Here are the people and events that I will always recollect when reflecting on a major that was more than worthy of its status.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC TOPPLES ROGER FEDERER TO WIN SECOND OPEN
The Djokovic-Federer rivalry has grown decidedly in significance over the last couple of years. Think about it. Prior to the 2014 season, they had met only once in a Grand Slam tournament final, and that was at the 2007 U.S. Open when a wily Federer was dominating the sport with regal authority. By cutting down the 20-year-old Djokovic in straight sets—saving five set points in the first set and two more in the second—the Swiss Maestro captured his twelfth major and an eleventh Grand Slam crown in his last 16 appearances. That was the Serbian’s debut in a major final.
Thereafter, most of their loftiest battles were fought out in the penultimate rounds at majors, including four consecutive semifinal collisions at the U.S. Open. Federer prevailed in 2008 and 2009, taking the former in four sets, securing the latter in straights. Djokovic retaliated boldly the next two years, saving two match points in a five set 2010 triumph, casting aside two more match points the following year when he rallied from two sets to love down.
This time around, there were very high hopes on both sides of the net as the two top seeds faced each other for the fourteen time in a Grand Slam tournament. Djokovic took a 7-6 edge at major tournaments in the series on the court with him, but among the commentators and journalists in the press room, there was a growing Federer feeling of sorts. He had marched through the draw without losing a set, avenging his French Open defeat against Stan Wawrinka with a surprisingly easy straight set triumph. In six matches on his way to the title round encounter with Djokovic, Federer had lost his serve only twice. The only player to break him was Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round. He dealt ably with the fearsome John Isner 7-6 (0), 7-6 (6), 7-5 in the fourth round, crushed Richard Gasquet in the quarters and then took apart Wawrinka.
To be sure, Federer had conserved energy with his smooth passage through an uncomplicated draw. Djokovic had lost a couple of sets—one to Roberto Bautista Agut in the fourth round, the other to the irksome Feliciano Lopez in the quarters—but he dropped the second set in both cases and never looked unduly worried.
The beauty of this final between the Swiss and the Serbian revolved around how much was at stake. For the first time in his career, Djokovic had made it to all four finals at Grand Slam events in a given year. He had lost to Wawrinka at Roland Garros or else he might have been going for a 2015 Grand Slam. The last thing he wanted was to settle for winning only two of the season’s four majors when he had been the unassailable world No. 1. As for Federer, he was appearing in a second straight major final and was in full pursuit of his first Grand Slam title triumph since Wimbledon in 2012. At 34, he knows he will not be a contender forever and he must seize his chances. This time around, he appeared to be exceedingly confident about himself and his chances.
But, after a three hour rain delay turned the final into a nighttime contest, Federer was unsettled at the outset, jumping anxiously at forehands, serving with no rhythm, pressing repeatedly. Djokovic was striking the ball with utter clarity, returning beautifully, looking eager and sharp. He could well have broken Federer in the opening game of the match, as the Swiss put only 8 of 16 first serves in play. Yet Federer was broken at 1-1, missing four of six first serves in that game, losing his serve after Djokovic outplayed him in a 25 stroke exchange. Djokovic was off and running, but on the second point of the following game he took a jarring fall when chasing a Federer volley. That seemed to result in an understandable loss of concentration.
Federer broke back and then held for 3-2, but Djokovic reasserted himself swiftly, holding on for 3-3, and then breaking Federer in the seventh game with a superb piece of counter-attacking. Federer served-and-volleyed on his second delivery, deposited a backhand first volley with reasonable depth crosscourt, keeping that shot low. But Djokovic threaded the needled precisely, finding an opening down the line for a backhand passing shot winner. That gave him the critical break for 4-3. After Djokovic saved a break point in the eighth game, he had a set point on Federer’s serve but squandered it flagrantly with an unprovoked mistake off the backhand. But Djokovic held at love to take the first set 6-4.
Federer essentially controlled the tempo of the second set. He raised his first serve percentage from 53% in the first set to 68% in the second. The Swiss had Djokovic down 0-40 in the second game but five break points eluded him. But, winning 91% of his first serve points in that set, Federer had three love games on his way to a 5-4 lead and then had a couple of set points in a tense seven deuce game before Djokovic escaped and held for 5-5. At 5-6, however, with a tie-break looming and a two set lead looking entirely possible, Djokovic made three costly unforced errors and slipped into a 30-40 deficit. Federer then crunched a backhand crosscourt approach unhesitatingly to elicit a passing shot error. Set to Federer, 7-5. It was one set all.
Now matters became fascinating. At 1-1 in the third, Federer had 40-15, but double faulted into the net and then sent a crosscourt backhand wide under little pressure. Two more mistakes from Federer enabled Djokovic to gain the break for a 2-1 lead, but the Serbian played a poor game to give the break back, wasting two game points, handing away the second with a meek double fault into the net. Federer broke back for 2-2.
At 3-4, Djokovic was rolling, taking a 40-0 lead. But, after Federer flicked a backhand down the line return for a winner, Djokovic seemed to wander into disrepair. He lost the next three points, and Federer improbably had a break point for 5-3. He netted a forehand inside in. The Swiss garnered a second break point, but Djokovic wiped that one away with a dazzling forehand inside in winner. He held on for 4-4. Federer led 40-15 in the ninth game and had three game points, but Djokovic battled back tenaciously to get the break. Serving for the set at 5-4, Djokovic was down 15-40, but an excellent first serve down the T drew an errant return from Federer. Djokovic saved the next break point on a backhand crosscourt unforced error wide from Federer, who challenged an overrule from the umpire but was proven wrong.
Djokovic held on from there to win the set and take a two sets to one lead. He then seemed to be pulling away permanently from Federer, breaking in the opening game of the fourth set for 1-0. With Federer serving at 2-4, Djokovic advanced to break point. Federer serve-volleyed behind a first serve at 116 MPH down the T, but the return was letter perfect, landing for a winner. Djokovic was soaring, ahead 5-2 with two breaks in hand, closing in on the crown. Serving for the match in the eighth game, he went to 15-0 but missed a backhand down the line off an angled backhand crosscourt from Federer, who then succeeded with his newly minted S.A.B.R. (Sneak Attack by Roger), and drove a backhand crosscourt for a winner for 15-40. Djokovic served an ace down the T to win the next point but then Federer approached with great depth off the forehand to set up an easy backhand drop volley winner.
The fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium erupted as Federer broke back for 3-5, offering him one of many standing ovations. He promptly held on at 30 for 4-5, but now Djokovic had a second chance to serve out the match. At 15-30, the top seed was drawn in by a short, low chipped backhand return. Federer then stepped in for a scintillating backhand passing shot winner. Astonishingly, he was at double break point for 5-5, with Djokovic in another serious bind. But the Serbian got to 30-40 when Federer ran around his backhand for a forehand return but missed it wide. A 123 MPH first serve to the backhand from Djokovic elicited a netted return from Federer to make it deuce, but the Swiss connected elegantly with a backhand down the line winner for a third break point, bringing the crowd to their feet once more.
The audience moved from euphoria to pandemonium, but Djokovic refused to lose his composure. Federer sliced a backhand long for deuce. Djokovic had turned the corner. A first serve down the T at 122 MPH drew a netted backhand return, and the world No. 1 at long last found himself at match point. He came through with another first serve at 121 MPH down the T to the Federer forehand. The return landed long. Djokovic had prevailed 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in three hours and twenty minutes to even his career series with Federer at 21-21.
Now the Serbian has raised his record in major finals to 10-8, and Federer has slipped to 17-10. Interestingly, Federer lost his serve six times against Djokovic, who missed out on only seven break points. That 46% success rate was impressive, and contrasted sharply with Federer, who converted only 4 of 23 break points. Even so, Djokovic won 147 points in the match compared to 145 for Federer. Federer may have rattled Djokovic to a small degree with the S.A.B.R. but he only tried it seven or eight times. Djokovic won 54% of his second serve points while Federer succeeded on only 46% of his. That was a crucial statistic. In the final analysis, it was a strange match of fluctuating quality, brilliantly played at times but uneven in many ways. I believe both players were hurt by the late starting time. The conditions were somewhat slow in the cool evening air, and that benefitted Djokovic.
But the Serbian was excessively cautious off the ground during the rallies, with the exception of some scorching down the line backhands. He could have done more to dictate, but the fact remained that his defense is far and away the best in tennis, and that is what stopped Federer more than anything else. The Swiss made 29 forehand unforced errors off the forehand, 19 more than the determined and disciplined Djokovic. Many of those Federer mistakes were brought about by the speed and defense of Djokovic, who made the Swiss worry that his shots needed to be explosively impeccable.
In any case, this was one of Djokovic’s finest hours as a competitor. Every time he plays Federer, the Swiss Maestro has the luxury of almost unimaginable crowd support, above and beyond what other champions are accorded in locations all over the world. But this U.S. Open audience was even more vocal for Federer and simultaneously they were at times disrespectful of Djokovic. For him to be the victor under those circumstances with so much at stake was a tribute to his character. Seldom if ever has the Serbian displayed more grace under pressure.
So where does he go from here? He is tied with Bill Tilden now with ten majors. Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg won 11, and surely the Serbian will move beyond them. Roy Emerson collected 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and inevitably Djokovic will surpass him. Tied for second on the all-time men’s list are Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal at 14. The view here is that Djokovic will at least finish equal with those two icons, although the Spaniard must not be ignored and could still add a title or two to his collection. But can Djokovic win seven more majors and eventually catch the Swiss if the Maestro does not take any more majors? That may be a longshot, but I would not put it beyond him.
Much will depend on his longevity. His body is holding up remarkably well. If he stays healthy, Djokovic can contend and collect majors for another four years. Meanwhile, the Serbian should conclude his career with a winning record against Federer, and he will probably come out on top in his series with Nadal as well. What a coup that would be for Djokovic, who has a chance now to finish 2015 strong and perhaps surpass his 2011 season when he won 10 tournaments and 70 of 76 matches. He has already sealed the year-end Emirates ATP No. 1 world ranking for the fourth time in five years. Djokovic keeps climbing through history, moving above and beyond himself. Much of his best may be yet to come.
All year long at the majors, Serena Williams had been living dangerously. At the Australian Open, she had some scares before peaking against Maria Sharapova in the final. At the French Open, she was extended to three sets in five of her seven matches. At Wimbledon, Great Britain’s Heather Watson served for the match against Williams and was two points from removing the heavy tournament favorite in three sets. At the U.S. Open, the unexpected struggles continued. She was down a set against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the third round and in serious danger before escaping 3-6, 7-5, 6-0. In the quarterfinals, facing her revitalized sister Venus Williams, the top seed was pushed hard again before recording a 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 triumph.
And yet, there she was in the semifinals against world No. 43 Roberta Vinci, a player who had never taken Serena beyond 6-4 in any set. Williams owned a 4-0 career record over the Italian. In the opening set of her semifinal against Vinci, Serena was down a break, trailing 1-2. But she won 21 of 28 points and five games in a row to seal the set. She was only three sets from a sweep of the four majors and the first Grand Slam since Steffi Graf realized that substantial feat in 1988.
Vinci, however, found her bearings. Her sliced backhand started causing Serena to lose her timing. Her soft-paced flat forehands were effective. Her serve was well placed and strategically sound. Vinci broke Serena at 2-2 in the second set and made it count, but then Williams bolted to a 2-0, 40-30 third set lead. A hold there would almost surely have put her out of reach. But Vinci persisted and broke back. She gained another break. But, most impressive at all, she served out the match at love, making a pair of superb half-volley drop shot winners, profiting from a couple of unforced errors from Williams. Vinci pulled off the single biggest upset in the history of women’s Grand Slam tournament competition. She was terrific.
Clearly, Williams became exceedingly nervous. Her feet were frozen. Her court coverage was abysmal. This time, she was unable to come through in a three set match the way she had eleven times during her campaign for the Grand Slam. In many ways, her dangerous competitive ways caught up with her. Not even a 21-time major singles champion can keep summoning rescue missions and get away with it. In the end, Williams deserved her fate and Vinci was a worthy winner of that match.
In the third set, Vinci connected with the entirely pro-Serena crowd audaciously, pointing to herself after a big point, imploring them to appreciate what she was doing. The American fans loved that spontaneous gesture. After the astounding victory, Vinci gave the most beguiling post-match interview I have ever heard. She was charming, natural, self-effacing, amusing, witty and congenial. It was one of those moments that will live forever in our hearts and minds.
Williams, meanwhile, did not handle defeat with grace or dignity. Her press conference lasted barely over three minutes. She was curt, unresponsive, condescending toward some of the press, and bitter. To be fair, she did credit Vinci for playing so well, but that was a passing compliment. Primarily, Williams wanted to get off the grounds, forget about her hard defeat, and move beyond the disappointment. That was understandable. But as one of the great champions of all time, she owed it to herself to be more professional and less self-centered. Her response to losing was regrettable. She will never get a chance like this again to become only the fourth woman ever to complete a legitimate Grand Slam. But her response to this setback was not what it should have been.
THE All-ITALIAN FINAL
Never before had two Italians confronted each other in the final of a Grand Slam championship. The last Italian woman to win a major was the charismatic Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros five years ago. But, against all odds, beyond all belief, the unseeded Vinci, 32, took her place in the final against countrywoman Flavia Pennetta, the No. 26 seed. Pennetta, 33, had a magnificent tournament. She has always played her best tennis at the U.S. Open, four times going to the quarterfinals, once reaching the semifinals. She has included Maria Sharapova among her victims over the years. And she is one of the finest match players and tacticians in the women’s game, a poor woman’s Martina Hingis if you will.
Pennetta thoroughly earned her place in the final. She stopped 2011 champion and No. 22 seed Samantha Stosur, clipped No. 5 seed and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, and then surprised No. 2 seed Simona Halep. That run of results gave Pennetta some quiet confidence coming into the final against Vinci, who had never been beyond the quarters in her entire career at the majors.
The caliber of the final was not extraordinary. Both players were nervous. The tennis was played out at a slow pace. It looked at times like a round of 16 match rather than a final. But that didn’t really matter. The mere fact that they were both in such a position to succeed on one of the premier stages of the sport was a triumph for tennis. Their respect for each other and the way they went about competing was admirable in every way. Watching them was a pleasure because it was so apparent how much being there meant to both women.
Pennetta was the better player to be sure. She took the first set in a tie-break and then glided home to victory from there. Pennetta was victorious 7-6 (4), 6-2. When it was over, she confirmed that the U.S. Open was her last major tennis tournament. Pennetta will fulfill a few more WTA Tour commitments across the autumn, but she is through with the Grand Slam game. Could she have found a better way to depart from the premier stages? I think not.
NADAL’S BAFFLING EXIT
After securing his second U.S. Open title over Djokovic in 2013, Rafael Nadal was injured last summer and unable to defend his crown. He returned this year as the No. 8 seed, determined to make amends after losing in the quarterfinals of the Australian and French Opens and falling in the second round at Wimbledon. Nadal took some tough losses over the summer on the hard courts, but seemed ready to make his presence known when he faced the mercurial Fabio Fognini in the third round.
Fognini had been a problematic opponent for Nadal all season, defeating the Spaniard twice on clay before losing to the dynamic left-hander in the final of Hamburg on the dirt. Nadal and Fognini played their third round contest under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and Nadal built a commanding lead. He won the first two sets and led 3-1 in the third. Victory seemed just around the corner. Defeat seemed like a remote possibility. Nadal was on the verge of reaching the round of 16.
But he lost his bearings in the third before moving ahead 2-0 in the fourth set. Once more, he shied away from playing the way he should have. He was hoping not to miss but failing to pound his groundstrokes with the required force and persuasion. Nadal amazingly lost the fourth set, and by now Fognini was hitting winners effortlessly. Nadal had so little sting on his shots compared to the early stages of the match that Fognini seemed to have all day to set up his winning shots.
Three times in the fifth set, Fognini went up a break, but a typically defiant Nadal broke back every time. He served at 4-4 in the fifth. Who would have doubted him now? But Nadal was broken once more, and Fognini prevailed 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. It was the first time ever at a Grand Slam event that Nadal had not closed out an account from two sets to love up. Gone he was in the third round against a player who had lost his last seven matches on hard courts before coming to the Open, and a man who was the last player to make the seeding cut at No. 32.
Nadal should have had every opportunity to reach the quarterfinals and play Djokovic. I don’t think he would have won that match, but even a decent showing—perhaps a close four set match—would have done wonders for his confidence. Now it is back to the drawing board for one of the game’s staunchest competitors. He must make a move of significance over the course of this fall, beat Federer or Djokovic or Murray, remind himself that it was no accident that he set a men’s record by winning at least one major for ten consecutive years from 2005-2014. He needs to give himself a boost heading into 2016 because 2015 has been the worst year of his career since he climbed into the upper echelons. I still believe he can and will do something out of the ordinary this autumn that will propel him back toward extraordinary accomplishments in 2016.
HINGIS SHINES AGAIN
At Wimbledon, the game’s smartest tennis player joined forces with Sania Mirza in women’s doubles and the ageless Leander Paes in mixed doubles, and came away deservedly with both crowns. Taking nothing away from Paes and Mirza, but the most exuberant player on the court in both cases was the Swiss lady. She was always a great doubles player, even when she was at and near the top of the women’s game in singles during the late nineties and beyond. In fact, the first big prize she won at a major was in the women’s doubles at Wimbledon alongside Helena Sukova when she was 15 in 1996. I remember vividly riding in a van back from the site to my hotel with other players and press after that triumph. Hingis was with us. We congratulated her on the victory, and she smiled and thanked us.
At the U.S. Open, she was seeded fourth with Paes. They were fortunate to get consecutive defaults from their opponents in the second round and quarterfinals. In the semifinals, they upended No. 2 seeds Yung-Jan Chan and Rohan Bopanna. And in the final, Hingis-Paes won an exhilarating contest over the Americans Mattek Sands and Sam Querrey. They lost the first set to the U.S. duo, came back to win the second and rallied from 2-5 down in the “Super Tie-Break” for a 4-6, 6-3 [10-7] triumph.
In the women’s doubles, Hingis and Mirza—the top seeds—swept through the draw without losing a set, erasing No 4 seeds Casey Dellacqua and Yaroslava Shvedova 6-3, 6-3 in the final. What a year it has been for Hingis. The 34-year-old has come away with five major titles in 2015. Her bright presence at the Grand Slam events has been great for the game. There has been no more purposeful player in tennis. Her U.S. Open victories delighted her followers. Hingis remains a joy to watch. I believe she could remain a top flight doubles player for another six or seven years.
KEVIN ANDERSON STEPS UP
Andy Murray had been a model of consistency all through 2015 at the majors, reaching the finals of the Australian Open and the semifinals at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He had a fine summer as well, ending an eight match losing streak against Djokovic in the final of Montreal, reaching the semifinals of Cincinnati. I believed he would make it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open as well, and push Federer long and hard in that round. But the 6’8” South African Kevin Anderson had other notions. The No. 15 seed had nearly achieved a stunning upset win over Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. In their round of 16 meeting out on Court One, Anderson led the world No. 1 two sets to love before losing 7-5 in the fifth set. It was Djokovic’s toughest match of the tournament.
At the Open, Anderson took his game to an even higher level. He played his best ever match at a major to oust Murray in a riveting four hour showdown, eclipsing the No. 3 seed 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (0). How he stayed with Murray physically I will never know. The British warrior had some hard luck early on, failing to convert break points in the opening set, losing a tie-break when Anderson released a blazing forehand down the line winner with the British player serving at 5-6. Anderson raced to a two break lead in the second but Murray turned up his intensity decidedly and nearly got back on serve before dropping that set. He then played a terrific tie-break in the third and on they went to a fourth set tie-break.
No one in the cognoscenti believed that Anderson could stay with Murray if the match went five sets, but the big man would not allow that to happen. He did not lose a point in an immaculate fourth set tie-break. This match was played on Louis Armstrong Stadium, and the atmosphere that afternoon and evening was more exhilarating than for any other match prior to the final of the Open. Murray has seldom connected with an audience as convincingly as he did that day. He had them overwhelmingly on his side, and it almost carried him past deep adversity into the territory of victory. But Kevin Anderson halted a great player right in his tracks, and did so not exclusively with his serve.
His ground game that day was outstanding. Anderson had nothing left when he took on Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, but the fact remains that his crackling Labor Day showdown with Murray was one of the big highlights of the fortnight.