The human drama of the Open surely embraces those aspirants who are not in
the top tiers, male and female. The stories of these many others, whose bid for
glory is the current culmination of months, indeed years, of sacrifice and
effort, can be just as compelling as those of the prime contenders. For
coherence, however, our narrative is here focused on the superstars. Providentially,
however, our comments on the unfolding fates of our favorites are also crossed
with the brilliance of several less-well-known risers, many of them young, all
likely to be heard from in the future.
Rain-free skies and mild temperatures prevailed over most of the two weeks in
New York, though on some dates players spoke of shifty wind conditions or
high humidity. The approach and passage of hurricane Hanna altered matters in the
final weekend, but the revised schedule provided a reasonable scheme for
players and fans alike.
Throughout the tournament, the courts were said to be fast-bouncing, a matter
confirmed by the unusually high number of sets ending in tiebreakers. (The
frequency of tiebreakers correlates well with serving effectiveness and court
speed.) There were more tiebreakers than at any U.S. Open since I began tracking
the data nine years ago. As usual, the most recent Australian and French
Opens produced fewer tiebreaker sets, Wimbledon more. As would be expected, the
fast bounce gave the advantage to the attacker, and there seemed a
higher-than-usual percentage of points decided at net.
Lower-ranked players often forced the headliners to produce their best
tennis, although there were relatively few surprises in outcomes. The last four
players standing in both men's and women's singles at the Open were the exact ones
predicted in our pre-tournament analyses, which had been based on weighted
past results in the men's case and on recent head-to-head outcomes in the
women's. The golden quality of the predictions would not last into the last two
EARLY ROUNDS: THE MEN'S BIG SIX
Emerging from our pre-tournament calculations was a top tier of three prime
superstars--Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer, rated in that order in their chances
of winning the Open. Next came a second tier consisting of Davydenko, Blake,
and Murray. All but one survived the first three rounds of play.
Our foremost favorite, Rafael Nadal, in first-round action found himself
tested by German pro Bjorn Phau, who showed excellent court movement and a
sizzling backhand one-hander. Rafa won in three straight sets, but two of them were
settled in tiebreakers and the other by a single service break. At no time was
Phau badly outplayed amid countless thrilling points and games. Probably the
difference was Rafa's relentless overspin and its usual effect on an opponent's
physical and mental reserves. The day gave little evidence of Rafa's expected
superiority over all others.
Two matches later, Rafa faced Viktor Troicki, who had beaten Roddick and
reached the final at the Legg Mason here two weeks before. On this day against
Rafael, Viktor shelved the patient style that he had shown in Washington,
apparently believing that playing too softly guaranteed prompt on-court domination by
Rafa. Stretches of wonderful attacking in serving and stroking kept Viktor
close for most of the first set and in segments of the second. But Viktor's hot
spells gradually waned amid several counterstrokes of absolute brilliance by
Rafa that seemed to sap Viktor's confidence.
 Rafael Nadal (ESP) [blue shirt] d. Bjorn Phau (GER) 76(4) 64 76(4)
Novak Djokovic's opponent in his night-time third-rounder was Marin Cilic, a
19-year-old from Croatia, a slender 6-5 in height. Cilic had won the
tournament in New Haven the previous week, and now seemed just about equal with
Djokovic. Cilic appeared slightly the heavier server and stroker, Djokovic slightly
more consistent in avoiding errors. Many of the points were ferociously long,
where the two slugged away, toe-to-toe, moving one another about the court, to
the gallery's breathtaking delight. Cilic showed remarkable defensive ability,
aided by his long reach. After nearly four hours, Djokovic held two match
points in the fourth set, serving. But the opportunity slipped away in two
unhappy errors, while Cilic was now playing the more freely, using his wingspan to
save several near-aces. Cilic seemed the less tired, the more confident, but
Marin's edge disappeared in the closing tiebreaker, won by Djokovic in seven
straight points. Still, it seemed indisputable that Cilic is headed for the
game's top tier.
 Rafael Nadal (ESP) [headband] d Viktor Triocki (SRB) 64 63 60
Andy Murray survived the prime group's most difficult journey to the final
sixteen. In his second match Andy fought off net-rushing Michael Llodra, losing
the second set but winning the other three closely. The French star
consistently looked to move forward and played extremely well once at net. The official
stats showed Llodra winning 64 of a remarkable total of 97 points at net.
(Murray won 24 of 30.) Then in his next match, Murray fell behind Austrian star
Jurgen Melzer by two sets. With Melzer hitting aggressively in both pace and
direction, the Austrian's chances seemed excellent. But an onset of cramping led
Melzer to surrender the fourth set after falling behind. Melzer then
contested the fifth set well albeit amid signs of his continuing discomfort, but
Andy's firm stroking eventually prevailed. Melzer was at net 79 times, winning 46,
both numbers exceeding Murray's by half again.
 Novak Djokovic (SRB) [black/green shirt] d Marin Cilic (CRO) 67(7) 75 64 76(0)
The non-survivor of our elite group was James Blake, who had trouble in the
first round, outplayed in long stretches by left-handed teen-aged Donald Young.
Overall, Young equaled Blake in his excellent movement and striking power,
and showed better ability at net. Matters reached four-games-all, fifth set,
the rallies every bit as fierce as those seen earlier, before a strong finish by
Blake closed out the evening. Young lost, but the affair seemed a
foreshadowing of what must be a superb career ahead for Donald.
In his next appearance, James's third-round opponent was unseeded Mardy Fish,
who had been the losing finalist to Cilic the previous week in New Haven. In
overcoming seeded Mathieu in the Open, Fish delivered 27 aces and zero
double-faults. Now, Mardy repeated his strong serving, delivering sixteen aces in
overcoming Blake in straight sets.
As the first week ended, three rounds of men's singles had been played, two
rounds of doubles, and one round of mixed. These matches constituted more than
three-fourths of the full tournament. In the tally of matches won by nation to
date, the eventual pattern was now evident.
U.S.A., 23 match wins
With the Bryan twins likely to add as many as four more wins in doubles, and
with both Roddick and Fish still alive in singles, first place in the final
tally by the American males seemed assured. If so, it would end Spain's run of
success in Slams, the Nadal-led Armada having come out ahead at both Garros and
Wimbledon 08. Meanwhile Spain's current second-place advantage over France
seemed likely to increase, given the likelihood of further contributions by Rafa
in singles and Lopez-Verdasco in doubles.
MEN'S MIDDLE ROUNDS
A second member of our Six, Nicolay Davydenko, was eliminated by European
player Gilles Muller. Also severely tested on Second Monday and Tuesday were
several others of our elites.
Rafael Nadal attained the final eight in a bruising four-setter with American
Sam Querrey, age 20 at height 6-6. Querrey's severe serving and potent
forehand kept matters much closer than expected. Rafa was generally content to force
play only moderately, though his relentless high-bouncing ground strokes
seemed less effective against this tall (6-6) Californian than against most other
Novak Djokovic narrowly escaped his fourth-rounder against Tommy Robredo. In
losing the fourth set Novak labored under various infirmities, including hip
and ankle injuries and upset stomach. Most serious was Novak's obvious
tiredness after long rallies that seemed related to breathing difficulties of a kind
seen on several past occasions. With Robredo playing well, it seemed that Tommy
would surely win the concluding fifth set. But instead it was Djokovic who
somehow found his earlier power and accuracy, while Tommy let critical points
Immediately afterwards, Roger Federer took court at Ashe Stadium against Igor
Andreev. Igor was seeded in the twenties but is the possessor of an
extraordinarily potent forehand delivered with severe overspin--an aggressive shot that
is difficult to handle on any surface. Andreev's serve is also extremely
strong, while the rest of his game on this day matched up well against the
four-time champion's. Roger meanwhile missed shots uncharacteristically often and at
times roared angrily at his own failings. Probably the emotion helped the
champion intermittently reach his best tennis, including in the fifth set, played
under the lights amid loud and almost total crowd support for Roger. Toward
the end Roger came to net consistently behind first serves, finally showing 58
points won of 84 points at net. The latter value was three times that of his
 Novak Djokovic (SRB) [white cap] d  Tommy Robredo (ESP) 46 62 63 57 63
I could not remember ever watching Andy Roddick perform at a higher overall
level than in defeating Fernando Gonzalez in straight sets Tuesday evening.
Andy's serve and power stroking were there as usual, but his movement, his
consistency in avoiding error, and especially his effectiveness at net seemed at
heights rarely shown by Andy, certainly in recent months. Andy's chances seemed
excellent against his badly worn, next opponent, Djokovic, two days ahead.
There had been talk that competing in the recent Olympics at Beijing had been
an unusually draining experience. It thus seemed noteworthy that the last
eight survivors in the Open included two unseeded players and one who was not
seeded in the first sixteen--Fish, Muller, and del Potro--none of whom had gone to
Beijing. A fourth quarter-finalist was Andy Roddick, who also had missed the
Olympics. The other four players to reach the Open quarters were our surviving
Big Six members.
 Andy Roddick (USA) d  Fernando Gonzalez (CHI) [yellow shirt] 75 62 62
Juan Martin del Potro, recent champion at the Legg Mason in Washington, again
showed his magnificent stroking power. Andy Murray answered well, in
stretches mixing excellent defensive play with frequent counter-attacking. Murray
played well in winning the tiebreakers ending the first and second sets, but with
a service break in hand and his opponent seemingly tired, Murray let slip the
third set and fell behind in the fourth. But with del Potro now apparently
hurting and badly fatigued, it was Murray who narrowly won the fourth and final
set, ending a magnificent spring and summer for the teenager from Argentina.
Late Wednesday night in the second quarter-final, Rafael Nadal faced Mardy
Fish, who after upsetting Blake had overwhelmed Gael Monfils in straight sets,
scoring 49 winners and only 28 unforced errors, and winning 45 points when at
net (against Gael's 3). Now, against Nadal, Fish started off in the same
fashion, dominating and winning the first set by his high-velocity serving and
all-out aggressive play. But Rafa stepped up his own play in the second set, and
Mardy's errors became more frequent. Nadal took that set one-sidedly and then
ran out the match by comfortable scores.
 Andy Murray (GBR) d  Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG) [red shirt] 76(2) 76(1) 47 75
Qualifier Gilles Muller played well against Roger Federer, showing an
excellent lefty serve and good ability to place shots consistently close to the
sidelines and corners. Roger seemed content to let the play come to him, turning on
just enough heat to stay out of danger. Roger won all three sets closely.
Then in the last of the quarter-finals, played Thursday night, Novak Djokovic
once again built an early lead but then seemed to be tiring and in trouble. Andy
Roddick, whose momentum from winning the third set seemed strong and whose
serving games had become overwhelming, needed only to win one more serving game
to equalize at two sets all. But Andy contributed two close double-faults in
losing that game, and a few minutes later the set-ending tiebreaker had gone to
Djokovic, albeit narrowly, behind some fine defensive and attacking play by
the Serb. It was Djokovic in four.
 Roger Federer (SUI) [red shirt] d  Gilles Muller (LUX) 76(5) 64 76(5)
The semi-finals were now set. None of the principals had shown superior form
compared with the others in the tournament to date. All had lost at least two
WOMEN'S BIG SIX
Our pre-tournament ratings of the top women rested on this year's
head-to-head results. Of our highest-rated six, all but one advanced safely through four
rounds. Three of them did so impressively, without losing a set, namely Elena
Dementieva, whose serves were now reliable and forceful, and both sisters
Williams. The only departee of the Six was Ana Ivanovic, whose injured hand had
forced her near-inactivity since Wimbledon. A lack of full recovery probably
explained her poor showing here, narrowly surviving a first-round and then losing
a second-round three-setter against an unseeded player.
Meanwhile two of our primes--Safina and Jankovic--both encountered mild
trouble, both dropping a set in early matches. Dinara Safina struggled against
teen-aged Swiss player Timea Bacsinszky. Dinara's first serve would not find the
box, her second was badly punished by her 5-7 opponent. An injury or sickness
hindered Timea thereafter, but another stretch of overhitting again afflicted
Safina, nearly costing her the second set. Dinara finally took control of her
own hitting and, with that, she closed out the third set.
Also in early trouble was Jelena Jankovic. With the score at five games all in
the third set, Jankovic seemed more tired than her Swedish opponent, Sofia
Arvidsson, but Jelena fought through to claim the final two games. After the
match Jelena was troubled by leg cramping, and she later lost a set before
defeating the firm-stroking teenager Caroline Wozniacki, from Denmark.
In the quarter-finals, three members of our top group--Jankovic, Dementieva,
and Safina--all moved through their assignments, all scoring straight-set wins
over lesser-seeded foes. Of the three, Safina faced the highest-seeded
opponent, but Dinara's relentless serving and stroking heavy artillery kept most
points short against the dangerous Flavia Pennetta.
The last quarter-final, Serena against Venus, was also the tournament's first
head-to-head meeting among our Big Six. The first set seemed rough, scarred
by a rather high number of error-shortened points, the onlooking crowd
relatively passive, uncertain which player to encourage. The second set, however,
brought long stretches where both sisters seemed at close to their highest level,
the crowd becoming increasingly aroused. It was athletic, power tennis, of a
dimension that probably no other two women could have sustained. Venus was the
more aggressive player, in power, placement, and positioning,
striking more winners than Serena but also the greater plurality of errors over
winners. (Venus's unforced errors outnumbered Serena's, 45 to 28.) Both sets
ended in tiebreakers, both won by Serena, who in both sets came from behind to
reach tiebreak game and then from behind to win the tiebreaker. There were a
total of ten set points favoring Venus, but every one was won by Serena.
Probably Venus should have won the match, but random chance, Serena's raised play,
and perhaps an element of intimidation afflicting Venus all contributed to the
outcome. Summoning her highest level of determination amid fierce displays of
emotion, it was Serena who attained the heights over her more composed sister.
With only the semis and finals of the singles and doubles yet to be played
along with the finals of the mixed, the tally of match wins by nation among the
women was amazingly close.
Venus Williams (top) defeated Samantha Stosur and Serena Williams defeated
Elena Vesnina enroute to their quarterfinal showdown
Russia, 27.5 match wins
Both the Russians and the Americans had good prospects for breaking the tie.
Two Russian women remained alive in singles (Dementieva and Safina). One
American was still in the singles (Serena), two in the doubles (Raymond and Huber,
each with a partner from another country), and one in the mixed (Huber).
WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR
Gusty wind troubled the Friday afternoon semi-final pitting Elena Dementieva,
who was the recent Olympic champion and my choice to reach the Open final,
against Jelena Jankovic. Both players stayed mainly at baseline, both pressing
opponent only moderately in effort to avoid errors. After a shaky start,
Jankovic became the more reliable striker, hitting more confidently, her slightly
better-controlled movement about the court allowing better adjustment to the
changing wind. The unforced errors gradually built up against Dementieva, and
after a while her hated double-faults reappeared, further bedeviling the tall
Muscovite. Elena tried to step up her hitting velocity and aggressiveness in the
second set with some success, but once again an early service-break advantage
went away. The final game, Elena serving, went dismally for Elena. Jankovic d.
Dementieva, 64 64.
The winds if anything worsened in the second semi, where again the player
better in control of her movement and with the more compact style of delivery
became the winner. Serena Williams stayed composed and managed to adjust very
well to the difficult conditions, lowering her serving toss and adjusting her
hitting position energetically to react to the ball's unpredictable path.
Meanwhile Dinara Safina's generally heavier hitting led to many errors, and her
frustrations at the wind and herself, freely expressed, only worsened matters.
Consistently throughout the match, Dinara's unforced errors were twice as frequent
as her winners. I believe that Serena would have won even in perfect
conditions, but the wind and Dinara's emotional volatility made it easier. S. Williams
d. Safina, 63 62.
In the Sunday evening final, delayed one date by Hanna, Serena followed the
pattern of play she had shown throughout the tournament, finding an excellent
balance of attacking and safety. Aside from her outstanding overhead game, only
occasionally did she try to end points with a single strike, instead keeping
her extreme power in reserve and dominating points using a well-controlled
90-percent level of pace. Thus--except in Serena's serving--the ball usually
travelled not much faster off Serena's racket than off that of her opponent--Jelena
Jankovic. Jelena fought well, taking the initiative often but lacking quite
enough firepower to break down Serena's excellent movement to the corners and
potent replying. Early on, it seemed clear that Serena's advantages in serving,
at net, and in stroking power would prevail if Serena could hold down her
errors, as indeed happened. Jelena was not badly beaten--she needed only to hold her
serve one more game to win the second set. But matters unraveled at that
stage, including one or two double-faults. S. Williams d. Jankovic, 64 75.
It was Serena's third Open crown, her first since 2002, a glorious
reaffirmation of the greatness of this unpredictable but always fascinating athlete.
MEN'S FINAL FOUR
Roger Federer's semi-final win over Djokovic in four sets followed the
pattern seen in many past Federer triumphs. Roger preferred winning points by his
own (1) strong serving, which included 20 aces (vs. six by Djokovic), (2)
patient rallying, confident in his own superiority in avoiding errors, and (3)
extending points by expert defense when his opponent had the immediate edge.
Meanwhile the four-time champion remained always a threat to force matters by
aggressive play, and indeed there were some wonderful backhand down-the-line
immediate winners. But his approach was generally patient, a mode probably favored by
the coolish, humid, and somewhat windy conditions as hurricane Hanna neared.
With Roger at his best and using his formula skillfully, Djokovic's main hope
lay in attacking. Certainly, Nole executed many superb forcing ploys,
including some magnificent strikes from behind baseline and also a high statistical
percentage of points won when at net. But all too frequently when Djokovic
earned a striking opportunity from inside baseline Nole's strong approach shot bid
would misfire, whether catching the tape or landing just outside the lines. I
was left with the impression that the most significant difference lay between
(1) Federer's ability seen over the years to attack with shots of both
extreme power and very heavy topspin and (2) Djokovic's unreliable attacking-shot
work on this date. Federer d. Djokovic, 63 57 75 62.
Troicki, Querrey, and Fish--one after another Rafael Nadal's earlier opponents
in this tournament had shown how strong, aggressive play could make serious
trouble for Rafael Nadal. Now Murray, almost shockingly, for one set swept
aside Rafa's defenses by attacking with highest skill. Seldom missing, Andy
unleashed rockets, one after another, toward narrow openings, often surprising
Nadal with his power, precision, and deceptive way of stroking. Again and again, a
sluggish Rafa found himself pressed to the sides, corners, and deep. Andy's
forehands and backhands carried only moderate topspin, but they commanded
plenty of velocity--enough to score frequent winners just out of Rafa's effective
reach. It looked as if Rafa's long year--surely one of the finest in tennis
history--including his triumph at the Olympics, may have produced in Rafa an
accumulated tiredness that was now sapping the energy in his play.
Matters became closer in the second set as Andy's errors increased and as
Rafa tried to step up his play. But the set-ending tiebreaker went to the Scot
player--by the margin of a single mini-break soon after a Rafa strike had
almost, but not quite, dribbled over the net upon meeting the tape full-on. Then
starting set three, Rafa answered his loss of two sets with renewed energy,
scoring an early service-break, just before the rains of Hanna arrived. The
stoppage of play probably hurt Nadal's chances, as Murray had seemed the less fresh
Upon resumption the next day, Rafa successfully closed out the third set and
started well in the fourth. Both men were playing intelligently, keeping
pressure on opponent but seldom taking high risk of error. But unmistakably, it was
Murray who was--by narrow margin--slightly the firmer and more aggressive
stroker, the abler at covering court and handling opponent's thrusts, the better
at avoiding error. In his first Slam semi, Murray won in four sets, setting up
a next-day engagement with Federer. Murray d. Nadal, 62 76 46 64.
The championship match on Monday afternoon brought plenty of thunder, but
most of it was Federer's. During the first set, Roger's forehand was as
magnificently potent as ever before, the ball reacting to Roger's extreme racket
velocity and overspin by seeming to dive downward to intercept the lines. Andy
Murray too hit many fine shots, but the penetration of the Federer forehand was
decisive again and again.
Roger won the first two games of the second set similarly, but as errors now
began to creep into Roger's arsenal, Murray regained the lost break, and the
games thereafter stayed even. But in the twelfth game, Andy serving, Roger
stepped up his net-attacking, delivering four consecutive winners, two of them at
net and one of them another forehand sizzler, to claim for himself a two-set
lead. Roger's net-attacking continued into the third set, while a discouraged
Andy could do little to stem the tide. Roger took the first five games of the
set, and a few minutes later closed out the affair. Federer d. Murray, 62 75
It was Roger's fifth consecutive U.S. crown and his only Slam triumph of the
year. Although the year-end crown remains apparently out of reach for Roger,
his newest triumph makes the important assertion that there is yet more
splendor ahead in his regal career.
The victory of the Bryan brothers in the men's doubles scored six match wins,
comfortably cementing the U.S.A. males atop the contingents from all other
nations in the final tally of match wins.
U.S.A., 30.0 match wins
Among the women, the final weekend successes of Serena Williams in winning
the singles and Liezel Huber as a member of the winning women's doubles pair
lifted the U.S. array over the Russians. The Russian tally remained unchanged
when both Safina and Dementieva lost their semi-final singles. It was the first
time since Wimbledon 04 that the Russkayas failed to score highest in a Slam.
Important Fed Cup and Davis Cup play among the nations lie just ahead,
including the Fed Cup final round one week after the Open and the Davis Cup semis
one week thereafter. Stay tuned.
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.