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Steve Flink: US Open Retrospective

As the last major of every season, the U.S. Open stands out from all of the others for many reasons. It is played on the hard courts of New York, in a setting unlike any other, to the delight of American fans who cherish celebrating the end of summer by watching the best players in the world showcasing their talent. The Open has always reflected the country in which it is contested. No Grand Slam event is livelier or more dynamic. The way I look at it, the Australian Open more than lives up to its billing as the land of congeniality. The French Open is raucous at times and defined by fans who express themselves unabashedly. Wimbledon is the centerpiece of the sport, flaunting its tradition tastefully and elegantly. It was, is and always will be the most prestigious tournament of them all.

But of the four Grand Slam championships, the U.S.Open holds the distinction as the one that has changed the most over time. It has been held on three different surfaces. The sweep of history has been substantial at the Open. And this year the tournament transformed itself once more. At long last a retractable roof was placed over Arthur Ashe Stadium. A brand new Grandstand was completed and enjoyed enormously by the spectators. The walkways were widened. The place was revitalized. The alterations could have been no better.

As far as I am concerned, this was a first rate U.S. Open. Let me share with you the highlights from my perspective.

Stan Wawrinka Collects Third Major Title

The 31-year-old Swiss had endured his share of ups and downs across the 2016 season. To be sure, he won three tournaments over the first half of the year, taking titles in Chennai, Dubai and Geneva. In defense of his French Open title, Wawrinka did a nice job, reaching the penultimate round before losing to Andy Murray. But after losing in the second round of Wimbledon to Juan Martin del Potro, the Swiss fell into a slump. He even missed the Olympics with a bad back.

Hardly anyone expected much from Wawrinka in New York. He had been to the semifinals a year ago, but this time around it seemed almost inconceivable after his lackluster results over the summer that he could travel deep into the tournament. In the third round, Wawrinka nearly bowed out ignominiously. He took on world No. 64 Daniel Evans of Great Britain and drifted to the outer edge of defeat. Wawrinka trailed two sets to one and was match point down in the fourth set tie-break. He came forward to win that do or die point with a sound forehand volley, and recovered to win in five sets.

Wawrinka remained unconvincing in his next assignment against Illya Marchenko of the Ukraine, but prevailed in four sets. Thereafter, he started playing tennis of another caliber. He avenged his loss to Del Potro at the All England Club, capturing this quarterfinal duel under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, coming through with a four set triumph. That set the stage for a come from behind, four set victory over 2014 Open finalist Kei Nishikori.

And so he collided with none other than world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the final. Wawrinka approached that skirmish with a 4-19 career record against the Serbian. And yet, he had upended Djokovic in a five set quarterfinal on his way to winning a first major at the 2014 Australian Open, and again in a four set final at the 2015 French Open. On both occasions, the Swiss dropped the opening set, but rallied to beat the best front runner of the Open Era in the men's game. No one has a better winning percentage after winning the opening set than this man Djokovic. No one. On top of that, Djokovic headed into his meeting against Wawrinka with a 51-0 career record at the Open after winning the first set.

Djokovic, of course, had moved into and through this Open atypically. After losing to Del Potro in the first round of the Olympic Games, he pulled out of Cincinnati with a left wrist injury. The defending U.S. Open champion opened his campaign for a third title with a four set win over Jerzy Janowicz. Not only was he still concerned about the wrist, but now his right arm was acting up, and his serving velocity was way down. He was clearly not himself.

Djokovic was due to meet Jiri Vesely in the second round, the same fellow who had upset him in Monte Carlo on the clay. Vesely had to default this time at the Open. Next up for the Serbian was the Russian Mikhail Youzhny, and he retired at 4-2 down with an injury. Djokovic then played a full match against Great Britain's Kyle Edmund, advancing easily in straight sets. Facing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals, Djokovic took the first two sets 6-3, 6-2. Tsonga tried to serve the first point of the third, but an ailing knee caused him to retire right then and there.

Djokovic had played five matches, but only twice had an opponent not either defaulted or retired. He needed a serious test in the semifinals, a hard fought match that could propel him into the final. But he did not get it. Monfils reverted to days gone by with an irregular performance—and that is putting it kindly. He lost to the top seed 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 but often behaved as if he did not really care whether he won or lost. He kept clutching his left knee between points but never explained later how bad the injury was. His casual conduct deservedly drew boos for the audience. Frankly, in my view, the conduct of Monfils was borderline disgraceful.

In any case, Djokovic did not have a normal run through the draw to the final. His bizarre passage was beneficial in some respects, providing him with some extra rest. But the 29-year-old was denied the chance to measure how he was playing and to know how fit he was to compete in long matches. Conversely, Wawrinka had worked hard getting to the title round and it served him well.

In retrospect, Wawrinka's 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 victory came down largely to the fact that he was the better player when the stakes were highest and the heat of pressure at a high point. Djokovic played far and away his finest tennis of the tournament during the first set. His lunging returns off the backhand were typically spectacular and regularly productive. He was rhythmically unassailable from the backcourt. He was playing top of the line tennis while Wawrinka was spraying forehands wildly long and into the net, and even having trouble executing his magnificent topspin backhand.

That set should probably have been a blowout for Djokovic. He was up 4-1 and had a break point for 5-1, but missed a sliced backhand off an aggressively angled backhand crosscourt from the Swiss, who held on. Djokovic moved to 5-2 and had Wawrinka down 15-40. A wide first serve in the deuce court was too much for the Serbian, but then, on the second set point, he failed to take advantage of a second serve opportunity, missing a high backhand return wide as he went crosscourt.

Wawrinka not only escaped from that corner at double set point down, but profited from an apprehensively played service game from Djokovic when the Serbian led 5-3, which he concluded with a double fault at 30-40. That set went to a tie-break. An unerring Djokovic ran away with that sequence 7-1. But the hard work he put in to pull that set out took its physical and emotional toll; had he won it 6-1 or 6-2 (as was entirely possible), the course of the match might have been very different.

In the second set, a markedly improved Wawrinka led 4-1 but Djokovic struck back forcefully to 4-4. That took some extraordinary effort from the defending champion. But his surge was wasted. At 4-5, 30-40, he connected with a first serve at 121 MPH to the Wawrinka backhand. The return was nothing out of the ordinary, but Djokovic sent a forehand wide down the line. That unprovoked mistake was very costly. It was one set all.

Wawrinka captured the first three games of the third set and had Djokovic down 0-30 in the fourth game. Both men recognized the importance of this set. Djokovic fought back ferociously to 3-3. At 4-4, Wawrinka was taken to deuce three times but held on steadfastly while Djokovic wavered when it counted. At 5-5, Djokovic pushed persistently to get the break, but came up short after one deuce. Serving to stay in the set at 5-6, Djokovic led 30-0 and then 40-30. He was caught off guard there by a deep second serve return from the Swiss, and netted a two-hander. Djokovic followed with an unforced error on a down the line backhand. Now set point down, Djokovic was cautious, and Wawrinka would not let him get away with it, driving a scorching forehand down the line to draw a backhand slice error from Djokovic.

Wawrinka had managed to salvage a set he could easily have lost. He bolted to 3-0 in the fourth set before Djokovic barely held on in the fourth game. Djokovic called for the trainer to treat his bleeding toenails. He would need the trainer one more time later in the set. But there was no stopping Stan Wawrinka. He willed his way through a four set win, and garnered a Grand Slam championship he clearly deserved. It had taken three hours and 55 minutes, but Wawrinka was prepared for the arduous struggle,and even seemed to welcome it.

He won with a superb combination of offense and defense. For long stretches he outperformed Djokovic in long exchanges, taking advantage of the impatience of his opponent. And yet, as the match progressed, Wawrinka found his range and hit breathtaking winners off both sides, particularly his backhand. The Swiss released 30 of his 46 winners across the last two sets. Moreover, in the second set he made only eight unforced errors and he cut that number down to four in the fourth set. Wawrinka competed honorably and was suitably rewarded. Djokovic gave it his all but converted on only three of 17 break points. In six different Wawrinka service games spread out over all four sets, the Swiss held on from break points down. That was the fundamental reason he won the match.

And so Wawrinka established himself at 31 as the oldest man to win the U.S. Open title since Ken Rosewall in 1970. He joined Arthur Ashe, Boris Becker, Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, John Newcombe, Rosewall, Pete Sampras, Guillermo Vilas and Mats Wilander as the only Open Era male competitors to win three of the four majors. Wawrinka distinguished himself in one more significant way: he is one of only four men to win two or more Grand Slam tournaments over the age of 30 since Open Tennis commenced in 1968. Laver and Rosewall won four majors each over the age of 30; Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors both won two. Now Wawrinka has done it twice as well.

Remarkably, Wawrinka was nearly 29 when he captured his first major at the Australian Open in 2014, toppling Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. At the 2015 French Open he upended 2009 victor Roger Federer in the quarterfinals and Djokovic in the title round. And this time around in New York, Wawrinka beat 2009 champion Del Potro, 2014 finalist Nishikori and the defending champion Djokovic for his third major.

Salute Stan Wawrinka. He demonstrated again that he can beat the best on the biggest occasions under the right set of circumstances.

ANGELIQUE KERBER CONFIRMS STATUS AS NO. 1

When Kerber commenced her 2016 campaign at the Australian Open by overcoming Serena Williams in an entertaining three set final, she seemed fully capable of backing up that stunning victory and reaffirming that she belongs among the elite players in her sport. This left-hander showed us all in Melbourne that she is an outstanding match player, a woman with the highest of aspirations, and an individual who leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of prestigious prizes. Kerber was widely celebrated for that breakthrough victory, and I, for one, believed she would settle into that new world of champions with comfort and conviction.

That was not the case initially. Although she had some good results in the spring and won the clay court title in Stuttgart, her level of play was uneven. For a while, she seemed overburdened by the larger expectations of the game's closest observers. But it all turned around at Wimbledon. Kerber got to the final there and lost to Serena Williams, but she gave an exemplary performance in defeat. At the Olympic Games, Kerber garnered the silver medal as the runner-up to Monica Puig, and then the German made it to the final of Cincinnati. Had she beaten Karolina Pliskova in that title round appointment, Kerber would have taken the No. 1 world ranking away from Williams. She did not.

At the U.S. Open, Kerber was unshakable. She took the court for her semifinal against former world No. 1 and two-time former U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki knowing that the No. 1 ranking would belong to her this week even if she lost that evening. But Kerber stopped the Danish competitor in straight sets. In the final, she faced Pliskova again.

This was Kerber's chance to validate her status at No. 1. The 28-year-old did just that. Serving with impressive accuracy, conducting the rallies with meticulous care, refusing to allow Pliskova the necessary time to set up her explosive shots, Kerber was utterly in control. Her depth was unrelenting, her strategic acumen beyond reproach, and her court sense superb. Kerber broke an understandably nervous Pliskova in the opening game of the match, held her serve unwaveringly, and then broke again in the ninth game to seal the set 6-3.

With the second set score locked at 3-3, it seemed entirely possible that Kerber would be a straight set winner. But Pliskova broke Kerber with a sparkling combination, using a drop shot to pull the German forward, then producing a lob volley winner. Pliskova won that set 6-4 and then went ahead 3-1 in the final set. In her first major final, the 24-year-old had turned the corner after an inauspicious start, playing her way into a more confident frame of mind, exploiting her raw power to disrupt Kerber.

Kerber battled back gamely to 3-3, only to fall behind 0-30 in the critical seventh game. But the southpaw swept four crucial points in a row to move ahead before Pliskova answered with a tough hold for 4-4. Thereafter, Kerber did not lose another point, claiming her first U.S. Open and second major title with a flourish at the end.

It was one of the best played U.S. Open women's finals in memory, high quality from beginning to end, allowing both players to shine at different junctures, giving the fans a suspenseful and entertaining battle. In the end, Kerber won on willpower, experience and durability.

Her rise to No. 1 in the world has not come about accidentally. Kerber has worked exceedingly hard to get there. She could achieve on a level that can keep her there for a while. Perhaps next year Madison Keys can make a run toward the top, although it will take infinitely more consistency on her part to do so. Simona Halep is an outstanding defender, but limited offensively. Garbine Muguruza was an exhilarating French Open winner but has lost early at the last two majors and does not seem to be consistently committed to the highest competitive standards. And, of course, we will see if Serena Williams—who will soon turn 35— can avoid injuries and revisit her winning ways more often after taking only one major in 2016.

Kerber has not yet peaked. I see her having another big year in 2017. Her U.S. Open triumph will take her powerfully into the future.

WOMEN'S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: VENUS WILLIAMS VS. KAROLINA PLISKOVA

This was a contest all members of the tennis cognoscenti wanted to witness. Here was Venus Williams, the 2000-2001 U.S. Open champion, seeded sixth at Flushing Meadows, determined to make her presence known as she competed in her 18th and perhaps last U.S. Open at the age of 36. There was Pliskova at 24, coming off the biggest tournament win of her young career in Cincinnati, seeded tenth at the Open. A pair of big hitters stood out there in Arthur Ashe Stadium, pounding away at each other unhesitatingly, serving prodigiously, returning with a force and persuasion few players could muster.

Williams was utterly in charge at the outset. She moved swiftly into a 5-1 lead and served for the set twice, but Pliskova got back on serve at 4-5. A persistent Venus managed to carve out one more break to seal the set. Williams went ahead 3-1, 30-15 in the second set but then Pliskova began demonstrating why so many insiders believe she is a future world champion. No one in the women's game has served more aces in 2016, and yet she does it with location more than speed. Her flat forehand—especially down the line—is devastatingly potent.

Pliskova started clicking on both fronts, winning six of the next seven games, making it back to one set all. Pliskova maintained the ascendancy to lead 4-2 in the third but dropped three games in a row. In the tenth game, serving at 4-5, she was behind match point. Pliskova produced a big serve, an aggressive approach, and then a gutsy forehand swing volley inside-in for a winner. Pliskova held on, broke Williams and then had Venus trapped at 0-40 in the twelfth game. Yet the American erased those three match points against her to bring about a final set tie-break. In that sequence, Pliskova was considerably more solid, winning it seven points to three. She prevailed 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3). It was a singularly gratifying victory for Pliskova.

Two rounds later, Pliskova startled top seeded Serena Williams 6-2, 7-6 (5). That was a magnificent performance. She lost her serve only once in two sets and beat Serena at her own game, overpowering the six time U.S. Open champion. But that match was not nearly as compelling as the showdown between Pliskova and Venus Williams. That contest was a dandy.

MEN'S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT: KEI NISHIKORI VS. ANDY MURRAY

Two years ago, Nishikori had a dazzling fortnight in New York reaching his first major final, toppling Milos Raonic and Wawrinka in five set contests, surprising Djokovic in a four set semifinal, losing in the title round clash to an inspired Marin Cilic. The Japanese competitor had never quite lived up to the reputation he built for himself in 2014. He had been caught in a quarterfinal syndrome of sorts at the majors. He fell in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Australian and French Opens, and lost in the quarters again this season in Melbourne. Many of his biggest boosters had started to think that the gifted Nishikori might not play again at a major with the verve he exhibited two years ago in New York.

But there he was, facing Andy Murray in a stirring Open quarterfinal. Only once in eight previous showdowns with the world No. 2 had Nishikori bested his formidable rival. In this case, Murray rolled to a 6-1, 3-2 lead, going up a set and a break. Nishikori broke back. The match was delayed with Nisahikori serving at 3-3, 40-30 in the second set. They returned under the roof and Nishikori took that set 6-4. Murray was up 4-3, 40-0 in the third set but a sprightly Murray broke back for 4-4. Murray broke again in the ninth game and led two sets to one.

Inexplicably, Murray started getting churlish with the umpire early in the fourth, but, more importantly, Nishikori burst into shotmaking brilliance. He won eight out of nine games to take the fourth set and lead 2-0 in the fifth. Murray regained his inner composure and broke back. Nishikori, though, was stupendous on the return of serve. He took a 4-3, 40-0 fifth set lead but clearly became excessively conscious of the score, allowing Murray to break back. Soon Nishikori served at 4-5 but Murray helped him out at that stage with errant backhand return errors off intelligently placed first serves from Nishikori. He held at love. In the following game, Murray double faulted once and did not put any first serves in play. Nishikori broke his adversary for the ninth time in the match and closed out a stirring account 1-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5.

Even allowing for the fact that Murray seemed worn out at this tournament after a debilitating summer when he won 22 matches in a row, I believe this was the best match Nishikori has ever played. His return of serve was excellent. His buoyancy was unmistakable. His performance was sterling. Nishikori was up a set and a break against Wawrinka before losing that semifinal in four sets, but this tournament was plainly a step in the right direction for one of the game's most appealing players.

ROOF OVER ARTHUR ASHE STADIUM A SMASH HIT

I watched a bundle of matches this year in Ashe Stadium, many when the roof was open, some when it was closed. The atmospherics in that arena have been decidedly enhanced by the addition of that roof. It has brought about an intimacy that was not there before. Even when it is open, the place has decidedly more character than ever before.

It can get noisy in there when the roof is closed, and that makes it difficult to hear the interviews. When Murray defeated Marcel Granollers in the second round during a major downpour, it was impossible to hear the sound of the ball coming off the strings. That was true for both the players and the fans. It was also awfully difficult to hear the umpire calling the score. That problem needs to be addressed.

But that Murray match was a rare case. Otherwise, the look and feel of Ashe with the roof was ineffably good. Furthermore, the lighting was equal to, if not better than, under the roof at Wimbledon. The Open has benefitted immensely from the completion of a roof that makes the main arena decidedly more alluring.

THE NEW GRANDSTAND

Longtime visitors to the Open were well aware of how crowded the grounds had become in the stretch between the Ashe and Louis Armstrong Stadiums. That area over time was too congested. But this year Armstrong Stadium celebrated a final year in its current location, and at the far end of the grounds, very near the South Gate, the new Grandstand opened to rave reviews.

I spent a lot of time over there, and it is terrific. I saw John Isner climb from two sets to love down to oust a deeply saddened Frances Tiafoe in five sets, as the two men embraced at the net afterwards. I was there for Ryan Harrison's upset victory over an injured Raonic. I watched junior matches on that court, some mixed doubles, and a women's doubles semifinal featuring top seeded Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic defeating Martina Hingis and Coco Vandeweghe.

Now some of the crowd traffic flocks over to that court, and enhances the entire spectator experience at the Open. From my standpoint, the new Grandstand is as good as gold.

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