It began early. Angelique Kerber, ranked No 10 in the world whose previous 12 Grand Slams had seen her reach just one quarter final, found herself match point down in the first round of the Australian Open to Japan’s Misaki Doi. She saved it and went on to beat Serena Williams in the final.
Had Kerber lost that point, she would definitely not have risen to No 1 in the world by September and what it would have done to her confidence in the months following Melbourne is difficult to imagine. A Wimbledon final? A Silver medal in singles at the Olympics in Rio? A US Open title? Improbable, at best.
But Kerber, putting that match point behind her, progressed to become, at the age of 28, the oldest woman to gain the No 1 ranking for the first time. And there is no one suggesting she has not earned the position with her power and new found fortitude.
And Stan Wawrinka? There would have been no third Grand Slam triumph for the Swiss if he had not saved match point against Dan Evans in the third round. Deep in to the fourth set tie break, Evans, the 26 year old unfulfilled Brit from Birmingham who had been ranked 772 in May last year, reached a match point that would have taken him in to the last sixteen of a Slam for the first time.
Wawrinka, who had been released from Roger Federer’s shadow by winning the Australian Open title in 2014 and the French title in 2015, had learned how to dig himself out of tight situations and came storming into the net to put away a winning volley. After completing a gigantic battle 4-6, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-2, Wawrinka admitted he had been impressed the by the skill and variety of Evans’ game.
So that’s the match point factor. But what about luck? What about the timing of roof closures, rain delays, noises off and butterflies at the net? What about all those peripheral, seemingly frivolous incidents that get into players’ heads and, perhaps, change score lines?
“Luck be My Lady Tonight,” sang Frank Sinatra for players at the crap tables shooting dice. They can roll any which way, those dice, and I have always answered the question of ‘Can a player win a Grand Slam?’ with this proviso ‘Yes, if he or she gets that sliver of luck that any player, even Roger Federer, needs to win a Slam.’
The piece of good fortune may not have to come a players’ way in a match in which they are competing. It may come from what happens in another part of the draw. It may come from another player beating someone the ultimate champion doesn’t want to play. It may be infinitesimal and unquantifiable but it is almost always there.
In beating the world No 1 to win his third Grand Slam, Stan Wawrinka, it must be said, needed very little luck. His performance in the final was immense and thoroughly deserved.
But what if a rain delay and a gong going off hadn’t derailed Andy Murray in his quarter final against Kei Nishikori? Then Wawrinka would have found himself facing the tournament favorite in the semi-final; the Wimbledon champion and Olympic gold medalist and, more pertinently, the man who had deprived him of his French Open title in the Roland Garros semi-final three months before. Their head to head match up is close – Murray leading 9-7 – but, had they met, the momentum psychologically would have been with the Scot.
However, a series of weird happenings in that Murray-Nishikori match ensured that Murray was removed from Wawrinka’s path. First, let me say that the world No 2 who had lost only one match since the final of the French Open, had no one to blame but himself.
In an eerily similar way to the manner in which John McEnroe allowed himself to be distracted by noise from a cameraman’s earpiece when he was in the process of destroying Ivan Lendl in the 1984 Roland Garros final, Murray lost concentration when a gong-like sound went off from what the USTA called a courtside ‘malfunctioning digital processor’.
As luck – yes, that lady again – would have it, the loud noise ‘bonged’ right in the middle of a point, a break point to Murray at the start of the fourth set when he was leading by two sets to one against a player he had beaten in Rio. Replays show that Nishikori was on the defensive and would have struggled to make a reaching forehand return. But umpire Marija Cicek stopped the point. Murray protested vehemently and called for the referee. Courtside, Lendl watched as Murray then proceeded to lose the next seven games. One wondered whether old Stone Face was remembering the day he benefited from that kind of mental melt down.
The fact that Nishikori had already benefited from a short, sharp shower which sent the players off court while the roof was closed in the second set, probably did nothing to sooth Murray’s mind. When play resumed, it became clear that coach Michael Chang had suggested Nishikori become more aggressive on his service returns and make more use of the drop shot. Gong or no gong, those shrewd orders ultimately won the Japanese hero the match, through a bit of luck, yes, but luck is no use to anyone if the recipient does not have the skill and courage to take advantage of it. And Nishikori did – big time.
Some of his play in the fifth set was incredible. His drop shots were frequently so well disguised that even the sprinting Murray could not reach them and he continually hammered the Scot’s second serve whenever given the chance, which was too frequently.
Just after the gong went off, a beautiful yellow butterfly appeared to flutter around the net for a couple of games before being captured by a ball person. It had nothing to do with anything much unless you believe in omens and fairy tales. It looked like a very Japanese butterfly to me.
So one of the most bizarre and intriguing matches of this US Open ended with the player of the summer seeing his hopes of a fourth Grand Slam slip from his grasp in the most agonizing fashion. He should have won in four sets and, even then, proved good enough to halt Nishikori’s fifth set dominance by breaking back to lead 5-4 on serve. But Kei didn’t drop his level and Andy did. Two or three crucial mistakes allowed Nishikori to run off three games and send Lady Luck packing.
And so who was the luckiest player of the tournament? Novak Djokovic. For a start, by his own admission, he nearly didn’t play. He had been suffering from a sore shoulder and then, more seriously, an injured wrist. But he decided to take a chance and didn’t look much like his true self when defeating Jerzy Janowicz in four sets in the first round.
A big serving left handed Czech with nothing to lose would probably not have been his first choice as a second round opponent but he never got to play him. Jiri Vesely withdrew injured. After a welcome rest, Djokovic then found himself only having to play six games before Mikhail Youzhny retired at 2-4 down in the first set.
In the fourth round, Djokovic made short work of Kyle Edmund, the very promising Englishman who had upset John Isner in the previous round, winning 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. So far so good but Djokovic was facing a major battle against an old foe in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter finals. It didn’t turn out that way. Tsonga retired at 6-3, 6-2, 0-15 down.
Two retirements and a walk over for a man whose body was giving him all sorts of warnings signals? Fortunate, to say the least. They are those who might say Djokovic then faced a man who didn’t try but I don’t believe that.
His match against Gael Monfils was certainly weird. For a start the day was unbelievably humid and the Frenchman no doubt factored that into his thinking when he found himself 5-0 down in the first set. Yes, it is quite true he didn’t try for a couple of games because he wanted to get rid of the set. Why waste energy on a last cause? Players of the 1930’s, not enjoying today’s fitness levels, used to do it all the time. Just see how many 6-0 sets there are in scorelines of games played by Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry or Don Budge.
But these perfectly legitimate tactics backfired on Monfils when Djokovic started double faulting and making numerous errors. Suddenly Monfils found himself winning three unwanted games, before, inevitably, losing the set.
By then, his mind was becoming frazzled and his body language spoke of it, not least because he continued to try to stick with his original plan of slow balling Djokovic into error, much as Arthur Ashe did against Jimmy Connors did in the 1975 Wimbledon final. Ashe’s tactics worked brilliantly. Monfils’ did not. Television commentators immediately leapt on to his back, accusing him of lack of effort, of not trying.
To me this seemed irrational. No one has yet been able to answer a simple question: Why would this newly serious and newly dedicated player, who had enjoyed easily the most productive spell of a much -injured 12 year career decide not to try in only the second Grand Slam semi-final of his career? Why?
By the time Monfils had switched to a more outwardly energetic and more recognizable style by sweeping through the third set 6-3, one heard a few words being eaten. But his critics refused to back down after the match despite Gael’s exasperated denials that he had not tried. I found the whole scenario very odd.
The final was everything one hoped it would be until Djokovic’s body packed up on him. It was his feet and toes this time. Raising more questioning of the rules, Djokovic called for the trainer on an even game instead of a changeover and apologized to an unhappy Warwinka.
It didn’t seem to have any lasting effect on their relationship and both were effusive in their praise of the other at the end of a match that had producing some spellbinding rallies. Warwinka’s four set victory elevated the Swiss to a position alongside Murray as a three time Grand Slam winner. Now he needs only Wimbledon to complete the quartet.
Magnus Norman and his Swedish ‘Good to Great’ Academy has played a significant part in this triumph and it remains to be seen what lies ahead at a moment when only Andy Murray among that amazing Top4 seems to be surviving the physical damage imposed by this hugely demanding sport.