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Steve Flink: 2012 Open Reflections

9/13/2012 2:00:00 PM

And so another United States Open is behind us after 15 days of intrigue and exhilaration. Andy Murray and Serena Williams took the top honors deservedly in the end. The women had a particularly good fortnight, thanks largely to Victoria Azarenka and the central role she played in so many compelling matches. The men’s event gave us a good mixture of the expected and the unexpected, and a final round men’s matchup that could have been no better. I’d like to reflect now on the last major of 2012. It was a memorable tournament on so many levels, largely positive, negative to a lesser degree, yet always providing us with suspense, drama and a cluster of first rate matches across the fortnight.

FIFTH MONDAY MEN’S FINAL IN A ROW

As is often the case, the weather over the course of this U.S. Open was not a daily problem. A hard rain fell on the opening day for a few hours but the skies cleared, and it was beautiful for the most part until a brief spell early in the second week. But on the last Saturday, at the worst possible time, severe and dangerous storms—even tornadoes— invaded the area. The USTA was well prepared for that onslaught when they made the schedule the day before, moving the first men’s semifinal up from 12PM to 11AM, realizing that the forecast for the evening was bleak.

Yet it rained around 10 AM that morning, far sooner than had been expected. That meant that the first men’s semifinal between Murray and Tomas Berdych started after 12PM. It was soon announced that the women’s final--- slated for that evening—would be postponed until Sunday, a wise and sensible decision. But as Murray and Berdych moved into the heart of their four hour showdown, it was apparent that the second semifinal between defending champion Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer would go on as planned after Murray and Berdych. That was perplexing to me.

As tournament director David Brewer would later explain, the tournament has to answer to a number of constituencies: players, fans, sponsors, television, etcetera. I fully understand the responsibility they have to balance the scales. If someone buys a ticket for the day session on Saturday, they expect to see both semifinals in Ashe Stadium. That is what they have paid for. And under ordinary circumstances, that is what they should get.

But there was nothing ordinary about that day. That is why the women’s final was postponed for the evening. To me, the powers that be should have put the Djokovic-Ferrer match on Armstrong at the same time as Murray and Berdych did battle in Ashe Stadium. Yes, it would have been disappointing to fans who wanted to see both matches back to back. But the fairest solution for everyone was to place the priority on trying to finish both matches that afternoon, and then they could have returned as planned on Sunday for the final.

An announcement could have been made in advance of the Murray-Berdych contest, giving everyone the option of wandering back and forth between Louis Armstrong Stadium and Ashe. There were some security concerns because of what happened four years ago, when Rafael Nadal met Murray on Armstrong while Federer confronted Djokovic on Ashe in the semifinals on another ominously rainy day.

Many fans stampeded over to Armstrong and there were some understandable safety concerns in that case. New Yorkers are known more for their passion and strong-mindedness than their civility. But Federer and Djokovic was already well underway when the announcement was made in 2008 that Nadal and Murray would be playing in Armstrong, due to the ferocious rain storms that were expected to hit later in the afternoon. That may well have caused the security problems.

I believe this time around the matter could have been handled differently. As I saw it, Djokovic and Ferrer deserved to play their match in its entirety on Saturday, with the winner returning on Sunday having the benefit of the same amount of rest as Murray had. The disappointed fans could have been offered a night session ticket for 2013, or something along those lines. As it was, those who had bought tickets for Sunday this year expecting to see the men’s final were forced to return on Monday to watch the final, because Ferrer and Djokovic were stopped at 5-2 in the first set on Saturday. Was that really fair? Surely many of those fans had to work on Monday and could not make it back for the 4PM Monday final—at least for the outset of the match.

In my view, this situation could have been avoided. With the dire weather forecast for late Saturday afternoon into the evening, the right move to make was to get both semifinals for the men completed, whatever it took to do that. To be sure, some of the constituencies at the Open were going to be unhappy no matter what was done, but the view here is that the Sunday final should have been protected. As it was, Djokovic had to play two hours and just over three sets of tennis to finish off Ferrer on Sunday, and that left him slightly disadvantaged against Murray physically in the final. It must be said that Djokovic might have lost to Ferrer on Saturday if play had continued in the almost unplayable wind, but that is not the point: the winner of that semifinal should not have been competing on Sunday while Murray rested.

THE MEN’S FINAL

In my view, this was among the best men’s finals of the Open Era at the U.S. Open. Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg had a gem of a four set final at Forest Hills on the clay in 1976. John McEnroe and Borg put on a five set blockbuster in 1980. Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl fought valiantly in the 1988 title match before the Swede prevailed in five tumultuous sets. Three years ago, Juan Martin Del Potro was two points from defeat before ousting Federer in a five set final as the Swiss went after a sixth title in a row.

But I believe this was a phenomenal showdown between a pair of 25-year-old warriors who were dealing admirably with the worst conditions ever for an Open championship match. Especially in the first two sets, the wind was blowing almost impossibly across Ashe Stadium. Serving into the fierce wind was extremely difficult, but serving with the wind was no bargain either. The wind diminished slightly later on, although conditions always seemed to be changing, and the players could never feel entirely comfortable in that environment.

Yet they played extraordinary tennis from beginning to end. Both players defended with astonishing skill and panache. They went from defense to offense in the blink of an eye. They imposed themselves in different ways, ignored the elements as much as possible, and played this match with a fury and supreme commitment that was fitting for the occasion. The rallies they waged were stupendous, representing hard court tennis at its very best. This four hour, 54 minute duel was also a great test of character, not just the survival of the fittest player.

Murray never trailed in this fascinating skirmish, but Djokovic was always coming back at him with bursts of brilliance. In the opening set, Murray was ahead 4-2 and reached deuce on Djokovic’s serve, hoping to get the insurance break. He went for a forehand down the line and netted it, and then drove a two-handed backhand down the line into the net. Those were not inexcusable misses, because Murray was taking the right kind of calculated risks. Djokovic rallied to 4-4, and they moved on to a tie-break. That was a remarkable sequence. Djokovic saved no less than five set points before Murray served it out at 11-10 with an un-returnable first serve to the forehand.

Djokovic had nearly stolen that set from Murray, but failing to win it after one hour and 27 minutes of bruising backcourt tennis took an emotional toll on the Serbian. Murray moved to a 4-0 lead in the second set, and served for the set at 5-3. Djokovic was unswerving, though, and he improbably made it back to 5-5. But Murray weathered that storm commendably, holding at 15 for 6-5. With Djokovic serving at 5-6, 15-30, the Serbian sent an inside-out overhead wide to fall behind double set point. He saved one set point but Murray sealed a two set lead when Djokovic missed an inside-out forehand wide. Set to Murray, 7-5. Djokovic had made spirited comebacks in both sets, but it was all for naught.

And yet, he became buoyant as he held for 1-1 in the third set. Djokovic won a spectacular point at 40-30, playing a crosscourt forehand volley that Murray took out of the air from no man’s land, hoping to take time away and rush Djokovic into an error at the net. But Djokovic moved swiftly to his left and released a gorgeous backhand crosscourt angled drop volley winner, breaking into a fist pump after that winning play. It was as if his entire outlook had been altered. Djokovic broke Murray in the following game, won that set convincingly 6-2, and then took the third 6-3 after twice breaking Murray. Djokovic was hitting the ball brilliantly through the wind, serving with much more authority, believing with growing conviction.

But Murray was the beneficiary of some good fortune just when he needed it, in the first game of the fifth set. He had not broken Djokovic since the end of the second set as the Serbian saved two break points in the third set and one more in the fourth. The momentum was entirely in Djokovic’s favor. Djokovic was beginning to wear the look of an unbeatable man. But with Djokovic serving at 30-40 in that first game of the fifth set, Murray’s sliced backhand clipped the net cord and threw off Djokovic’s timing. Djokovic awkwardly netted a backhand. Murray had broken for 1-0 in the fifth, and he would never look back. He broke Djokovic again for 3-0, dropped the next two games, but then held at love for 4-2, getting four consecutive first serves in, closing that game with an ace.

Djokovic was clearly suffering physically in the seventh game, stretching out his legs constantly between points, yet still competing hard. Murray broke him at 15 for 5-2. Djokovic called the trainer out for the changeover, and tried his best in the final game. Yet Murray prevailed 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2, calmly serving it out in the final game at 15. A crucial statistic was this: in the fifth set, Murray won 71% of his first serve points, while Djokovic won only 38% in that category.

It was a stirring final as Murray replicated the historical pattern of his coach Ivan Lendl, winning his first major in his fifth final round appearance at a Grand Slam event. No man in the “Open Era” had ever lost five finals without winning a major, so Murray had avoided that dubious distinction. He had done so deservedly. Although he cursed at himself and let off his share of steam over the course of the match, he kept his head in the battle and got on with the task at hand. Remarkably, Djokovic had come to the net 56 times across the five sets, winning 39 points (70%). Murray ventured forward only 24 times, winning 16 of those points for 67%. But the view here is that Murray won this title with superior defense. His unforced error tally was 56, which was nine less than Djokovic. In the end, that might have been the difference. In the end, it was ideal for tennis that Murray won this tournament. Every member of the top four in the world won a major in 2012.  The way I look at it, Murray will now be winning his share of majors. He will take at least one more in 2013 and by the end of his career I can’t see him settling for any less than four Grand Slam titles.

THE WOMEN’S FINAL  

Ever since 1995, when Steffi Graf defeated Monica Seles in a three set meeting between two prodigious champions to claim the title, the women have had nothing but straight set finals at the U.S. Open. That is why this year’s battle of fluctuating fortunes between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka was so welcome and even essential. The top seeded Azarenka and No. 4 seed Serena had the most captivating match in their career series, which Serena now leads 10-1. Williams had crushed Azarenka at the Olympic Games in straight sets. She had won their last five head-to-head contests in straight sets. And the soon to be 31-year-old American had swept through the tournament without losing a set. She had shown no signs of apprehension or uncertainty.

But, curiously, she did on this occasion. Serena took the first set 6-2 in 34 impressive minutes, but then tightened up considerably in the second. Serena double faulted at 15-40 in the opening game of the second set to lose her serve for the first time. Thereafter, Azarenka added depth to her shots off both sides and played solid percentage tennis, making only eight unforced errors in the second set, seven less than Serena. Azarenka took that set 6-2 and then gave herself every chance to win the third set and thus capture her first Open.

The striking thing about it all was how frozen Serena was in her tracks. She simply was not moving her feet. She was hitting too many of her groundstrokes standing very upright. Clearly, her nerves were frayed. With Azarenka serving at 0-1 in the final set, Williams had two break points but she could not convert. Azarenka broke Serena to go ahead 2-1 in the third and then had 40-15 on her serve in the fourth game. She tightened up flagrantly and was broken. Yet Azarenka regrouped and built a 5-3 final set lead. With Serena serving in the ninth game, the American was at 30-30, two points from losing the match. Williams missed her first serve but then produced a penetrating forehand crosscourt. Azarenka should have been able to get that shot back into play but she did not give herself enough margin for error as she went down the line off the forehand. That was a costly and critical mistake. Williams held on. When Azarenka served for the match at 5-4,  she seemed almost afraid to win the match. She lost her serve at 15, making two glaring unforced errors at that critical juncture.

Williams had survived a major crisis. She held for 6-5. Azarenka had two game points to reach a final set tie-break, but did not have the confidence or the gumption to hold on. Williams collected a 15th Grand Slam title and a fourth U.S. Open in the process. It was not a great tennis match in my book because the level was too uneven and the standard was not what it should have been. But it was another clutch display from Serena on a day when she was very vulnerable. She had lost her serve four times in this one match after getting broken only twice in six previous matches. She had made 45 unforced errors, 17 more than Azarenka. But she had found a way to win despite all of her vulnerabilities. And so, she raised her record to 15-4 in “Big Four” finals.

That is a prodigious record to be sure. Martina Navratilova, for example, was 18-14 in major finals. Chris Evert was 18-16. Steffi Graf was 22-9. Margaret Smith Court took 24 of her 29 final round contests at the majors. And Helen Wills Moody won 19 of 22 major finals. So Serena’s numbers are impressive. It must be mentioned, however, that Evert and Navratilova had to go through each other so often that inevitably their numbers were diminished. They met 14 times in finals at Grand Slam events, with Martina winning ten of those showdowns. As for Graf, she took on Monica Seles six times in major finals, and that series was locked at 3-3. Serena had faced many formidable rivals in Grand Slam tournament finals, but none of her opposition measures up to what some of her illustrious predecessors had to deal with.

BEST MEN’S MATCH OUTSIDE OF THE FINAL

The match of the tournament for the men leading up to the final was undoubtedly the quarterfinal duel fought between No. 4 seed David Ferrer and No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic.  This was a four hour, 31 minute skirmish that captivated the fans in Ashe Stadium. Tipsarevic nearly toppled his higher ranked adversary. He was ahead two sets to one and later built a 4-1, 0-30 lead in the fifth set. Ferrer hit a second serve that skidded off the service line, throwing off the timing of Tipsarevic, who missed the return. Later, Ferrer was serving at 4-5, 15-30 in that gripping fifth set. All along, Tipsarevic was audacious off the ground, realizing he would not stop Ferrer in any conventional way, knowing he would have to be willing to go for spectacular shots on the dead run if he wanted to beat the indefatigable Spaniard. In the end, Ferrer willed himself to another victory despite a performance of the highest order from an inspired Tipsarevic. This win took Ferrer into his second U.S. Open semifinal. He reminded us why, at 30, he remains in the forefront of his sport.

BEST WOMEN’S MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT

My choice here is the Samantha Stosur-Azarenka quarterfinal. Stosur had captured her lone major a year ago in startling fashion, crushing Serena Williams in a straight set final. In this appointment with Azarenka, Stosur began inauspiciously and lost the first set 6-1 in a rain delayed set. Stosur, however, raised her game tremendously over the last two sets and was unlucky in the end not to emerge with a victory. She found her best form, ironed out the wrinkles in her game, served purposefully and often kept Azarenka off balance. After Stosur won the second set, Azarenka moved ahead 3-1 in the third and then took a 4-2 lead. But Stosur came back with force and persuasion. Lacing her ground strokes aggressively with topspin, attacking opportunistically, competing honorably, Stosur played some magnificent tennis. But Azarenka was steadfast on her side of the net.

After Stosur fought back to 5-5 in the third, Azarenka saved a break point in the eleventh game. They settled it all in a final set tie-break, and Stosur once more started abysmally and fell behind 4-0. But she recovered to 5-5, two points from a dramatic triumph. Azarenka then made a terrific drop shot winner after an awkward shot off the net cord from Stosur, and she soon finished off a job well done with a forehand that clipped the baseline and induced an error from her opponent. Azarenka won 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (5). She then rallied from a set down to beat Maria Sharapova in the semifinals before her gripping showdown with Serena. Azarenka was surely the central figure in the women’s event this year. Her last three matches were all stirring. In many ways, she made this women’s event the sparkler that it was.

FEDERER FALLS IN QUARTERFINALS

In his last 34 major tournaments, Roger Federer has failed to reach the semifinals only four times, and has not once fallen short of the quarterfinals in that span. But Tomas Berdych is now responsible for two of Federer’s four quarterfinal losses over the last three years. The other men to oust the Swiss in quarterfinals at the Grand Slam events are Robin Soderling (2010 French Open), and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2011 Wimbledon). This time around in New York, Federer was outplayed by Berdych 7-6 (1), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 under the lights. Berdych played spectacular tennis, broke Federer five times over those four sets, overpowered the Swiss from the back of the court, and withstood a surge from Federer. Federer was down 1-3 in the third before winning five games in a row. In the fourth he had an opening with Berdych serving at 2-2, 0-30. Berdych then played a brilliant running forehand to break Federer for 5-3, and held at love with excellent serving to close out the match.

Federer was understandably dismayed by his own performance, dissatisfied with the level he had produced, disillusioned period. He had not failed to be around for the final weekend since 2003, when David Nalbandian stopped the Swiss in the round of 16.  But Federer  failed to acknowledge how well Berdych had performed. Federer has many admirable qualities as a competitor and a person, but he has not learned how to lose with grace. He should have been a lot more laudatory to an opponent who was simply better than he was that evening.

CLIJSTERS AND RODDICK SAY GOODBYE

The 29-year-old Belgian did most of the finest work in her distinguished career on the hard courts in New York. That is where she won three of her four majors, including two titles after coming out of retirement in 2009 and 2010. But this immensely popular individual knew it was time for her to leave the sport and had announced her retirement before the Open. Seeded 23rd, she lost in a pair of tie-breaks to the promising left-hander from Great Britain, Laura Robson, in the second round. She was showered with an affectionate farewell round of applause from the fans, and rightfully so. Clijsters was the personification of class on and off the court. She is surely going to take her place at the International Tennis Hall of Fame one day.

Meanwhile, Andy Roddick told the media in between his first and second round matches that he was leaving the game. Roddick’s New York departure made as much sense as that of Clijsters. He won his only Grand Slam singles title at the Open in 2003. That was the year he finished at No. 1 in the world. Roddick would lose in this Open to Juan Martin Del Potro in a four set round of 16 clash, but he acquitted himself well in defeat and addressed the crowd afterwards with a heartfelt speech, delivering it with poise. He is a complicated man, highly intelligent and articulate, but also contentious and cantankerous. But he leaves behind an enviable career record. He reached four major finals after his triumph in New York nine years ago, thrice losing to Roger Federer in the finals of Wimbledon, once falling to Federer at the Open. He led the U.S. to victory in the Davis Cup five years ago. In my view, he merits a place at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.