The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Here’s our review of the U.S. Open.
Rafael Nadal: A-plus. Remember when a fresh-off-his-injury-break Nadal lost to Horacio Zeballos in the VTR Open final in Chile? That February tournament sure does seem like a lifetime ago. It's hard to say which of Nadal's jaw-dropping stats best encapsulates his incredible season. Is it his 22-0 record on his worst surface, hard courts? His tour-leading 10 titles, including two majors and five ATP Masters 1000s? Or the fact that he trails Novak Djokovic by only 120 points for the No. 1 ranking despite missing the Australian Open? No, I'm actually going with this: He's made the final in 12 of 13 tournaments. Unstoppable.
ESPN captures Nadal's unquenchable passion perfectly:
Serena Williams: A-plus. Williams needed this title. The expectations may be unfair, but they're the same ones she has for herself. Leaving New York without successfully defending her title and reasserting her dominance after a disappointing Wimbledon was not an option. Serena didn't drop a set until the final, she served up five bagel sets for the tournament and she overcame the wind, her nerves and Victoria Azarenka to take her 17th major title. With Williams a few weeks shy of her 32nd birthday, there's a genuine conversation to be had about whether she can catch Steffi Graf's Open era record of 22 Slams.
Here's her interview on the ESPN set after Sunday's victory over Azarenka:
Rivalries: A-minus. Will we ever get to see Roger vs. Rafa at the U.S. Open? Or even one more clash in the second week of a Slam? They've been projected to meet in the quarterfinals of the last two majors -- a seemingly makeable stage for both -- but early losses (by both at Wimbledon and by Federer at the U.S. Open) spoiled those plans. While that rivalry has lost some of its pop, this U.S. Open was a reminder of why we need to let go of "Fedal" and embrace "Rafole." Djokovic-Nadal may not have have the contrast in styles that Federer-Nadal presents, but no current rivalry showcases the body-breaking heights of modern tennis like theirs.
Add the women's final (the third three-set championship match on hard courts between Williams and Azarenka this year), and this tournament left no doubt about which showdowns boast the best that tennis has to offer.
Novak Djokovic: B. I wrote before the final about Djokovic's surprising inability to close this season. Monday's final was no different. S.L. Price described Nadal's larcenous third set as "competitive murder," and as much as the focus will be on the Spaniard's unbreakable will, the story for me will be Djokovic's wobble. The best returner in the game couldn't break with a 0-40 lead at 4-4 in the third set. It was a shame he couldn't finish off the set after dictating play for most of it, and he went quietly in the fourth set.
Victoria Azarenka: A-minus. She didn't play her best throughout the tournament but she finally found it in the final, coming back from 1-4 down in the second set to win the tiebreaker and force a third. In forcing Williams to elevate her play to win the final set, Azarenka proved that she's earned the right to be considered the only woman who can challenge the American.
Stanislas Wawrinka: A. The breakout star of the men's side, Wawrinka took the stage against former champion Djokovic and defending champion Andy Murray as though he believed he belonged. His one-handed backhand is a crowd-pleaser, and it's hard not to wonder how his five-set semifinal against Djokovic would have turned out if he had been 100 percent healthy. He thoroughly outplayed the Serb for three sets. Here's hoping that rousing Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd stoked the fire in his belly to keep working hard and making an even stronger push at the Slams next year.
Here's that 21-minute game that brought fans to their feet in the semifinals:
Li Na: B-plus. Though a 6-0, 6-3 loss to Williams was disappointing, the 31-year-old played solidly en route to a career-best semifinal appearance. I like the direction of her game under Carlos Rodriguez, who is encouraging her to be more aggressive. Here's hoping she keeps grinding. Tennis needs her personality.
Sloane Stephens: B-plus. After struggling past Mandy Minella in her opener, Stephens played some of her best tennis of the year in her next three matches. She handled the buildup, pressure and inherent awkwardness of facing Williams in the fourth round with remarkable poise for a 20-year-old. The speed and power on display against Williams is precisely why Stephens deserves the hype. Stephens is closing in on the top 10 after making at least the fourth round for the fourth consecutive major this year.
Richard Gasquet: A. From punchline to prime time, Gasquet finally put together a Slam performance that didn't end with a dismissive shrug lamenting yet another fourth-round failure. Gasquet entered the tournament with a 1-15 record in the fourth round of majors and a six-match losing streak in five-setters at Slams. But he outbattled Milos Raonic in a 4-hour, 40-minute five-setter in the fourth round and outlasted the relentless David Ferrer in another five-setter to advance to his first Slam semifinal since 2007 Wimbledon. Everyone loves a redemption story. They're even better when they come packaged with a one-handed backhand.
Juan Martin del Potro: C-minus. There's no shame in a five-set, second-round loss to a fired-up Lleyton Hewitt, who was playing well. Then again, when you're being touted as a dark horse contender after pushing Djokovic to five sets in the Wimbledon semifinals, there kind of is.
Here's a great ESPN promo for the Gentle Giant:
Flavia Pennetta: A. The 31-year-old Italian was part of a soft quarter anchored by fourth-seeded Sara Errani, but it was still surprising to see her emerge from it. Pennetta got past Errani, two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, an in-form Simona Halep (who was coming off a New Haven Open title, her fourth tournament victory of 2013) and No. 10 Roberta Vinci to make her first Slam semifinal. The former world No. 10 slipped out of the top 150 after having wrist surgery last year, but she's back up to No. 31 this week.
Roger Federer: D. What's more worrisome for Federer fans: A straight-set, fourth-round loss to Tommy Robredo, against whom he had been 10-0, or Federer's admission after the match that he self-destructed?
American men: D. Bad luck with the draw didn't help, but the U.S. men made dubious history once again. None advanced to the fourth round for the first time, leaving the United States without a player in the fourth round of any Slam in a calendar year for the first time, too.
Andy Murray: C. Murray admitted after his straight-set loss to Wawrinka in the quarterfinals that he was having a hard time motivating himself following his Wimbledon title. That's completely understandable, given the enormity of what happened at the All England Club. That said, what exactly is going to motivate Murray now?
Sara Errani: D. After a 6-3, 6-1 loss to Pennetta in the second round, Errani tearfully admitted that she succumbed to the pressure of being a top seed. On the one hand, you don't know want to see a top seed complain about pressure. On the other, it was refreshing to hear her admit it.
Ana Ivanovic: B-plus. I don't completely buy into the idea that Ivanovic has plateaued. She played one of her best offensive matches in years in her three-set loss to Azarenka in the fourth round, consistently pounding forehand winners while finishing with 41 winners overall and 42 unforced errors. An inability to hold serve doomed Ivanovic. Still, this was progress.
Lleyton Hewitt: A-minus. The 32-year-old Aussie beat a top-10 player (del Potro) at the U.S. Open for the first time since he won the tournament in 2001, and he advanced to the fourth round for the first time since 2006. Unfortunately, his run ended on a sour note when he squandered a 4-1 lead in the fourth set and a 5-2 lead in the fifth to Mikhail Youzhny (who, incidentally, deserves an "A" for his tournament).
Tornado Alicia Black: A. Great name (her parents started calling her Tornado as a 3-year-old) and an even better result. The 15-year-old American wild card made the girls' final before losing to Croatia's Ana Konjuh 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6). (As for the name, Black said: "I wasn't born in a tornado. That's what everyone always asks. I had an older sister that played, and my parents wanted storm names for me and my little sister [who goes by Hurricane Tyra Black].")
Croatian juniors: A. Croatian tennis has a very bright future. Konjuh, 15, won her second junior title of the season, while 16-year-old Borna Coric, who will join the Davis Cup team for this weekend's tie against Great Britain, won the boys' event with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory over Australia's Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Andrea Hlavackova: A. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, Hlavackova became the first woman since 2008 to sweep the women's and mixed doubles titles at a Slam, teaming up with Lucie Hradecka and Max Mirnyi. Last year, Hlavackova and Hradecka lost in the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and Olympic finals. They beat the Williams sisters in the semifinals and Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua (this year's hard-luck team, with runner-up finishes at three Slams) in the final.
Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek: A. Hats off for upsetting Bob and Mike Bryan in the semifinals and closing the deal with a 6-1, 6-3 victory against Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares in the final. Paes, 40, who is 14 years removed from his first Slam doubles title, now has eight.
Doubles: A-plus. Thanks to the Bryans' quest for the calendar Grand Slam and the pairing of Venus and Serena, doubles got plenty of exposure on the biggest show courts and both ESPN and CBS televised loads of it.
Bob and Mike Bryan: A. Tennis couldn't ask for two better ambassadors. They finished two victories short of becoming the first doubles team since 1951 to win all four majors in the same year, but they showed class in candidly discussing their nerves, addressing the historical significance of their chase and offering nice perspective after their loss.