnificently in New York. He made huge improvements in his serve, tinkered with his groundstrokes, basically forgot everything that ever helped him on clay. Just as he became a champion at Wimbledon -- a downright laughable notion at the beginning of his career -- Nadal willed his way to a U.S. Open title, through belief and a fierce work ethic on the practice courts.

To see him collapse in ecstasy at the finish, then sink to his knees moments later in appreciation of the crowd's long ovation, was one of the sport's most moving spectacles of recent years. He's such a kind, decent man off the court, and so genuinely humble in assessing his place in the pantheon. In some ways he's still the shy, almost childlike figure we saw when he first joined the tour. I can't imagine anyone in tennis feeling resentment or disdain over his epic victory. And few can even comprehend his becoming the first player since Rod Laver (1969) to win the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in succession. "Impossible" would be how most players describe it.

We'll set aside his place in history for another discussion, but this I submit: Nadal has a way of snapping a radically cross-court forehand -- in a sprint, at full extension -- in a manner seldom (if ever) seen. And in the long history of two-handed backhands, no player ever generated as much cross-court velocity as Nadal when he's on the run and not fully balanced. He seems to save these shots for the most crucial moments (lest his wrists go limp from fatigue), and they invariably point directly to the final outcome.

Wrapping up the Open on other fronts:

Novak Djokovic: Just a tremendous performance. When he's on, as he was so often during the tournament, he's really the best of the Big Blast generation, superior to Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling and even Juan Martin del Potro when it comes to combining sheer power with all-court movement and agility at the net. A physical specimen of the highest order. And for anyone still questioning his heart, imagine yourself lining up a second serve against Roger Federer with a match point against you. Djokovic prevailed on both of the match points he faced in that semifinal, and that's courage for the ages.

Federer: As players approach the age of 30, we can excuse a downgrade in quickness, a sudden desire to end points quickly, or service games tormented by nerves. We saw none of that in Federer. He lost to Djokovic because he missed standard forehands, with his footwork in place, time after time.

A point away from taking a 4-3 lead in the fifth set, Federer botched an inside-out forehand with Djokovic (after an astounding get) almost completely off the court. He managed to hold, but he cracked three badly misfired forehands when Djokovic broke for 6-5, and he committed four more forehand errors in the final game, including the clincher.

That's just bizarre. So is the fact that after blowing match points in high-profile hardcourt losses to Berdych (Miami) and Marcos Baghdatis (Indian Wells) this year, Federer came up short once again. And I wonder, with no disrespect toward Djokovic: With the sport so badly in need of a Federer-Nadal showdown at the Open, and fans so excited over the prospect, when has there been such a spirit-deflating loss at a major?

"One point," said Federer. "One point away from me being there. I'll never know how it would have gone."

CBS: When Monday's final was interrupted by rain (4-4 in the second set), CBS simply checked out. Couldn't be bothered. Kept the production and broadcast crew in place, but left the air at 6:30 Eastern time and left the finish -- about an hour and a half later, as it turned out -- to ESPN2.

Seasoned television analysts rationalized the move. From the standpoint of local news and syndicated programming, CBS couldn't ask its countless local affiliates to stick with the tennis. After all, How I Met Your Mother was due to come on. It wasn't such a big problem for cable-wise viewers, but not every home, hotel or drinking establishment gets ESPN2 -- not by a long shot. For those in that unfortunate predicament, hey, tough luck. Your tennis just went black for the night.

I'm picturing, too, a good number of fans who work night shifts. Setting their DVR systems for not only the allotted CBS time slot, but for two or three hours afterward (in case of a rain delay), they figured they had it made. Get home around midnight, cue up the tape, best of all worlds. Imagine their rage when they learned it was shuffled off to some other network.

Kim Clijsters: Let's dispense with the pleasantries and say she simply owns the U.S. Open. She took three years off (2006-08) to start a family, but it's a monumental achievement to win this tournament three consecutive times. Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Tracy Austin, Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and the Williams sisters couldn't pull that off. Only Chris Evert (1976-78) managed to do so in the modern era.

Clijsters' finest moment: Looking to cash in a break point at 4-all in the third set, Clijsters measured two crucial elements -- a stiff wind in her face and Venus Williams' presence at net -- and flicked a perfect topspin backhand lob on the run from about three feet behind the baseline. A wonderful shot at the perfect time.

Venus: It was unusual to watch her freeze, for just a split-second, on that Clijsters lob, and to see such a demonstrative gesture (angrily throwing an arm to the sky) during the second-set tiebreaker. But this wasn't some signature glimpse of a great player's decline. Venus hasn't been able to put together two solid weeks for a long time now. It's absolutely commonplace to watch her groundstroke consistency go astray. She also lost to Clijsters at last year's Open, so the Belgian mainstay (and part-time New Jersey resident) was well removed from any kind of intimidation factor.

Nobody was more disappointed in Venus' performance than her father, Richard, who sternly downplayed the conditions. "The wind had nothing to do with it," he told Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News. "She didn't play with the heart of a champion. She's got to put those points away. After today, I have to wonder."

Vera Zvonareva: As her semifinal match unfolded, I was trying to imagine her friends or family members watching on television. At a point where she led Caroline Wozniacki by a set and 2-1, her countenance suddenly went dark as she faced a break point. Right then, McEnroe boldly told his audience to look for "a possible meltdown in the near future."

Zvonareva lost that point, and as CBS came back from a commercial break, we saw extensive footage of Zvonareva's titanic emotional collapse during last year's fourth-round loss to Flavia Pennetta. I was thinking, good lord, give the woman a break -- but most everyone in tennis was thinking right along with McEnroe. Credit Zvonareva for steeling her nerves, outclassing the tour's hottest player and reaching her second straight Grand Slam final. But she was inexcusably sullen and temperamental against Clijsters, reviving a reputation that has haunted her for years. It's one thing to use rage as a weapon, McEnroe being a splendid example. But you can't be out there beating yourself up in such pitiful fashion, because with Zvonareva, it's always a sign of doom. Such displays are quite unbecoming and simply inexcusable at the tour's highest level.

Gael Monfils: McEnroe wasn't kidding, earlier in the tournament, when he said Monfils was becoming an "afterthought" on tour. It took a baffling two-shot highlight film to turn him into a complete clown.

Playing Djokovic with a spot in the semifinals on the line, Monfils was in reasonably good position to crush a baseline forehand when he inexplicably leaped in the air and tried to hit the ball between his legs. The shot sank horribly into the lower part of the net as people tried to grasp what they'd witnessed. A bit later, on the retreat from net to baseline, Monfils once again took to the skies when he was in fine position to strike a wrap-around forehand across his body. Airborne, for no good reason, he hit the ball about six miles long. Don't take this as an accusation, but Monfils lent the impression of a man playing high.

John Isner: Good man, solid background, heck of an athlete, but he's simply too tall. Even in this stay-on-the-baseline era, players need world-class quickness, agility and the ability to get low. A big serve and a forehand can get you a lot of places, but not to the trophy ceremony at a major.

Donald Young: I had to read the story twice, just to make sure I didn't miss something. This guy's upset he wasn't chosen as the fourth player on the American Davis Cup team? He can't understand why Ryan Harrison got the nod? Maybe it's because Young has done nothing of significance on tour. From the time he turned pro at 14, in a swirl of publicity and expectations, he's been a major disappointment. Harrison is fresh and on the rise; people can't wait to see more of him. Young is the very essence of tedium.

Andy Murray:Mark Hodgkinson, of the Telegraph in London, probably said it best after Murray's third-round loss to Stan Wawrinka: "It was not so long ago that you would regularly hear conversations discussing 'when' Murray would win his first Slam title. It feels as though that debate has shifted from 'when' to 'if.'"

Ashe Stadium: The place seemed pretty cool when it opened. To this day, there's nothing like a lower-deck seat on warm, still evening with a compelling match in progress. But the cavernous structure came under intense scrutiny during the tournament, and rightly so. It's way too big and seldom filled to capacity during the Open, especially during daytime matches when the sight of empty seats is downright embarrassing. The need for a retractable roof -- such a long-awaited development at Wimbledon -- was painfully evident during Sunday's rainout and Monday's delay. And it's disturbing to realize that on blustery days, it's undeniably windier inside Ashe than anywhere else on the grounds.

What it all means, for those planning on attending the Open next year: Don't miss your chance to watch the action on Louis Armstrong or the Grandstand. That's where coolness lives.