The only time tennis players make physical contact with an opponent comes at the end of a match when they shake hands. There is only one weight class. Seldom does anyone bleed or bruise during play.
Yet the parallels between tennis and boxing are almost endless. A confrontational, brutally individual sport. Part mental, part physical, part war of attrition. A balance of offense and defense. Punching and counterpunching. Aggression is often essential. Over aggression is often disastrous.
Just as "styles make fights," as the saying goes, "styles make matches." And mismatches. So it is that Roger Federer can look untouchable against the field, but struggle against the sidewinding lefty offerings and relentless competing of Rafael Nadal. Maria Sharapova can blast her way against most players; but offer no resistance against Serena Williams. Milos Raonic can serve with such force that he's considered a can't-miss prospect; but is reduced to looking like a junior against Andy Murray.
We got another example today of the importance of styles. Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur have had fairly comparable careers. Six places now divide them in the rankings -- No. 1 versus No. 7 -- but not long ago, they were ranked in succession. They've each won one major. Yet their head-to-head matches are really foot-to-butt matches. Prior to Tuesday, they had played a half dozen times, all of them hard courts, Stosur's best surface. No matter. Azarenka hadn't dropped a set.
Why? Matchups. Stosur's great strengths -- the kick serve to the backhand -- doesn't really hurt Azarenka, a tall player who doesn't mind racking the backhand. Stosur's normally fearsome forehand doesn't penetrate against Azarenka. Stosur likes time to set up her shots -- as her shaky results at Wimbledon show -- and Azarenka's flat, hard strokes don't give opponents a spare millisecond. And Azarenka is the better competitor. All of which bodes ill for Stosur. "Whoever gets the ball to the other's weaker side quicker, will win," says Rennae Stubbs, the former player, now an excellent analyst. "And usually that's Vika."
Today, it took longer than usual. In the best women's match of the event so far, Azarenka and Stosur split the first two sets inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Azarenka played to Stosur's backhand; Stosur to Azarenka's forehand. This was boxing without gloves, players adjusting tactics and trading blows and rationing reserves of energy.
The third set went to a tiebreaker. Stosur trailed 4-0 but closed to 5-5. The final two points of the match was the rivalry writ small. Stosur went wide to the forehand with her serve, but Azarenka was ready. She pounded away to the backhand. Stosur ran around and tried to unload and inside-out forehand. But she was so far off the court she had nearly left the 718 area code. Azarenka saw this positioning and unfurled a perfect drop shot.
On match point, the styles manifested one last time. On Azarenka's second serve, Stosur again ran around her backhand and pounded crosscourt forehands, controlling the rally, drilling ball after ball to Azarenka's forehand. In control of the point, Stosur inexplicably attempted a play to Azarenka's backhand. Whether this was a bit of misdirection or a brain cramp, who knows. But Stosur's shot went well wide. Game, set, match.
By advancing to the semis, Azarenka did several things: She guaranteed that there would be a new champion. She guaranteed that she will remain the No.1-ranked player after this event, even if another player (see: Williams, Serena) wins. And she is guaranteed to face a more difficult match-up in her next round.
? Sadly, this theme has come up over and over the last few years. As many of you know, I am on Team Benefit of the Doubt, when it comes to Roddick. Especially this week. None of us are entirely good or entirely bad. He had a lot of pressure -- and little support -- representing American tennis and did a fine job on balance. Etc.
But I concede it is unfortunate how many of you have observations and first-hand experience similar to Heather's. You see the outpouring of adulation and respect that Federer and Nadal and Clijsters -- obviously among others -- receive, in part because of their humanity and humility. Wouldn't you want that to go along with your millions and trophies?
? Nice. I always remember Andre Agassi summoning a ballkid to help him remove the wrap, as if it were a two-man job.
? Bartoli is tricky in that you never quite know what you're getting -- in every sense. But I would say Serena's biggest threat is Serena. Obviously, you can argue she's beaten herself the last two U.S. Opens. After that, an in-form Azarenka? Stosur catching Serena on a bad serving day? I don't see it.
? There's a difference between the tournament's own website and an independent media outlet. If I were paying Wozniacki prize money and using her promotional pieces (or in the case of McHale, if she were a USTA player who trained at the same facility) I would have been less critical. (And hypocritical).
? He accumulated more points than No. 17 and fewer than No. 15? If you'd seen Raonic play James Blake, you would have thought, "This guy will win multiple Majors." If you had then seen him lose to Murray you would have thought, "He still has a long ladder to climb."
David of Southbury, Conn.: "I was at the Grandstand for a doubles match featuring Paes/Stepanek against Levine/Matosevic. The players came out approximately 15 minutes after the scheduled 11 a.m. start. They took their warmup, and then blatantly ignored the chair umpire when she called "Time." All four players continued to hit practice serves while the chair umpire glanced at her stopwatch, smiled and shook her head. Finally, after another three or four minutes, the match finally started. I've never seen tour players so blatantly disregard the chair umpire. The fans, already upset over the delayed start to the match, weren't happy either. By the time the match started, the other matches scheduled to start at 11 a.m. that day were into their second or third games. Shouldn't the chair umpire have asserted herself more? Do you think the players would have acted the same way if it was a male chair umpire?"
? @danielle UNC thought she found Caroline Wozniacki at her bookstore.
? The Mighty Helen of Philadelphia: "I Googled "ancic columbia", and this came up."
? Jignesh of Singapore/West Lafayette: "Just wanted to share this article of Peter Carter. Hopefully you still read mail from Purdue."
? Press releasing: "The USTA announced today the seven winners of its 31st annual USTA Facility Awards Program, which recognizes excellence in the construction and/or renovation of tennis facilities throughout the country. The 2012 USTA Facility Awards Program winners are:
? Steve, New Orleans: "Jon, Some long lost siblings for you (a bit of a stretch, but remember, you said metal guys get extra consideration): Andreas Seppi and Josh Homme from Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age.