Djokovic all business as he makes way through U.S. Open draw

Friday August 30th, 2013

Novak Djokovic calmly and cleanly (minus a shaky first set) took down Benjamin Becker in the second round.
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- The match ended on Thursday night but it fueled the Friday chatter at the U.S. Open. Long after the sun had slunk behind the Manhattan skyline, John Isner played Gael Monfils in a sensationally entertaining second-round match. And crowd support was split. All that red, white and blue on the grounds here? It could have applied to the Tricolour.

We discuss the "controversy," such as it was, below, but let's be clear: This wasn't a show of anti-Americanism, much less an outbreak of Francophilia. It was mostly just a vocal approval of showmanship. Fans have disposed of their disposable income in order to be entertained, and no one in tennis entertains like Monfils. Here is a player who wins points from his knees, shows off his breakdancing moves on the court, attempts overheads with his back to the net and hits shots few other players would even think to attempt, much less execute. (And that was just the second set.) Monfils didn't win on Thursday night. He often doesn't. But he is a peerless entertainer. And the fans respond in kind.

NGUYEN: John Isner 'disappointed' in the New York crowd

What happens when a player is at the other end of the spectrum? We got a vivid demonstration on Friday afternoon when the men's top seed took the court. Novak Djokovic is everything Monfils isn't: conventional, steady, businesslike. And his match against Benjamin Becker was everything Isner-Monfils wasn't. Clinical, lacking unpredictability (though Becker nearly won the first set) and deprived of mood -- played, as it was in Arthur Ashe Stadium, a venue as charmingly intimate as an airport hotel.

Yet this was Djokovic at his best. He did nothing spectacular, but everything capably. When Becker served for the first set, Djokovic was more poised, extracting errors like a sadistic dentist extracts teeth. His returns were deep in the court. He turned defense into offense.

After Djokovic won a tight first set, he rolled 7-6 (2), 6-2, 6-2, going games upon games without missing a ball. He hit twice as many aces as Becker (and half as many double faults) and twice as many winners overall. None were especially memorable. Pity the TV producer tasked with finding highlight material. There were no shots like this.

This, of course, is Djokovic writ small. He lacks the easy grace and almost hypnotic tennis of Roger Federer. He lacks the fund-a-rific/lefty/spinny sui generis game of Rafael Nadal. And so, he never quite gets his due. Friday's crowd was appropriately polite and appreciative. But he didn't exactly get the Monfils treatment. Or the Federer/Nadal treatment.

Then again, he's still in the tournament, and he figures to be for many more rounds. As ever, Djokovic reminds that, in tennis, there are break points and game points and set points and match points. There are no style points.


I'll start this by saying that I've cheered loudly for John Isner the last two years at the tournament in Houston. But I'm not sure what to make of his whining that the crowd wasn't pro-American enough during his match against Gael Monfils. Then I was really baffled by his tweet: "I miss the south. #godscountry". Is that any way to win over New York fans?
-- Jason, Austin, Texas

• For the most part, I get this all around. American players consider this event their Super Bowl. It's understandable that Isner would be disappointed that crowd support was so deeply split.

On the other hand:

-- It's an international event. It's not unreasonable that parts of the crowd would support the players outside the United States.

-- The suggestion that fans are duty-bound to root reflexively for a player based on country code is absurd.

-- You have to account for the Monfils factor. Fans pay for entertainment and no one entertains quite the way Le Monf does.

-- Context matters, too. We hear it all the time, "Fans want more tennis." Monfils lost the first two sets. Then he mounted a comeback. Fans backed him. It's not as though he came out of the tunnel for warm-ups to a rousing ovation.

Victoria Duval is an absolutely charming young woman -- and there's talent there, no doubt -- but she beats a streaky player (Sam Stosur) in the first round and the U.S. media goes bananas. It's the kind of coverage that has helped cripple other young players like Melanie Oudin who are unable to deal with the pressure. I get it. A story about any American player is going to get more website hits than an article about anyone inside the top 10 not named Serena Williams, but the onslaught of coverage can do more damage than good. And then there's the hypocrisy. If Duval played under the Haitian flag, we wouldn't be seeing this coverage, let alone tweets from Lil Wayne.
-- Matt M., Toronto

• First, can we discuss Lil Wayne's genuine interest and deep knowledge of tennis? Why isn't the U.S. Open all over this? No disrespect to Lenny Kravitz, but if the seersuckers really wanted an edgy Opening Night performer, they would contact Weezy.

As for Duval, again, I think we want it both ways. We have this cautionary tale about hyped players. Yet when a 17-year-old with a movie-script backstory beats a former U.S. champion, what are we supposed to do? Say, "Wait until she wins a Slam before we take her seriously or try to cover her"? Few talk about the perils of hyping NFL prospect Jadeveon Clowney or NBA prospect Andre Wiggins. Why is this different?

Should we pronounce a player a future champion based on one match? No. But, at best, it does fans a disservice to ignore achievements and stories out of fear of feeding the hype machine. Like so much in sports, it's a question of balance and degree.

Why doesn't the U.S. Open invest in the challenge system for all its courts? The other day, Rogerio Dutra Silva won his match against Vasek Pospisil 12-10 in the fifth-set tiebreaker after no small amount of controversy over a line call at 10-10. At the end, instead of cheering a great match, a lot of the crowd booed, which was a shame. I think the U.S. Open already has the challenge system on four courts, so it's only an additional 11 courts that would need coverage. Given the prize money these days, it seems like it should be a no-brainer.
-- John Biers, New York

• The short answer: It's a question of both expense and television coverage. These outer courts are used for only a few sessions each year. And they seldom involve television coverage. Is it worth spending vast amounts of money to settle a few disputable calls (harshly: among lesser players) with no television audience?

On the other hand, yes, it is absurd that players on certain courts have access to an enhancement not available to players performing simultaneously on other courts. Is there another sport in which this occurs?

Why didn't you include Madison Keys in your comments about the Williams sisters' legacy?
-- Giles Robert, Los Angeles

• You make my point for me. Can we stop assuming that the Williams sisters are the reason every African-American is playing tennis? And can we stop the implied assumption that they have inspired no other players?

The 1973 Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs match has been in the news lately, which got me wondering about a hypothetical 2013 Battle of the Sexes. Riggs was 55 years old when he played King, who was 29. Could Serena Williams today beat a top male player in his mid-50s? John McEnroe? Bjorn Borg? Ivan Lendl? Somehow, I don't think so.
-- Rich, New York

• I usually avoid the hypothetical "can a man beat a woman" questions. They get us nowhere and tend to diminish the women. This I will say unequivocally: There is not 55-year-old man on the planet who can beat Serena Williams.

Curious what you make of Francesca Schiavone's parabolic career. Mostly losses in the early rounds of majors for the first 10 years of her career. Then two years when she's among the five best players in the game, plays deep into the majors and wins one. Then just as abruptly falls off. Her trajectory seems pretty odd.
-- Emily, Framingham, Mass.

• Careers are never symmetrical figures; no one traces a perfect parabola. I agree that Schiavone's "career EKG reading" is especially erratic. But perhaps keep this in mind: It coincides with the quality of the WTA. She didn't make much noise early in her career during the fat years of Venus/Serena/Lindsay Davenport/Justine Henin/Kim Clijsters et al. She rose a bit during the "transition" period. Now that she's well into her 30s and Serena and Victoria Azarenka are entrenched at the top, Schiavone has gone back to the margins.

Re: Sorana Cirstea. I told you so ...
-- Gilbert Benoit, Ottawa, Ontario

• You did indeed.

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