by Steve Flink
Now that I have had a few days to decompress after covering another compelling U.S. Open, I would like to offer some of my impressions on the tournament just gone by and weigh in on how it might shape the path ahead in the world of tennis. Above and beyond anything else, it was a Grand Slam event that reinvigorated Roger Federer. He had invited his skeptics to question his authority because he had played some of his worst tennis of the year across the summer months. Deeply wounded in his psyche by losing an almost ineffable Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal after rallying gallantly from two sets down to move within two points of victory in the fifth set, Federer— judged by his own high standards— had a miserable summer and did not advance beyond the quarterfinals of the three hard court events he entered.
In fact, Federer had not won a hard court tournament all year as he approached the Open. Moreover, he had only two minor 2008 tournament wins to his credit. To be sure, he had gone deep into all three Grand Slam events leading up to the U.S. Open, reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open before finishing as the runner-up to Nadal at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He would not concede in his post-match press conference after defeating Andy Murray for the Open crown that he was essentially insecure coming into the tournament, but that was surely the case. It was strikingly apparent all through his five set, third round encounter with Igor Andreev that Federer was not only up against an inspired adversary, but was also fighting valiantly against his own substantial inner demons.
And yet, despite 60 unforced errors, regardless of how vulnerable he looked or how ineffectually he played, Federer— in the mode of all great champions— came through on a day when he was not playing anything like the kind of tennis he expects from himself. Thereafter, he restored his self conviction and finished off the event with a four set win over 2007 Open finalist Novak Djokovic, and a straight set dissection of an overwrought Murray. Federer played a very good match against Djokovic, who was uncommonly subdued after turning the fans against him following his quarterfinal win over Andy Roddick. Djokovic was overly concerned with aggravating the audience during his match with Federer, and his lack of intensity hurt him decidedly.
Nonetheless, Federer rose to the occasion against Djokovic. In the first set of that 6-3, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2 win, he played his greatest tennis of the year. He then gave a first rate account of himself against Murray. In that final, his second serve returns were the best I have ever seen from him as he ran around his backhand for some thunderous forehands, and chipped-and-charged adroitly off the backhand in other cases.
Federer has now become the first player ever— man or woman— to win five times in a row at two different Grand Slam tournaments, following up on his sterling run at Wimbledon from 2003-2007. He has 13 majors in his collection, placing him only one behind the all-time men’s leader Pete Sampras. No matter what happens over the autumn indoors, Federer will go into the 2009 Australian Open with high hopes. A loss in New York would have cut deeply into his dwindling morale, but Federer will undoubtedly approach 2009 with, at the very least, cautious optimism.
But Federer is not the only player who leaves New York in a better frame of mind. The 21-year-old Murray reached his first major final, and demonstrated in the process that he is right up there at or near the top as a player of tactical flexibility. Murray was down two sets to love against the left-handed Austrian Jurgen Melzer in a third round Grandstand encounter, but rescued himself in the third set tie-break and never looked back. He routed Stanislas Wawrinka in the round of 16, and then came through in a spirited battle against Argentina’s phenomenal Juan Martin Del Potro, who had collected 23 straight match victories and four tournaments in a row. Murray did a masterful job of containing the big hitting Del Potro. His brilliant mixture of soft slices with flatter drives, and his superb ingenuity all through that quarterfinal contest, lifted Murray to a 7-6 (2) 7-6 (1), 4-6, 7-5 victory.
Murray played two excellent tie-breaks to move out in front after Del Potro served for the first set. Then Murray wasted leads of 3-1, and 4-3, 15-40, in the third set. Twice he was down a service break in the fourth set, but in the end he was a worthy winner. That earned him the right to meet Rafael Nadal in the penultimate round. Once more, he displayed his growing maturity and poise as a player of the first rank. To be sure, Nadal was jaded, but Murray, who had lost all five of his previous collisions with the world No. 1 and had not taken a set in their last four meetings, played magnificently to build a two set lead when the match began on Louis Armstrong Stadium Saturday afternoon.
The fact remained that he had to return the next day to finish off the battle with Nadal, who had the cushion of a service break lead at 3-2 in the third. Nadal— buoyed by the big Sunday afternoon audience in Arthur Ashe Stadium— took that third set and led 3-1, 0-30 in the fourth. Murray would not buckle and he captured five of the last six games to win 6-2, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4. He was essentially spent by the final and a top flight Federer took him apart 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. But Murray will be riding high into the rest of this season and beyond. Before the Open, he twice toppled Djokovic, a player he had not yet beaten. He had already defeated Federer the last two times they had met. And he finally beat Nadal in New York. He is a legitimate world No. 4 now, and he will be thoroughly in the mix next year along with Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. I am convinced he will win a major in 2009, and it might well be Wimbledon.
As for Nadal, he had nothing to be ashamed about at the Open, where he reached his first semifinal. Nadal had an excellent draw and, despite dropping sets to Sam Querrey in the round of 16 and Mardy Fish in the quarters, he never really looked like losing. But it was apparent against Murray that Nadal was almost totally drained. He had won eight of his previous ten tournaments and played too much tennis. Most important of all, he poured his heart and soul into winning an Olympic gold medal not only for himself but for Spain in Beijing. He had been to the well too many times after ruling at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. His boosters probably wish he had bypassed Beijing to leave himself much fresher and more highly charged for the Open, but he simply did the best he could, and it wasn’t good enough. I firmly believe the Open would have been his title had he not played the Olympics.
Del Potro was another player who clearly proved a point at the Open. Many probably wondered if he was authentic after he won two clay court and then two hard court events over the summer. That run was largely unnoticed outside the inner circle of tennis. But he demonstrated emphatically in New York that he is a great player who will finish 2008 in the top ten and reach the top five by the middle stages of next year. Del Potro, who will soon turn 20, can still learn a few things about match play. He virtually slugged himself into submission against the cagey Murray. But Del Potro will keep progressing and will drive his way into the latter stages of some majors next year.
I don’t want to ignore the women. Serena Williams must be saluted for her unwavering play at Flushing Meadows. In winning her third title and ninth Grand Slam championship, she did not drop a set, nor at any time did she let down her guard. In the final, she did a terrific job of stopping a determined Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 7-5, holding from 3-5, 0-40 in the second set and saving four set points altogether as she swept four games in a row to complete a satisfying victory. But as remarkable as that match was, Serena’s quarterfinal meeting at night with her sister Venus was even better. Serena won 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7) with some of the finest clutch play I have ever seen from her.
She saved two set points in the first set and eight more in the second to deny her big sister the win. It was the best match they have ever played against each other at a Grand Slam event. I hope that the world No. 1 Serena takes this win, works exceedingly hard in the fall, and dedicates herself whole-heartedly to garnering at least one more major, and maybe two, in 2009.
As for Jankovic, all credit to her. She was struggling inordinately to reach the top of her game in the early rounds, but she came on strong to beat Elena Dementieva in the semifinals, and then played beautifully against Serena in the championship match. She desperately wanted to send the match into a third set; it was apparent that Serena was breathing hard and getting worn out. On the last of her set points in the second set, Jankovic overanxiously double faulted. But Williams fundamentally took the match away from her and won it with aggression; Jankovic— an unsurpassed defensive player– did not really lose it.
Another woman who impressed me at the Open was Dinara Safina. The No. 6 seed— a finalist at Roland Garros and Beijing— made it to her first semifinal in New York. She did not handle the fierce wind in Ashe Stadium well and Serena prevailed 6-3, 6-2. But Safina is playing the best tennis of her life, and there is no good reason why she should not contend consistently for majors in 2009.
All in all, I enjoyed the 2008 U.S. Open immensely. It was a fitting way to end the Grand Slam tournament season. The stage has now been set for a 2009 campaign that promises us even more across the board.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com
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