Sunday, August 31, 2008

Strive For Five


Flushing, NY (Saturday, August 30, 2008) - Day six of the U.S. Open featured four Third Round matches in the bottom half the Men's Singles section one draw, and every single one of them went to five sets.

Murray Mans Up in Marathon Match

Britain's No. 6-ranked Andy Murray and Switzerland's No. 10-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka overcame two-sets-to-nil deficits to claim victory Saturday, Murray showing the stamina that comes with improved fitness in overpowering Austrian Juergen Melzer 6-7 (5-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-1, 6-3 on the Grandstand court, while Wawrinka - fresh off winning 2008 Olympic Gold in Doubles with fellow compatriot Roger Federer - outlasted Italian Flavio (what a great name!) Cipolla 5-7, 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-0, 6-4 over on Court 11.

Stan the Man survives Flavio of the Month

Later, Argentine teen Juan Martin del Potro outlasted Frenchman Gilles Simon 6-4, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 on the Grandstand and the 126th-ranked Japanese juvie Kei Nishikori pulled off the upset of the tournament in beating world No. 4 David Ferrer - the Spanish reincarnation of indefatigable retriever Michael Chang - on Louis Armstrong court after almost blowing a two set lead (and a match point serving at 5-3 in the fifth set), 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5.

Quite a lot of labor for Labor Day Weekend - no wonder the young guns are prevailing at this Open (Del Potro is 19 while 18-year-old Nishikori is the youngest player on the ATP tour; earlier, 19-year-old lefty Donald Young lost a 5-setter to fellow American James Blake in the first round). Now five setters take a lot of time - at least three hours and up to five (as anyone who caught the 2008 Wimbleton final between Nadal and Federer - hereafter known simply as "The Greatest Match Ever Played" - knows well). So I was only able to see two of them - the Del Potro-Simon and Ferrer-Nishikori matches.

The Streaker and the Squeaker

Goddamn the Pusher Man: Simon Says "Beat Me"

I had seen Simon, fresh off his Indianapolis Masters win over Dmitry Tursunov, upset Roger Federer in the first round of the Toronto Masters (inexplicably, as Federer seemed to have the match in hand when he was serving for the match at 6-2, 5-4 only to let it slip away 6-2, 5-7, 4-6) and knew this would be a good one. On paper, the opponents certainly looked close - Simon ranked No. 16 in the world and del Potro No. 17. But the slight, 5-10 and 143-pound Simon ultimately didn't have the strength of the 6-5 del Potro who, after Nadal, is the hottest player of the moment on the ATP tour.

Argenteen Del Potro is in the swing of things

Juan Martin del Potro has won 22 straight matches since June - the second longest streak on the ATP circuit behind Nadal's 35 - and four consecutive ATP titles. The most recent title was a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Serbia's Viktor Troicki in the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington D.C.; previously, del Potro captured the Kitzbuhel, Stuttgart, and Los Angeles titles (beating Andy Roddick in the final) and reached the semifinals at Hertogenbosch (as well as the QFs in doubles there with fellow Argentine Canas) and the quarterfinals at Munich. Del Potro's streak is also the longest by a teenager since Nadal’s 24 successive victories in 2005 and the joint third longest in history from an Argentine (Vilas 44, Clerc 28, Vilas 19). Prior to del Potro's winning streak, only one player ranked outside the Top 10 in the last 20 years had won at least 15 consecutive matches - Karel Novacek (15) in 1992. Admittedly, he won two titles on hardcourts while most of the top players were in Beijing... but even a cynic would have to admit the kid's got some game, right?

But Frenchman Gilles had the guiles to match del Potro's athletic wiles on Saturday. Though both men looked winded, especially in the legs, ultimately it was del Potro's power that proved too much for the counterpunching Simon. Del Potro hit an insane number of forehand winners - something like 40 - to Simon's single-digit tally. (Surprisingly, though, Simon out-aced del Potro, like 16 to 9. Go figure.) The only way Simon was going to beat del Potro, as astute commentator Jim Courier pointed out, was by having del Potro beat himself. Sports handicapper Andres Gomez (who picked Simon to win because he thought del Potro was tired from a exhausting tournament schedule), observed:
Gilles Simon is the best “pusher” of the circuit, as he does nothing but return balls to the other side of the court, while expecting for errors from his opponents. Well, this clearly works and Federer, Tursunov, Querrey, Cilic, Soderling and Acasuso were some of his victims on this Summer. Simon is also in a great run, being 14-3 on the Summer hardcourt season, so he has nothing to fear in this match, not even Del Potro's winning streak of 21 matches.

Ah, but sometimes tennis operates on the simplest rules of Darwinian logic: the big and strong guys tend to prevail over the slight finese guys on any given day, even when tired. Case in point today - though del Potro was pushed to the limits of that theory, over the course of three and a half hours, by Simon. A great, exciting, and entertaining match!

The Importance of Being Ernests

OK, after Friday night's impressive loss to the insufferably hyper Andy Roddick (Personal Pet Peeve Disclaimer: I can't stand Roddick's flippant ball toss before his big serves and his constant hat and shirt-tugging - not to mention the fact that he always has to wear his stupid baseball cap, like it's some sort of Linus security blanket!), Latvia's Ernests Gulbis was my favorite new player on the ATP tour. Another 19-year-old rising star, he stands 6-3 and looks like pop star Beck Hansen.

The Importance of Being Ernests: Gulbis and lookalike Beck Hansen

And the Riga Rocket actually outpowered Roddick with forehand winners clocking close to the MPH of Roddick's serves. But it didn't hold up after the first set, with Gulbis losing in four sets to the 2003 U.S. Open champion. Oh, by the time that night match ended, Gulbis and Roddick - both of whom were born on August 30 - turned a year older, so now Gulbis is a 20-year-old prodigy and Roddick an old man of 26. Here's what Wikipedia had to say about Gulbis' style of play:
Gulbis primarily employs an offensive baseline playing style, although is fairly comfortable playing from all court positions. Gulbis' most consistent shot is his forehand, which has been likened to that of American James Blake's for its rapid pace and relatively flat execution; his forehand is taken with a medium swing and with high levels of wrist action, which attributes to the explosive nature of the shot. His arsenal of forehand shots is nearly complete, and thus can be extremely disruptive and turn a defensive position into an offensive one. His running forehand has a slice action, but consistently lands extremely deep in the court, allowing for adequate recoil time to regain court position. Gulbis also has a particularly excellent array of finesse shots, including the high lob and drop shot, both of which he can strike from any position, including from deep in the court. Gulbis' primary weakness is his backhand, which while remaining adequately deep tends to lack variety, unless a particularly advantageous situation presents itself. Gulbis' foot speed is only moderate, although his return of serve is varied and dangerous, particularly on second serves and, due to his height, kick serves. In his televised matches in 2007 and early 2008 his serve would have been described as moderate, but has recently vastly improved in speed and variety, having served out several games with no returns against the incredible returners David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal. - "Ernests Gulbis" (Wikipedia)

So there you have it about my boy Gulbis, Yesterday's Hero.

Teen Titans

But now I must switch allegiance to Kei Nishikori (錦織 圭, Nishikori Kei), the 18-year-old phenom from Shimane, Japan who I saw blow James Blake off the court when he won his first ATP title at Delray Beach, Florida, back in February of this year.

Kei Nishikori after winning Delray Beach title

If Gulbis resembles pop star Beck, then Nishikori is a clone for Chinese action star Jet Li. Unbelievable resemblance.

Jet and Kei compare their crushing forehands

The classic underdog storyline has David slaying Goliath, but on this day, a giant killer slew David. By defeating Ferrer in five sets (6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5) over the course of 3 1/2 hours, Nishikori advanced to the Fourth Round, where he where he will face another teen phenom, Argentina's smoking-hot Juan Martin Del Potro. In doing so, Nishikori became the first Japanese man to advance to the fourth round of a Masters event, and the youngest to do so since Marat Safin in 1998. It was also the first time a teenager has beaten a top five player at the U.S. Open since Bjorn Borg defeated Arthur Ashe in 1973.

But Ferrer certainly didn't make it easy.

Ferocious Fighter Ferrer flicking forehand forcefully

"He started playing great in the third and fourth set," said Nishikori afterwards. "I was tired and my legs were almost cramping, but I tried to think, 'I am playing David; he's No. 4 in the world, and playing five sets with him. I felt, like, kind of happy and [started to] think more positive. That's why I think I could fight through everything."

Tennis is far from popular in Japan, where it is more of a recreational sport. Japanese photographer Hiromasa Mano, covering the match, commented that " "For many people it's difficult to understand and also very long. People have no time to watch."

But a producer at WOWOW, the network with the exclusive rights to broadcast the U.S. Open tournament in Japan, said he was certain that when the ratings are released Nishikori's match against Ferrer would be the highest rated tennis-related program in Japan's history.

It's been quite a long time since Japan has had a talented tennis player to root for. Shuzo Matsuoka, currently a sports broadcaster in Japan, was the last Japanese-born player to win an ATP title (Seoul, 1992), reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbleton in 1995 (where he lost in four sets to Pete Sampras) and achieving the highest-ever ranking of world No. 46 in 1992. Matsuoka is most famous for effecting a rules change for injuries. At the 1995 U.S. Open, he was left writhing in pain on court after being stricken by cramps during his first round match against Petr Korda. From Wikpedia: "The rules at the time meant that Matsuoka would have forfeited the match if he had gotten medical attention, so he was left to suffer until he defaulted for delaying the match. The incident led to a change in the rules of professional tennis to allow players to receive medical treatment during matches."

Shuzo Matsuoka: Don't cramp his style

But Nishikori, who lives in Bradenton, Florida (where he trains at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and is known there as "Project 45") looks to be the rising star from the land of the Rising Sun.

"He's a very good player, no?" Ferrer told Newsday reporters afterwards. "He's a young player, plays very well and serves really well. [He plays at] a good level."

Lame Lasses

Yup, the Nishikori-Ferrer match was a dogfight, and easily the best match of the day - not to mention the best Japanese match the day (Serena Williams having easily dispatched Japan's Ai Sugiyama earlier in the day). But unfortunately, NBC (or was it USA Network?) saw fit to cut away to the listless, boring, error-prone match on Arthur Ashe court between Russia's world No. 6 Darina Safina and Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky, which the Swiss Miss blew, 6-3, 5-7, 2-6. USA Network was guilty of pushing the hype in the overrated women's tennis game, as Safina, a potential World No. 1 - following Justine Henin's retirement, injuries to Sharapova, lack of tour commitment (prior to Wimbleton and the Olympics) of the Williams sisters, and the frustratingly inconsistent play of the skittish Serbs, No. 1 Ana Ivanovic and No. 2 Jelena Jankovic - was playing the best tennis of her life coming into this match. But it was a no-brainer to leave this match and go for the big show between Nashikori and Ferrer over on Armstrong. Inexcusable!

Let me repeat: the women's game today sucks! The action and the storylines are all over on the men's side. The only reason why I rank Nishikori's win over No. 4 David Ferrer a bigger upset than 188th-ranked Julie Coin's defeat of world no. 1 Ana Ivanovic (6-3, 4-6, 6-3) is that Ivanovic was over-ranked to begin with. On any given day, anyone can beat her. She got her position by default, by a twist of fate and circumstances. Her game is still very immature, in inverse proportion to her gargantuan physical stature. She's still growing into both her body and her game and has worse nerves than chronic head case Amelie Mauresmo, who's mastered the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Ivanovic rightly scurried off the court in shame following her Second Round come-uppance.

A Final Note: Mulling Over Muller

Now when it comes to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, I'd be remiss not to mention Gilles Muller's strong early round performances in this post about five setters.

Red Alert: Muller twice rallies from two sets down

The 25-year-old 103rd-ranked Luxembourg native rallied from two sets down to defeat veteran Tommy Hass in the Second Round (2-6, 2-6, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 6-3), then repeated the trick on Sunday to move past No. 18 Nicolas Almagro into the Fourth Round by a score of 6-7 (3-7), 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6), 7-5. Like Nishikori, he's the first man or woman from his country to get that far at a Grand Slam event. But Muller remains most famous for his First Round upset of Andy Roddick in straight sets here back in 2005. That was also the year the 6-5 giant killer beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbleton. It's been hard times ever since for the lanky Luxembourg lefty, who despite being the 2001 junior U.S. Open Champion, has still never won an ATP title.

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