Retirees, veterans lead storylines at halfway point of U.S. Open

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If there's a common thread between the two weeks, it's that the 30-and-over set has completely stolen the headlines. It's so easy to envision Roger Federer and Serena Williams standing above the rest, and there's a lingering satisfaction surrounding the retirements of Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick.

Alive in the doubles until Saturday night, Clijsters was able to hang around the tournament and hear glorious testimonials from her fellow players. Aside from her adversarial, long-ago rivalry with Belgian countrywoman Justine Henin, Clijsters has been viewed with universal admiration and affection in the locker room, especially as she so expertly blended motherhood with top-flight performance.

As for Roddick, still magnificently in the hunt after Sunday's third-round victory over Fabio Fognini, the man seems to be having the time of his life.

It's been said Roddick is playing too well to hang it up now, but don't count on any Brett Favre routines from this man. He's been pondering the tennis afterlife for months, making absolutely certain it was the correct decision, and we've seen the glow in his demeanor over the past few days. We also saw a touch of sadness in his eyes immediately after Sunday's straight-set victory. He's kept the emotional side private since breaking the news, but it's there, close to the surface, and there surely must be times when it overwhelms him.

If Roddick had even a shred of doubt about retiring, it surely will vanish as the final weekend approaches. He could always handle the Tomics and Fogninis of the world, at least on his best days. He might even be able to outslug Juan Martin del Potro in the fourth round. But when he spoke of his contemporaries "getting very, very, very good," he was talking about Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. Two of those men seemed destined to contest Sunday's final, and Roddick knows he's no longer in that league -- if he ever was.

Glancing at some tournament storylines:

All those empty seats: Whenever a riveting night match goes down at the Open, Arthur Ashe Stadium is a pretty cool place to be. It's an awesome spectacle when the place is packed, with all the high-powered energy you'd expect from a New York setting. The scene is entirely different on weekdays. How many big matches have been played this year in a half-filled (or worse) stadium? It's a total embarrassment, and it happens routinely, especially for matches involving the women's elite.\n

Also: For all the fears about Wimbledon's Centre Court roof and its assault on tradition, the indoor atmosphere has proved to be excellent. I can't even imagine a roof on the mini-planet that is Ashe Stadium. It would be like watching baseball in the old Houston Astrodome -- entirely too weird unless you're right up close to the action. Barring a decision to downsize Ashe and then consider a roof, this project is doomed.\n

The drama factor: Critics panned the first week for its lack of compelling matches, and that certainly applied to most of the evening programs. In a sense, though, this has been one of the most drama-filled majors in years. Within a four-day span, 10 players came from two sets down to win.\n

Role reversal: Ana Ivanovic is just 24, but she struck the look of a mature, seasoned player in her Saturday night match against 19-year-old Sloane Stephens. Ivanovic may have seen a bit of herself on the other side of the net, as well. \n

Too often in recent years, Ivanovic let careless play and a lack of focus dismantle her reputation. She drifted between coaches and seemed to miss the big shot under duress, never resembling the player who earned the No. 1 ranking in 2008. But here was Stephens, wearing the future-star's burden and struggling with the concept.

As Martina Navratilova noted on Tennis Channel, Stephens was the stronger, faster, more dynamic player and should have won the match. But Stephens had an 0-9 lifetime record against players in the top 15, and Navratilova was mostly kind, in deference to her age. "She's still growing into her footwork," she said. "Just a little lazy, a bit too casual, guiding the ball instead of moving forward. She needs to bring that power game out of the closet; don't leave it in. But that's something she can easily improve."\n

Ivanovic seemed to embrace the notion that she, for a change, was the savvy veteran. She proved to be the more consistently aggressive player, and she had to be pleased with her authoritative finishes at the net. It was a satisfying, comprehensive performance by Ivanovic, if a bit spoiled for television viewers.

It's one thing to break away to a nearby court if something really special is taking place, but Stephens-Ivanovic was by far the most attractive evening match, and a crucial one in the development of American women's tennis. Sam Querrey-Tomas Berdych was a total afterthought, at least in terms of fan appeal. And yet, Tennis Channel decided on a switch with Stephens leading 4-3 in the first set. After a dreadful spell of Querrey-Berdych and some highlights from the Milos Raonic-James Blake match, TC returned with Ivanovic now leading 5-4 and 15-30 on Stephens' serve. Inexcusable. The Serb had regained the momentum, and viewers didn't have the slightest idea how.

As for Ivanovic's second week, it looks good for the moment, a winnable fourth-rounder against Tsvetana Pironkova, but then she'd likely face Serena in the quarters. That will be the end of the line.

British tennis rocks? For those of us with experience covering Wimbledon, it was refreshing to see Laura Robson's ascent arrive in concert with Murray's pursuit of the title. Until this year, when Murray won over the British public, there was relentless negativity -- and rightly so -- in the London press toward its local players and especially the downtrodden national program. "We're Bloody Hopeless," read one tabloid headline a few years ago.\n

Now Murray has a Wimbledon final and an Olympic gold medal behind him, with a huge fourth-round match coming up Monday against Raonic. And Robson's captivating tournament caught everyone's attention back home. Just when Li Na was celebrating her partnership with a new coach (Carlos Rodriguez) and an apparent run into the second week, she was overpowered by Robson (6-2 in the third) and hurried off the court after a weak, dismissive handshake.

"All of a sudden she's created an aura," said former British player Annabel Croft, working the U.S. Open for Sky Sports. "There's a few shock waves going through the dressing room. I'm sure they're all panicking, because it's a breakthrough, it's very exciting, and that's what women's tennis needs right now, is another star. How amazing that she's from Britain."

Robson was born to Australian parents in Melbourne but lived just 18 months in that country before the family moved to Singapore, eventually settling in England when Laura was six. Last week, she was asked by an Australian journalist if she could be persuaded to represent the country of her birth.

"I get asked that all the time, and I don't think my answer has ever changed," she said. "Still a no."

Super Saturday: This will be its last go-round at the Open. Thank goodness. With its oppressive stranglehold on the tournament, CBS spent too many years ignoring tennis' new reality. The days of John McEnroe-Jimmy Connors or Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova were long gone; Super Saturday had gone global, featuring players not so popular with the public, and the game's increasingly physical nature meant long, drawn-out men's matches lasting five hours or more. Worse yet, the players hated the notion of playing a semifinal and final on consecutive days. In that sense, it was a terrible idea right from the start. We haven't been told if next year's tournament will schedule a Monday men's final (with the semis on Saturday) or switch to a Friday-Sunday setup, but at last, the element of fairness will be in play. Thanks to the top players for driving the point home so forcefully. After all that prodding, the CBS people finally woke up.\n