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Steve Flink: US Open Retrospective

9/11/2007 3:24:00 AM

by Steve Flink

The 2007 U.S. Open moved seamlessly from beginning to end. All through the fortnight, the tennis was first class as we celebrated one sparkling sunny day after another. The festive atmosphere in New York was unmistakable. From the standpoint of the fans, they could hardly have asked for more. They witnessed Roger Federer moving to within two titles of a tie with Pete Sampras for the most Grand Slam championships ever secured by a man. The Swiss maestro collected his 12th major crown by holding back world No. 3 Novak Djokovic in the final, and for the third time in an astonishing four year span he has captured three of the four major titles in one season. We are running out of superlatives to describe Federer, who is marching through history with rare elegance and class.

In turn, Justine Henin won her second U.S. Open and seventh major in absolute style without losing a set. Along the way she ousted Serena and Venus Williams back to back, a feat last achieved at a Grand Slam championship by Martina Hingis at the 2001 Australian Open. But, on that occasion, Hingis was beaten in the final by Jennifer Capriati. This time around, Henin did not suffer a letdown after overcoming her two daunting adversaries, and the Belgian dispatched Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-3 in the final. At 25, with her fierce determination and a growing awareness of her capabilities, Henin's best may be yet to come.

But while this U.S. Open was a time of triumph for some, it was a land of disappointment for others. Rafael Nadal's misfortune at the Open continued as the 21-year-old Spaniard lost to countryman David Ferrer in the round of 16. Nadal had considered not playing at all in New York because of an ongoing knee injury. Clearly, Nadal was not entirely himself and his mobility was impaired. Adding to his woes during his four set loss to Ferrer was a cramp in his finger.

For the third year in a row, ever since he took over as an unbeatable force at Roland Garros, Nadal had a disappointing U.S. Open. Two years ago, he was blasted off the court by an inspired James Blake in the third round. A year ago, he went down in the quarterfinals against Mikhail Youzhny. This year, he never really had a chance in his condition. Nadal simply takes too much out of himself in the clay court season. He has made it to the Wimbledon final two years in a row, but then he can't seem to reignite his game after he leaves the lawns. This man is too important for that pattern to continue.

Two other men who did not take as much away from the Open as they would have liked were the Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake. Roddick played his heart out against Federer in the quarterfinals, served stupendously in the first two sets and never even faced a break point, but was beaten 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-2. That had to be demoralizing. Since he broke through to win his first Grand Slam title in 2003 at the U.S. Open, Roddick has gone four consecutive years without taking another major. His record against Federer is 1-14. Roddick simply can't handle Federer in the all-important tie-breaks, losing 10 of the 11 they have played against each other through their careers.

As for Blake, he had the kind of draw that could have allowed him to make it to the semifinals of a major for the first time. But the 27-year-old American lost an agonizing contest against Tommy Haas in the round of 16, squandering three match points and losing in the round of 16. Blake and Haas put on a spectacular shot making exhibition and the American recouped boldly in the fifth set from break point down at 2-4 to almost pull the match out. Almost isn't good enough. Blake just doesn't seem to know how to put the clamps down.

Djokovic wasted monumental opportunities against Federer in the final, blowing a 6-5, 40-0 lead in the first set and failing to exploit five set points. And then he had two more set points in the second set. He choked, but his candor in talking about it in the press conference was very impressive. He has the mentality of a champion. He did fail his first big test, losing his first major final. But he must be admired for how he handled himself in New York, and for surviving the match of the tournament with a fifth set tie-break win over Radek Stepanek in the second round. Djokovic will surely win a major in 2008.

Among the women, Maria Sharapova suffered the biggest upset. The defending champion, who returned to watch her friend Djokovic play Federer in the final, was ushered out of the Open by the No. 30 seed from Poland, Agnieszka Radwanska. Sharapova had taken eight out of nine games to establish a 2-0 final set lead against the 18-year-old, but Radwanska retaliated audaciously to capture six consecutive games for the victory. Sharapova was gracious in defeat, but her loss was inexplicable. She claimed her shoulder was all right, but her serve lost significant velocity in the latter stages and the rest of her game deteriorated.

It was a tough time for the Williams sisters as Henin accounted for both of them. The similarity of the matches Justine played against Serena and Venus was striking. Henin served for the first set against Serena in the quarters, let a set point slip away, then rallied from set point down herself to win 7-6 (3), 6-1. Against Venus, who had won the best women's match of the tournament in a third set tie-break over Jelena Jankovic, Henin led 5-4,40-15, lost her serve, but struck back boldly for a 7-6 (2), 6-4 win. The most exciting moments of the women's event were in the latter stages of the first set and the early portions of the second as Venus and Henin dazzled the crowd with unimaginably creative and athletic points. It was a shame that their semifinal confrontation could not have been the championship match.

It was also a pity that two of the game's bright young players demonstrated that, at least for the time being, they don't have the essential toughness required of a champion. Richard Gasquet, the No. 13 seed from France and a semifinalist at Wimbledon, defaulted his second round match against Donald Young of the U.S. As he explained in his press conference, "I tried to practice but I couldn't play. I got fever yesterday night. I can't play in three sets in my match today. It's impossible.... With my illness I'm sure I can't win this match." With all due respect to Gasquet, it was difficult not to be skeptical about his decision. Why not at least try to compete? This was so small town withdrawal; he was forfeiting a match at the U.S. Open! Gasquet surely could have gone on court and attempted to play.

Meanwhile, Tomas Berdych, the No. 9 seed, met Roddick in the round of 16. He served for the first set at 5-3, and later had a set point in the tie-break. Roddick pulled the set out and went ahead 2-0 in the second set. Berdych retired. He explained, "I was feeling really bad. I was just trying and hoping maybe it's going to change or something. But I didn't feel well. I can't breathe as I normally do."

In fairness, Berdych, like Gasquet, might have been seriously concerned about his health. But had he been in their shoes, Nadal surely would have tried to play his way through it. Federer and Roddick would have done everything in their power to have played on. Berdych was not serving as consistently big as he usually does, but quitting in the middle of that match seemed lame and unnecessary.

Gasquet is 21, and Berdych is just about to turn 22. Perhaps they will change their ways. In any case, reflecting on the latest U.S. Open, the sun was forever shining, the tennis was often absorbing, and the Grand Slam season came to a fitting conclusion.

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