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Steve Flink: 2009 US Open Reflections

9/17/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

The way I saw it, the 2009 U.S. Open was a tournament to remember for five chief reasons: the commendable way that Juan Martin Del Potro and Kim Clijsters stepped forward to claim the singles titles; the spectacular run to the quarterfinals made by Melanie Oudin; the grit, grace and professionalism of Rafael Nadal as he went to the semifinals despite a debilitating abdominal injury; the first loss for Roger Federer in New York since 2003; and last, but not least, the inflammatory “Serena Incident”.

To be sure, there were other important story lines, including Caroline Wozniacki reaching her first major final, Andy Murray losing unexpectedly to Marin Cilic in the round of 16, Andy Roddick bowing out dramatically under the lights in a fifth set tie-break against John Isner, and Novak Djokovic putting himself within striking distance of the title again, only to find himself ushered out of the tournament for the third year in a row by Federer. But those themes were less significant than the five mentioned at the top, so I’d like to get right to those.

Del Potro has improved by leaps and bounds over the last six months, and he underlined that advance by playing the best tennis of his career to secure a first singles title at a Grand Slam event. In the end, no one could say justifiably that Del Potro had not earned his glittering prize. In the quarterfinals, he was floundering, down a set and a break against Cilic, as far away from the top of his game as could possibly have been the case. But he struck back forcefully and methodically from 1-3, 0-30 in the second set to win seven games in a row and of the last 20 to record an emphatic 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 victory. He then collided with Nadal in the penultimate round, and played an immaculate match from start to finish, winning 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.

Del Potro blew Nadal right off the court, connecting with 66% of his first serves, fending off all five break points he faced, driving the ball off both sides with overwhelming depth and pace, returning serve with controlled aggression. That win was tougher than the score would indicate, taking two hours and twenty minutes. But it was a magnificently carved out victory and his third triumph in a row over Nadal on the hard courts this season. Most important of all, he was able to conserve energy for his final round appointment with Federer, which proved to be crucial in the final analysis.

The 20-year-old Argentine was relatively out of sorts in the early stages of his clash with Federer, while the Swiss maestro was alert, energetic, composed, and purposeful as he built a commanding lead. Federer was giving Del Potro fits with his shrewd use of the backhand slice, making Del Potro bend low over and over again for the low balls, forcing the Argentine to play off very little pace. Federer’s own forehand was sharp and penetrating. He chipped and charged at the right times. He put himself into an almost unassailable position, winning the first set, and reaching 5-3 in the second set.

At 5-4 in that second set, Federer served for a two sets to love lead. That is essentially where he lost the match. He got too casual trying to play a short angled backhand slice at 30-0 and missed it. On the next point, he inexplicably went for a forehand drop shot, which Del Potro handled well. He lobbed over Federer, took the net away, and provoked an errant lob response from Federer. At 30-30, Del Potro walloped a forehand pass down the line that was called out, but he challenged the call and the replay showed the ball clipping the edge of the sideline. With Federer at 30-30, he attacked intelligently, played a reasonably good backhand volley down the line, but Del Potro stung him hard with a brilliantly executed forehand passing shot down the line winner.

Del Potro was a different man from that moment on. He played an excellent tie-break to take the second set, reaching 5-3 with a well controlled forehand winner off a backhand slice return from Federer, and then moving to 6-3 by unleashing a 138 MPH bomb of a serve, eliciting a short backhand slice return from Federer. Del Potro stepped in for a clean backhand winner up the line. Despite letting two set points slip away, Del Potro came through on the third with a crackling forehand inside-out winner. But the plot kept thickening as both players struggled inordinately to get control of the match.

In the third set, Del Potro got the break for 4-3 and then never won another game, losing his serve twice in the process. Most disconcerting to Del Potro had to be his consecutive double faults at 4-5, 30-30 that put him behind two sets to one. He had been two holds away from a two sets to one edge, and now he had virtually given away the third set to a man appearing in his 21st Grand Slam tournament final. That is a dangerous thing to do.

In the fourth set, Del Potro got back to work, and looked revitalized when he broke Federer at love for a 3-2 lead. He moved to 4-3, 30-0, six points away from a fifth set. But he let his guard down again, making three unforced errors on the next four points. Federer sensed that the end could be near. He held at 15 in the ninth game, and Del Potro was in a serious bind when he served at 4-5, 15-30. He was two points away from a four set defeat, but he stepped up mightily to that moment. He released an overpowering 128 MPH first serve that Federer chipped long off the backhand. At 30-30, still two points from extinction, Del Potro aced Federer down the T at 134 MPH. The Argentine closed out that game with a sparkling forehand down the line winner.

After a bizarre game at 5-5 when Federer had a 40-0 lead before needing to save two break points---- one of them with a desperate but beautifully executed forehand defensive save off a thunderbolt return from Del Potro--- the Swiss held on gamely, but Del Potro answered unhesitatingly by holding at love for 6-6. In the fourth set tie-break, Federer began inauspiciously with a double fault on the first point. Del Potro charged to 5-2 before Federer held on to both of his service points. At 5-4 for Del Potro in the breaker, Federer was now within three points of a four set triumph. But Federer misfired off the forehand to give Del Potro 6-4, and then missed even more flagrantly with an inside-out forehand. It was two sets all.

Del Potro broke Federer immediately for 2-0 in the fifth with an authoritative forehand passing shot crosscourt off a timid approach from his adversary, and never looked back. Del Potro saved a break point on his way to 3-0, held at the cost of only two points in his next two service games, and then finished his task by breaking Federer, coming through on his third match points to secure a hard fought win in four hours and six minutes of pulsating tennis.

Del Potro’s success was no small thing. Between them, Federer and Nadal had captured no fewer than 17 of the previous 18 Grand Slam events, with Federer the victor in eleven of those tournaments and Nadal the winner of six. Only Novak Djokovic at the 2008 Australian Open had broken that pattern. Many of us had expected Murray to be the player who would garner a first major in 2009, but he did not reach a final. So for Del Potro to win the last Grand Slam tournament of the year was timely, and the best thing that could happen for the game.

As for Clijsters, her exploits were almost as remarkable as Del Potro’s. She had been gone from the game from the spring of 2007 until this past summer, for more than two years. She had played only two tournaments leading up to New York, and had not advanced beyond the quarterfinals. But she celebrated a fortnight she will remember vividly for the rest of her life. Becoming the first mother to win a major since Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon in 1980, the 26-year-old Belgian was outstanding. She had not played at the Open since winning her one and only previous major at that site in 2005. But she proceeded to turn this event into a showcase for her speed, athleticism, footwork and anticipation.

What impressed me even more was the elevated quality of her play. Her second serve is much less susceptible to attack. Her first serve is bigger and better, especially her wide serve in the AD court.  It was a joy to see her taking the initiative more than she used to, not relying so much on her superior brand of defense but looking to take control of points with a more sustained aggression.

Clijsters became the first wildcard and first unseeded female player to prevail at the Open, and did so in style. In the process, she also became the first woman ever to defeat both Venus and Serena Williams in the same tournament twice. Altogether, Clijsters upended five seeded players, starting with 2007 Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli. In the round of 16, she won a strange match from Venus Williams by scores of 6-0, 0-6, 6-4. At the end of that contest, Clijsters revealed the depth of her inner strength and drive. Serving for the match at 5-4, she was down 15-40, but she swept four points in a row from that precarious corner, concluding the battle with a confident service winner out wide to the backhand.

Clijsters accounted for Li Na persuasively in a straight set quarterfinal, and then faced defending champion Serena Williams in the penultimate round. I will get to the controversy later, but it must be said that Clijsters played the best tennis match of her career that evening on Arthur Ashe Stadium. She had put herself on the very edge of a straight set victory before Serena erupted at the end. That became the central topic of conversation for sports fans all across the nation and around the world, but lost in the shadows was the extraordinary performance given by Clijsters.

She had only beaten Serena once in eight previous career skirmishes, but on this occasion she walked on court and conveyed the feeling that she fully intended and even expected to win. Clijsters was decidedly better than Williams from the backcourt, and was rewarded handsomely for her consistency. She made only 18 unforced errors while Serena had 31. Most significantly, Clijsters won 72% of her second serve points by backing it up so solidly, and Williams made good on only 32% of her second serve points.

In the opening set, Clijsters had 4-2, was caught at 4-4 by a determined Williams, but then held at love and broke Serena for the set in the tenth game. In the second set, Clijsters was twice down a break--- at 1-0 and 3-2--- but she was undismayed. She broke Serena for 3-3 with a barrage of flat forehands eventually forcing Williams to slice a forehand long. The level of play rose on both sides of the net as Clijsters held at love for 5-4, and Williams reached 5-5 without the loss of a point. At 5-5, Clijsters ended another love game on serve with an ace.

So the Belgian was four points away from a satisfying straight set win. She reached 15-30, and that was when Serena was called with a foot fault on a second serve, making the score 15-40. She lost all reason and has seldom if ever looked more menacing as she approached the woman who had made the call. She hit her with obscenities and threatening body language. She was clearly trying to intimidate the woman. She was way out of line.

The rest is history. The lineswoman told the umpire her version of what Serena said. Referee Brian Earley was called on court. Moments later, Williams walked over to a stunned Clijsters and shook hands. She knew she had lost the match on a point penalty, although most of the crowd had no idea that was the case. Many may have believed Serena had been disqualified for her outburst, but, in fact, she had lost on a point penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The pity from the standpoint of Clijsters was that her signature performance was almost totally obscured by the incident. That was the most unfortunate thing of all. I believe unequivocally that the Clijsters-Williams match was the best played contest of the women’s tournament, by a wide margin. But only diehard fans who watched the match carefully will remember that night for the tennis.

Before moving on to Oudin and other matters, let me weigh in on the “Serena Incident”. After her loss, she came into the press conference only a short time later, and she was the picture of composure. It was almost eerie to watch her field questions from reporters. It was as if she had stepped outside herself and was commenting on something or someone else. The most disturbing moment was when she was asked if the lineswoman deserved an apology. She answered, “Well, how many people yell at lines people…… Players, athletes, get frustrated. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that happen.”

At the end of the press conference, she was asked if she had actually foot faulted. Having earlier complained that she never got called for foot faults before this tournament, she said, “I’m pretty sure I did. If she called a foot fault, she must have seen a foot fault. I mean, she was doing her job. I’m not going to knock her for not doing her job.”

And yet, she would not offer an apology to the woman, and that was still the case a day later. Finally, on Monday morning, two days after the tirade, she issued a new statement on her web site which was picked up by many outlets. She did apologize to the lineswoman along with her fans, but it rang hollow. And later in the day, after capturing the doubles title with her sister, she was given a terrific opportunity to reinforce her apology when Patrick McEnroe asked for her reflections in the presentation ceremony. She steered completely away from elaborating on the situation, and then was defensive in a press conference a short time later.

That left the impression that she did not really want to apologize to anyone other than her fans, or perhaps Clijsters. She was fined $10,500 by the USTA, but that penalty is not nearly severe enough. The Grand Slam committee is exploring the possibility of a larger punishment. The view here is that she should be suspended for at least one Grand Slam tournament. She is still the ultimate big occasion female champion, and had won three of the last four majors coming into the Open. No penalty could teach her more than missing one of the premier events. I hope that happens.

Did she have a right to be distressed at that astonishing moment near the end of her match with Clijsters? She did. Foot faults are not frequently called by officials; it is the toughest judgment call in tennis. Replays were inconclusive. Some took the position that the lineswoman should not have called Serena for a foot fault for two reasons: she was on the brink of defeat, and, if she did foot fault, she barely touched the line.

I disagree on both counts. If the woman saw Serena step on or over the line, she had to go with what her eyes told her. The score did not matter, and a foot fault is a foot fault, whether it is flagrant or not. Serena had been given a foot fault at the far end of the court earlier in the match. I sympathize with Serena for having the misfortune to get called at such an inopportune time, but she had no business attacking that lineswoman so severely with harsh words, expletives, and a general air of intimidation. That was fundamentally wrong, and she should have been a lot more apologetic. It was not her fans who deserved the apology; it was primarily the lineswoman, and to a much lesser degree Clijsters.

I have admired Williams’s competitiveness over the years enormously, and have enjoyed listening to her wit and acute sense of humor in press conferences across a decade or more. I have never seen her behave so disgracefully, and I would be astonished to ever see her exhibit such behavior again. The fact remains that she has to lose something of much greater value than $10,500. Not being able to compete at the next major would be the best possible remedy.

In any case, besides Clijsters and her stunning achievement, the woman who stood out the most was irrefutably Oudin. The 17-year-old from Georgia knocked out four consecutive Russians including three seeds---- No. 4 Dementieva, No. 29 Maria Sharapova, and No. 13 Nadia Petrova. She lost in the quarters to a craftier Wozniacki, but that could not diminish her second straight fine showing at a major. At Wimbledon, she beat 2008 world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic to reach the round of 16. In New York, she went one round farther.

In all three of her upset victories, Oudin came from a set down to win. What I enjoyed most was her competitive acumen. She toppled those bigger names with creativity and savvy on the court, changing her game skillfully from offense to defense and then back again, taking chances when it made sense, playing the percentages when that was called for. In her interviews, she comes across as a sweet, down to earth, gentle teenager who does not take herself too seriously while admiring her rivals who have been around much longer than she had.

But, on the court, she turns into a ruthless killer, which is exactly the way it should be. Time and again at crucial moments, she screams out, “Come On”, like a female equivalent to Lleyton Hewitt. Her combination of sweetness as a human being and toughness on the court is going to take her a long way in this game. I fully expect her to win at least one major by her early twenties.

Let me offer a few final thoughts on some of the keynote players. For the second year in a row, Nadal was not at his best in New York despite making it to the semifinals. A year ago, he was exhausted after winning Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Olympics. He lost then to Murray. This year, he struggled to make the semifinals again as he dealt with an abdominal injury that restricted his serving options and virtually took away the effectiveness of his wide slice serve to the ad court.

Del Potro was in the zone, and even an absolutely healthy Nadal would have been hard pressed to beat the Argentine. But he took his loss like the classy man he is. On the way off the court after his loss to Del Potro--- the worst he has suffered at a major since bowing 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the 2008 Australian Open--- Nadal applauded the crowd the same way he does in victory, and stopped for a television interview with Pam Shriver. That spoke volumes about the man and his character.

Murray had never lost to Cilic, and when he reached double set point with Cilic serving at 4-5 in the opening set of their round of 16 meeting, he seemed safely on his way to another victory. Cilic had other notions and took an increasingly downcast Murray apart 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. He was too defensive and his serve let him down, but Murray is an exceedingly hard worker and a fiercely determined individual. I still expect him to collect a major prize next year.

As for Djokovic, I am not so sure what to expect from him. Since winning the 2008 Australian Open, he has not been back in a major final. Having lost to Federer in New York in the finals of the 2007 U.S. Open and again in the semifinals a year ago, Djokovic was surely deeply motivated to make amends this time around. He took a 4-2 first set lead, knowing full well that he needed that set much more than Federer did. But Djokovic played an abysmal game on his serve and lost it at love on a double fault. That cost him the first set. At 5-6 in the second he had a game point to reach a tie-break but did not chase a forehand from Federer that he seemingly could have reached. Finally, at 4-4 in the third, he had double break point and slugged his way foolishly out of that opportunity.

Djokovic lost in straight sets, and once more settled for a good but not a great showing at a major. He is still only 23, and he is gifted, athletic, and a great striker of the ball. But I have my doubts that he will ever win another major. Roddick lost a heartbreaker in a fifth set tie-break to John Isner in the third round, but I am more optimistic about his future and his chances of winning a second career major. He is an absolute professional who seems to have less emotional scars than Djokovic, and I still expect Roddick to come through somewhere at a Grand Slam event over the next couple of years.

On a final note, Federer’s bid for a sixth Open title in a row fell narrowly short. His 40 match US Open winning streak was stopped by an unwavering Del Potro. He was outplayed by his younger adversary, overpowered down the stretch by a player blasting forehands on the run harder and more consistently than Federer has ever seen from a rival before. But this was also a case where his luck ran out. Earlier in the year, good fortune was on his side. Two sets down against Tommy Haas in the round of 16 at Roland Garros, serving at 3-4 and break point down, he went for broke and connected with a forehand winner, and then escaped in five.

Del Potro had Federer down two sets to one in the semifinals of that event, but Federer bailed himself out ably again. At Wimbledon, had Roddick made that backhand volley with an open court at 6-5 in the second set tie-break and thus forged a two set lead, Federer might well have been beaten there.  A case could be made that he should have beaten Del Potro on this occasion, but should he have toppled Roddick at Wimbledon? Probably not. What is significant about this loss is that Federer had never been beaten in a final at a Grand Slam event by anyone other than Nadal, and no one had ever knocked out the Swiss and the Spaniard in the same major tournament. The circle seems to be widening, however slightly, however slowly.

Let me make one final point about Federer. He made some remarks to umpire Jay Garner at a changeover late in the third set that went well over the line. He became testy and even petulant with Garner at a changeover. The fans could not hear what he said, but Federer used at least one expletive, and was not warned for his transgression. This is not to say that what he did was even remotely as objectionable as the conduct exhibited by Serena Williams, but I wish Garner had issued a warning for the unacceptable language. It was an ironic moment, because Federer was questioning the way Garner was applying the rules, but by cursing he was breaking a rule himself, and he got away with it.

Federer has long carried himself with dignity and restraint as a winner, but in defeat he does not always demonstrate the same character. Earlier in the year, he made too many excuses for losses he had suffered against Murray and Djokovic in 2008 and 2009, harping on his back problems and health issues. After his loss to Del Potro, he was sporting in the press conference. The hope here is that he will keep it that way. Be that as it may, I hope Del Potro will not only be a sportsman of a high order, but also a champion who understands that claiming a first major is not as difficult as doing it over and over again.

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