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Steve Flink: 2017 US Open Retrospective

All in all, from beginning to end, on so many fronts in both the men's and women's draws, this was a United States Open to savor. For the first time in fifteen years, two American women were pitted against each other in the final, and all four semifinal slots were filled by players from the U.S. That had not happened since 1981. Among the men, there were a multitude of surprises along the way, contests that kept us thoroughly immersed, matches that made us appreciate the skills and fortitude of the leading players and celebrate the emergence of competitors moving toward the forefront of the game. Ultimately, though, a singularly charismatic Spaniard who is world renowned secured the crown, yet not before some spirited runs by other players.

Let's take a closer look at the last major championship of 2017.

Rafael Nadal Takes Title No. 3 in New York

Although he was the top seeded player at the Open, it is highly doubtful that Nadal thought of himself that way coming into the tournament. He had gone into a brief tailspin after sweeping four of the five clay court tournaments he played in the spring, and capping off that run with a tenth triumph at the French Open. After Roland Garros, Nadal suffered an agonizing defeat at Wimbledon against Gilles Muller in the round of 16 on Court 1.

When he lost that skirmish 15-13 in the fifth set, a crestfallen Nadal came into the interview room and has seldom sounded so depressed after a defeat. His form on the hard courts over the summer was nowhere near the level where he wanted it to be. He squandered a 3-0 final set tie-breaker lead in Montreal against the precocious Denis Shapovalov of Canada, dropping seven of the last eight points in that setback against the teenager in the round of 16. From there, Nadal went to Cincinnati and, if anything, his play worsened. He lost in the quarterfinals to Nick Kyrgios and performed apprehensively.

The inner doubts were creating deep wounds in the Nadal psyche. This was demonstrable during the early rounds at Flushing Meadows. Facing world No. 85 Dusan Lajovic in the first round, Nadal should have lost the first set. The Serbian served for it but Nadal escaped, succeeded narrowly in a tie-break and eventually won 7-6 (6), 6-2, 6-2. Yet he was hardly convincing in the last two sets—just good enough to win. Next, he inexplicably dropped the first set to world No. 121 Taro Daniel of Japan, rallied to win in four, but never looked entirely comfortable.

On to the third round he went, and the insecurities lingered. Six break points eluded the Spaniard in the opening set, which he lost in a tie-break. He had seven more unbanked break points before finally breaking Leonardo Mayer for a 4-3 second set lead. From then on, he found his game and began pounding the piercing forehands that have been his trademark for so long, taking that match in four sets. He then crushed Alexandr Dolgopolov—a sporadically brilliant yet enigmatic competitor who had beaten Nadal twice in recent years—in straight sets before obliterating an overanxious Andrey Rublev for a place in the semifinals.

Nadal saved his best tennis for the last two rounds. Nervous at the outset of his appointment with Juan Martin del Potro in the penultimate round, Nadal dropped the opening set against the towering 6'6" Argentine. Understandably wanting to send a barrage of balls to the del Potro backhand in that set, Nadal realized he needed to make a tactical adjustment. He began sending more forehands down the line and a greater number of backhands crosscourt, and with that change in thinking Nadal totally altered the complexion of the match. He swept to victory, taking apart the increasingly fatigued No. 24 seed 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2. In that magnificent second set, Nadal collected 25 of 33 points and sprinkled the court with dazzling winners. It was the best tennis he played in the entire tournament, and over the last two sets he was nearly as good.

The triumph over del Potro sent Nadal into the final on a high, physically fresh and filled with self-conviction, knowing the title was his for the taking. He took on No. 28 seed Kevin Anderson, a fellow 31-year-old who cracked the top ten in the rankings back in the fall of 2015 before injuries diminished his stature. Anderson had enjoyed a sparkling fortnight to reach his first major final. The 6'8" South African had been on the best half of the draw after a late withdrawal from Andy Murray. He took advantage with some hard fought wins over the likes of Sam Querrey and Pablo Carreno Busta, halting the latter in the semifinals.

But against Nadal, Anderson would make no impression. In 14 service games across three sets, Nadal lost only 15 points, did not face a break point and was not even extended to deuce until the last game. Moreover, his return of serve left Anderson somewhat dumbfounded. The Spaniard stood predominantly way back near the fence and not far in front of the side linesmen to give himself sufficient time to deal with Anderson's 130 MPH-plus thunderbolts, and he kept an awful lot of returns in play. Remarkably, Nadal served more un-returnables than his big opponent.

Anderson's only chance to put himself in a position to win was in the first set. The determined South African survived one deuce on his serve in the first game of the match, six deuces in the third game and five more in the fifth game. In that span, Anderson fought off four break points. Meanwhile, he had a small opening on Nadal's serve with the Spaniard serving at 2-3, 15-30. Nadal miss-hit a forehand short crosscourt, and Anderson sent a high backhand approach long. After holding on at 30 for 3-3, Nadal broke Anderson twice to run out the set, and he never looked back. His best tennis of the match was in the second set when he captured 20 of 23 points on serve, winning 94% of his first serve points and 67% on his second delivery. He broke in the first game of the third set and served for the match at 5-4. After Anderson saved a match point and reached deuce with an aggressive backhand return, Nadal answered with a 117 MPH service winner to the forehand that was hardly touched, and closed it out on his second match point with a slice serve out wide at 100 MPH that he followed in for a winning backhand volley into the open court.

Nadal had taken both of his previous Open finals in four set, final round victories over Novak Djokovic; this was his first straight set win in a title round contest at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Critics will contend that he had an easy draw by not facing a top 20 seed. That had never happened before when Nadal had won a Grand Slam tournament. The fact remains that Del Potro is always dangerous and much better than his ranking would indicate. And Anderson was back to playing something resembling top ten tennis at the very least.

The bottom line is that Nadal—at least as I saw it—was ready to confront anyone by the end of the tournament. He had reestablished his faith in his forehand. He had enjoyed one of his best serving Grand Slam tournaments ever, holding in 99 of 106 games, losing his serve only seven times in seven matches. In the final against Anderson, he made only eleven unforced errors across three sets while producing 30 winners to secure his first hard court title since Doha at the start of 2014. Nadal played his finest sustained tennis at the end of the tournament since winning the 2013 U.S. Open.

Now he has captured 16 majors to move within three titles of Federer on the all time list of major tournament winners for the men. Can he catch the Swiss Maestro? He has a chance to do that over the next couple of years, but only if Federer does not come through again on one of the four most prominent stages in the world of tennis. It will be fascinating to follow these two luminaries through 2018 and beyond.

Sloane Stephens is Victorious for the First time at a Major

Way back in the winter of 2013, an ambitious and energetic young American named Sloane Stephens toppled Serena Williams at the Australian Open with both shotmaking verve and sheer gumption. She was not yet 20. Her future appeared to offer boundless opportunities and a chance to establish herself as an enduring champion with a substantial appetite for success of the highest order.

Stephens finished that season ranked No. 12 in the world. A top ten residence and major title victories seemed certain to be within striking distance for Stephens, but she never got there for a variety of reasons. Sometimes her determination wavered. Often she seemed not to care fully. Occasionally she settled for standards that seemed unacceptably low for a player of her caliber.

Stephens concluded 2014-16 ranked respectively No. 37, No. 30 and No. 36 in the world. She might have done much better last year, but missed the latter part of the season with a right foot injury that kept her out of the game after the Olympics in Rio for the rest of the year.

By the time Stephens reemerged at Wimbledon this past June, she had been away from tournament tennis for eleven months. Beaten in her opening round matches at Wimbledon and Washington, she then rediscovered her flair for the game and reached the semifinals of Toronto and Cincinnati. That took her into the U.S. Open as a resurgent performer, but still ranked at only No. 83 in the world, which was a long distance from where she wanted to be.

She took her first round confrontation with 2015 U.S. Open finalist Roberta Vinci 7-5, 6-1 but then went three sets with Dominika Cibulkova. But Stephens finished strong to win 6-3, 5-7, 6-1. After a straight sets win over the Australian Ashleigh Barty, Stephens knocked out No. 30 seed Julia Goerges 6-3 3-6 6-1. Having been stretched to three sets twice, she had to go the distance once more in the quarterfinals and precariously was twice down a break in the final set against No. 16 seed Anastasija Sevastova before escaping 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4).

Now Stephens took on No. 9 seed Venus Williams and she prevailed in that semifinal contest 6-1, 0-6, 7-5. And so it all came down to Stephens versus No. 15 seed Madison Keys for the title. On paper a three set duel seemed entire within the realm of possibility. But that was not how it played out on the court. Stephens was impenetrable on the day, rock solid across the board, poised and polished, covering the court with grace and alacrity. She was primed for the historic appointment while Keys was out of sorts. Her movement was not up to par after an upper leg injury suffered near the end of her semifinal win over Coco Vandeweghe.

It all added up to a decisive victory for Stephens in a match lasting 61 minutes. From 4-3 in the first set, she never lost another game. Stephens triumphed 6-3, 6-0, making only six unforced errors while Keys was guilty of 30. Keys could not find the court with her flat forehand; Stephens could not miss. Hence the mismatch.

Asked if she ever imagined a moment like this when she was a kid, Stephens replied, "No. I mean I obviously knew that I always wanted to be here. I always wanted to win a Grand Slam [tournament]. I think that's everyone's goal, everyone's dream. Did I know it would be like this after not playing tennis for however many months, being off for 11 months? I didn't think it would be now. But I worked hard and it was there and I took the opportunity when it came up."

Clearly she did. Now Stephens has climbed to No. 17 in the world. There is no good reason why she should not finish the year among the top ten.

Women's Match of the Tournament

There were quite a few top of the line matches for the women. The first round upset of No. 2 seed Simona Halep by 2006 champion Maria Sharapova was a beauty. Sharapova won 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 with some supreme ball striking off both sides. At 4-1 in the second set she seemed on her way to a straight sets victory but Halep rallied to reach a third set. Undismayed, Sharapova marched on from there to get the win. No. 10 seed Coco Vandeweghe’s 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 triumph over No. 10 seed Agnieszka Radwanska was scintillating stuff, featuring the big hitting American against one of the sport's most capable counter-attackers. Keys waged a superb comeback from 2-4 down in the final set to oust No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina 7-6 (2), 1-6, 6-4 in a dynamic battle under the lights. And a case could easily be made for the Venus Williams-Petra Kvitova quarterfinal as the best match of the tournament.

In that encounter, Williams rallied from a break down to win the first set, lost the second and then battled back from 1-3 in the third set to pull out the match. The Williams forehand was marginally more solid than Kvitova's lefty forehand and that may have been the difference in the end. Kvitova was not nearly solid enough in the final set tie-break, and Williams, willed on by the euphoric crowd in Ashe Stadium, clear in what she wanted to do tactically, came through 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (2).

That was a dandy, but my choice for the match of the tournament is the Stephens-Venus Williams match. To be sure, the first two sets were one-sided, with Stephens in control during the first set before Williams blitzed through the second. The third set was absolutely spectacular on both sides of the net. Stephens garnered an early lead at 2-0 and led 0-30 on her opponent's serve in the third game. Venus held on and soon moved ahead 3-2.

Stephens took the next two games and was now in the lead at 4-3, up a break, closing in on the final. Her consistency from the backcourt was the chief reason why she was ahead. Venus had not matched her in that department. But the 2000-2001 U.S. Open victor broke back boldly for 4-4 and saved a break point on her way to 5-4.

And so Stephens was serving to stay in the match in the tenth game of the final set, and the score was locked at 30-30. Here was Stephens, two points away from a penetrating three set loss. She had Venus on the run but the 37-year-old managed to turn defense into offense, finding a way to approach behind a deep backhand slice to the Stephens backhand. But, on the 25th stroke of a critical exchange. Stephens had no choice but to meet this moment with poise and purpose, and she did just that, directing a two-handed pass down the line with plenty of margin for error for a winner. Stephens lost only one more point in closing out a gratifying 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 victory. She had come through at a career defining moment for a place in the final.

To me, considering the stakes and the growing pressure on both players in that final set, this was surely the match of the tournament. And it was the key to Sloane Stephens winning the U.S. Open. The lift she got from halting Venus carried her right through the final.

Men's Match of the Tournament

The most captivating performer in this tournament among the men outside of Rafael Nadal was undoubtedly 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro. The big man played three matches in this tournament that kept him front and center for long stretches, and in all of these cases his fans cheered him on in such a manner that del Potro was buoyed to play perhaps his finest tennis of 2017.

The contests he had on Ashe Stadium against both Federer and Nadal were distinctly festive, and worthy of consideration for the best men's match of the tournament this year. But prior to his meetings with his old and iconic rivals, del Potro confronted No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem over on the Grandstand in a battle unfolding through the afternoon and on into the evening. It could not have been more startling.

Del Potro was plainly feeling sick at the outset, looking pale in the face, seemingly devoid of energy, on the verge of retiring. Thiem was playing with a poker face, keeping his mind on winning, ignoring del Potro's obvious vulnerability, trying to get the job done swiftly and efficiently. The earnest Austrian took the first set with ease and romped in the second as well, impervious to the crowd, del Potro or anything else but winning this round of 16 meeting.

But, by the end of the second set, and more so early at the start of the third, the mighty del Potro forehand began to come fully into view. He unleashed clusters of winners off that side and before Thiem knew it, the Argentine had taken the set 6-2. No matter to Thiem, or so it seemed. He resumed his mastery from the baseline and led 5-2 in the fourth with a 0-30 lead on del Potro's serve. The Austrian did not break but, serving for the match at 5-3, Thiem led 30-0, once more standing two points away from a four set win. But he could not put the clamps down there either. Del Potro was swinging freely, serving bigger and playing much better tennis, yet Thiem was missing wildly at times and was increasingly jittery because of the emotive del Potro crowd.

Del Potro rallied for 5-5 before Thiem held on in the eleventh game. The Austrian then had two match points in the twelfth game, but the Argentine released aces on both. He held on, won the ensuing tie-break easily and then, almost inevitably, took the fifth as a disconcerted Thiem bowed out 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4. The most compelling tennis of the match was played in the fourth set, but Thiem was devastated not to win it and get off the court with a victory.

Following that win, del Potro had a day off but most observers felt he would be spent. A loss to Roger Federer seemed almost certain. But Delpo was surprisingly fresh for that meeting, and Federer's vulnerability was apparent. He had commenced the tournament with a pair of five set skirmishes against Frances Tiafoe and Mikhail Youzhny. Although he followed with straight set wins over Feliciano Lopez and Philip Kohlschreiber, Federer was not entirely himself, and he realized that. He served well in the first set, however, as did del Potro. It came down to one break at 5-5 for the Argentine. Federer took the second set on one break. The third set went to a pivotal tie-break.

Four times—twice on his own serve—Federer advanced to set point, but del Potro denied him every time. At 6-4, Federer served wide to the del Potro forehand at 120 MPH in the deuce court but the return was hit so deep that the Swiss was rushed into a netted forehand half-volley. Del Potro saved the second set point to make it 6-6 with a 124 MPH first serve to the Federer backhand that coaxed a netted return. Now del Potro double faulted to give Federer a third set point. The No. 3 seed served-and-volleyed but a clever chipped pass from Delpo confused Federer, who took it on the bounce and drove a backhand long, leaving the crowd astounded. An excellent first serve to the backhand that was unstoppable lifted Federer to 8-7, and gave him set point for the fourth time.

Del Potro was unshakable, releasing a 130 MPH first serve to the backhand, eliciting a chipped return that was ineffective. Del Potro walloped a forehand winner crosscourt. 8-8. The Argentinian followed with another first serve, this one at 131 MPH. He took Federer's short return, ripped a forehand crosscourt approach, anticipated the Swiss Maestro's forehand crosscourt pass, and put away a forehand volley. It was 9-8 for del Potro. Now Federer was serving to stay in the set. He played serve-and-volley again, and it backfired as he missed a backhand volley long. Del Potro had somehow come out of a dark corner to win the set. He went on to take the match on one break in the fourth set, prevailing 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4.

The crowd assembled in Arthur Ashe Stadium was almost evenly divided between Federer loyalists and del Potro boosters. The atmosphere was highly charged as each set of fans cheered on their man unashamedly. The cries and chants of "Ole, Ole " were heard loud and clear, but the Federer fans countered with their own effusive applause and cheers. Afterwards, a candid Federer said, "Juan Martin deserves it more. I feel I have no place in the semis and he will have a better chance to beat Rafa, to be honest. The way I played or [am] playing right now, it's not good enough in my opinion to win this tournament. It's better I'm out and somebody else gets a chance to do better than me."

Del Potro did indeed test Nadal severely at the outset before Nadal burst into a brilliance that was often breathtaking. But, to put it all in perspective, del Potro's central role in the tournament with his wins over Thiem and Federer, followed by his defeat against Nadal, was irrefutable. Those three matches in many ways shaped the tournament and lingered longest in the hearts and minds of the fans.

Martina Hingis Makes it 25 Majors

Four years ago, in July of 2013, the universally appealing Martina Hingis was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Having won five Grand Slam tournament titles and a good many more in doubles, she deserved the honor. But no one, not even Hingis herself, knew what was in store for this Swiss stylist with a tactical and strategic mind second to none.

She has been celebrating a second career as a doubles specialist that is nothing short of stupendous. At 36, she keeps collecting "Big Four" titles with a joy and verve few players could hope to match. At the U.S. Open, she captured the women's doubles alongside Chan Yung-Jan. They were seeded second and the pairing took the title without the loss of a set. In mixed, she joined Great Britain's gifted left-hander Jamie Murray and they toppled Chan and Michael Venus 6-1, 4-6 (10-8) in the title round contest, securing the final "Super Tiebreak" narrowly yet irrevocably.

Hingis now owns 25 major titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles combined. She will be playing at her current level for at least five more years and perhaps longer. Twenty years ago, Hingis collected three majors in singles during a stellar 1997 season, including the U.S. Open. Her enduring greatness must not be taken for granted. Her doubles craftsmanship at Flushing Meadows was exemplary.

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