Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Day 15: There is a God

Men's final, New York

After a series of precision assaults that left Andy Murray hopelessly outdone, Roger aka our heavenly father Federer has restored order in the tennis world. Andy aka snaggle-tooth Murray, playing in his first major final, was excused without much of a whimper as Federer hit the ground running early and hardly bothered to look back. Federer, finally regaining his dominant form just in time for the curtains to close on the 2008 Major circuit, cruised easily to his 13th Grand-Slam title, a virtuosic 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 victory.

While the surprisingly short match wasn't close, it was poetic. Federer was artful throughout, dispersing his world-class arsenal of shots so casually that at times it looked like he was toying with Murray. But there were times in the 2nd set where it looked like the fiery Scot was going to make it a match. He was serving to force a tiebreaker, and had played brilliantly just to stay even in the set, but the tiebreaker never materialized - Federer broke to take the set, then went on to take the next 5 games to lead 5-0 in the 3rd set.

From that point on the tennis was a mere formality - it was more about that moment of exultation that Federer and the adoring New York crowd would get to simultaneously revel in. As Federer finally secured championship point the wait was over. The beleagured king of tennis has returned to his throne in convincing fashion. Many had doubted him after a disappointing 2008 saw him be overtaken in the rankings by heir apparent Rafa Nadal. Now, as the dust has settled at the USTA National Tennis Center, believers are once again signing on.

Federer is now the only player to ever win 5 consecutive Wimbledons and 5 consecutive US Opens in his career. It is difficult to envision this achievement ever being accomplished by another man, just as it is difficult to envision Federer falling short in his quest to catapult past American Pete Sampras, who currently holds the record for 14 Grand-Slam titles. 2009, most likely, will be the year that he finally arrives at the holy grail.

When he is finished, there will no doubt be a lofty precedent set for those who wish to surpass him. As for now, Federer looks like he's a far cry from being done.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Day 14: Serena's offensive is too much for Jankovic

Woman's final, New York.

In a match that was not lacking in theatrics, before an electric New York crowd, Serena Williams regained her # 1 ranking, defeating Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 7-5 under the lights at Arthur Ashe tennis stadium.

Unfortunately for the viewing public, Jelena Jankovic, holding 40-0 lead while serving for the second set, was unable to convert the opportunity. This would have extended the match long into the night, and it would have been fitting, for both girls clearly relished the chance to shine under a very brilliant spotlight. Jankovic's missed opportunity clearly brings to light the most deficient part of her game: Her serve. In this humble journalists opinion, if Jelena spent more time working on her serve, and less time working on her smile, she might have a shot at grabbing that #1 ranking back.

Make no mistake: Serena was playing some very authoritative tennis. She was blasting her way past the sometimes giggling, sometimes doing the splits, sometimes pulling off impossible defensive shots Jankovic, and she was covering the court, particularly the short balls, with remarkable fervor. She stroked nearly 3 times the winners that Jankovic did, and this is a testament to the power of Serena's game. How she has not been ranked #1 in so long tells only the story about her lack of commitment, for she is clearly, when playing at 100%, one of the toughest ladies players ever to play the game. Her 9 Grand-Slam titles make arguing this point a very useless proposition.

S0, it is over, and Serena has emerged the victor. Her win over Venus in the quarters was the final after all.

After the match, Serena celebrated emphatically, jumping high into the air and throwing her racquet as if she was a left winger for the 1980 US Olympic men's hockey team. Meanwhile Jelena still seemed to enjoy herself, as she hogged the microphone in the awards ceremony thanking everyone on her team, including her limo driver, and her #1 fan, her mom.

This was perhaps the most entertaining straight-set match that one could have hoped for. It featured some really long rallies and amazing baseline play. There were also several hotly contested points that left the crowd in a frenzy and both girls gasping for air. As Jankovic served for the 2nd set it felt like this might turn into one of the all-time great finals. But it wasn't meant to be. Serena was just too strong.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Day 14: Murray and Federer to clash on Monday

Wow, the smoke, or should I say rain, has cleared and there is only the men's final left to be played.

The biggest semifinal surprise came from Andy Murray - the rising Scot once again left Rafa Nadal wondering what it would feel like be in the finals of the US Open. It took 2 days and a lot of break point chances (he blew 7 of them in the 3rd game of the fourth set alone), but Andy got the job done.

Rafa, surprisingly, wasn't able to muster that same air of invincibility that he now possesses on both clay and grass; his shots weren't as consistently deep or as accurate today, and he had great difficulty with many of the balls that Murray sent his way.

But don't make the mistake of not crediting Murray - he was just flat-out awesome in this the most monumental match of his young career. He was able to keep Nadal on the run for most of the points, either by drilling two-hand backhands when he needed them or by proving that he was unafraid to mix it up in long rallies with the #1 ranked Spaniard. His game featured astounding diversity: authoritative net play, big serving, zen-like patience, and masterful positioning. Strategically, Murray also seemed better today, as his return game benefitted greatly by his decision to stand far behind the baseline to return Nadal's serve - this seemed to confound Nadal (Nadal was only able to win 59% of his first-serve points, a remarkably low number for him) greatly.

This was a bonafide breakthrough match for Murray, who will finish the tournament ranked #4 in the world, regardless of what happens against Federer tomorrow. Suddenly, with Murray climbing the ladder and youngsters like Del Potro, Nishikori, and Gulbis starting to blossom, men's tennis looks more exciting than it has in years.

As for Rafa - I'm giving him a standing "O" right now. I've been on my feet for nearly an hour... The fiesty Mallorcan was incredible all season, even today in defeat. And more importantly, regarding Rafa the man - he is a Saint. The man knows how to respect his opponent, the game, and the fans, and it is a beautiful thing to see. He is a humble man and the sport is lucky to have him. Inspite of his disappointing loss today, Rafa finally broke through to the semis in New York, his best results thus far at the US Open.

As for our heavenly father, he seems to have regained a bit of his moxie here on the big stage in New York. He took advantage of a lethargic effort by a clearly morose Djokovic, who finally wilted beneath the pressure of playing his archvillian role in the semis against a rejuvanated Federer. Honestly, it looked like Novak had thrown in the towel before the match started. He didn't play horribly but it seemed that something was weighing on his mind. It was easy to see that he was dealing with the aftereffects of a tough victory over Andy aka Izod Roddick in which he berated and was berated by the unforgiving New York crowd.

Unfortunately for Djokovic, he seemed to take that episode to heart, and it showed, as his intensity level waned. He played well for brief stretches against Fed, but Roger eventually swept him aside as if he were a tiny gnat that had suddenly come between his eyeball and his grand vision of winning a 5th straight US Open.

With Murray now thrust into the mix, the top 4 in men's tennis looks mighty good. The final on Monday should yet again prove that men's tennis has a lot to offer it's ravenous fans.

Friday, September 5, 2008

My Semi-final picks/ call your bookies!

Dear Readers,
Thanks for your support.

Here are my picks for the 2008 US Open Semifinal matches:

Nadal over Murray in 5.
Djokovic over Federer in 4.
Serena over Safina in 3. (not sure about this one, and I'm rooting for Dinara)
Jankovic over Dementieva in 3.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Day 11: Roddick Roasted, Drive Home Safely

Man, what a raw deal it is to try to play Andy Roddick in The U.S. Open. I mean the guy is a chronic under-achiever in other Majors, but here, at the Open, he comes to life.

Unfortunately for Roddick, it took him 2 full sets to have his first cup of coffee with Novak. Until then, he had been moved around like a pawn on a chess board for the better part of 90 minutes. But Novak let his foot off the peddle and coughed up a break early in the third set. That blip would eventually coast him, as the beer-fed capacity crowd started to impose it's will on the match.

And man were they loud and obnoxious. Quite honestly, it wasn't cool. What was cool was the way that Novak finally found his groove. He was hanging in the wind for a while, being pushed and pulled by the intense human element of the match. People were screaming as he prepared to serve throughout the whole 4th set. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Not a single soul. I can remember thinking that this was the most difficult playing scenario imaginable for the 21 yr-old serb. But I also remembered telling myself that this kid would find it. He's a proud soldier that Djokovic, even if sometimes that pride clouds his vision.

As Roddick had strengthened in proportion to the crowd's rowdiness, this had suddenly become an incredibly tense match. Roddick was playing inspired tennis and his serve, broken 4 times in his first 8 service games, was suddenly untouchable again. His serve blistered, hitting 140 several times, and his errors were minimized at the baseline.

Upon realizing that suddenly it had become anybody's match I found myself wanting to fast-forward to the end,-the suspense was killing me. It was gut-wrenching drama, and it looked like Novak would not find his footing until it was too late. All this as Regis Philbin read a book in the crowd. How do these tennis players avoid going crazy out there?

Novak aka the Joker was down a break in the fourth set, at 4-5, when his sails found the wind again. He struck quickly, almost covertly, and won a pivotal break with a high topspin lob. It was perfectly placed and it was the perfect time to use it. A magnificent shot. It happened just after an untimely double fault at 30-30 in the previous point. Roddick was two points from being dead-even and he coughed up a double. Not good, and this from a man who didn't go to Beijing because he wanted to prepare for this years US Open. Bad idea after all.

Eventually the match worked its way into a 4th-set tiebreaker, and the crowd was even more boisterous, beer-fed, and relentless. It became evident that they would go berserk if Roddick could pull it out. It didn't seem even remotely fair for the red-blooded Serb, but hey, when has it ever been easy to be Serbian? Meanwhile, Djokovic was remaining relatively calm. Predictably, he controlled the tiebreaker, with Roddick trailing but staying within striking distance, and still playing some of his best tennis of the year (I won't take that away from him).

With Roddick serving and the tiebreaker tied at 5-5, Novak again managed to pull out the clutch point, forcing Roddick to net a backhand volley.

Novak was serving for the Match now, and the desperate fans were howling at the top of their lungs, "C'mon Andy, Andy!" They might as well have yelled "noonan," for Novak was now just tossing the ball and serving, not even hearing their cries: Roddicks returned sailed long. Put it in the books.

Man, did this Mr. Djokovic come in here and spoil the party! Not many other players in tennis could win under that kind of pressure. This was a laudable effort. He had to fight through major demons to snatch this victory from the jaws of defeat. Kudos to him.

Oh, yeah, and he'll play Federer in the semis, in case your interested.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Day 10: Fish pan-fried

Another long and very eventful day at the US open. I'll try to be brief because I'm tennised-out again and I've got to recharge my batteries for Muller v. Federer and Roddick v. Djokovic.

Safina over Penneta, 6-2, 6-2. More of the same for the up and coming russian who will now face Serena aka ain't no mountain high enough Williams in the semis.

Serena over her big sis, 7-6, 7-6. Venus goes 0-10 on set points! That has to be a record. She could have easily won this match but she lost the big points. That's what it so often comes down to: Who can deal with the "nerve-racking" points. Still, this was a very entertaining match that was played with a feverish sentiment. As I watched, I was quite convinced that the sisters were playing for keeps. It really does add such an interesting dynamic, watching sisters compete.

Andy aka dandy andy Murray over Del Potro 7-6,7-6, 4-6, 7-5. Murray wasn't perfect, but he was pretty damn good. Del Potro: I saw something I really liked from this kid, and will look forward to his 2009.

Nadal over Mardy aka Pan-fried Fish, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-2. Great 1st set from Fish but he exited stage left after that. Nadal is just too tough but he does seem a little more "touchable" on hard-court.

Day 10: Muller's improbable run

I first got wind of Gilles Muller last week when he took out Tommy Haas in 5 sets. At the time I knew he was a qualifier and I knew he was ranked a paltry 130. Well, look at him now. After a gutty win against # 5 seed Nikolai aka the gambler Davydenko yesterday, he is the first qualifier to reach the quarters here since 1999.

He also leads the Open in aces.

After watching him being interviewed on USA with Al Trautwig I couldn't help but appreciate Muller the man. I found it moving and inspiring and it made me want to grab my racquet and try to form a miracle of my own. Muller, humble and awestruck by his own success, talked about how it has been difficult to make ends meet while playing challenger tournaments and basically struggling mightily with his game. As the interview progressed you could sense both the joy and relief that he felt having finally made some money and not "having to watch the quarters from his couch" this year. Muller is currently awaiting Roger aka our heavenly father in the quarters.

Julie Coin's upset of Ana Ivanovic and Muller's improbable run to the quarters are two inspiring stories and proof that anything is possible.