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September 10, 2012 Article

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U.S. Open 2012 Reviewed
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The Qualifiers
The qualifying rounds unfolded before happy watchers admitted free, 21-24 August. Competing for sixteen available places in the men's draw and the same number in the women's were 128 men and 128 women. Many were regulars in the men's Challenger circuit or the comparable women's ITF pro circuit, most with rankings in the world's second hundred. To advance to the main draw, each aspirant had to win three consecutive matches.
The median age of those who succeeded in advancing was 25 among the males, 22.5 among the women. The youngest were two females aged just 17 -- Samantha Crawford of U.S.A. and Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.
Nine of the female qualifiers would win their initial main-draw match, but only one would win a second. That was Moscow-born Olga Puchkova, 24, who would then lose to tenth-seeded Sara Errani in the third round. Meanwhile of the male qualifiers, only five would win their first main-draw match, and all but one would lose their second. Grega Zemlja, 25, Slovenia, reached the third round but lost there to Tipsarevic. The only qualifier, male or female, to knock out a seeded player was Kristyna Pliskova, 20, Czech Republic, who defeated Julia Goerges, seeded 18th.
It began on Monday, 27 August. Two rounds of play saw the 128 players in the main draw reduced to 32. Form generally held up well, as only eight unseeded males succeeded in taking the places of the 32 seeded favorites. (Over the last decade the average number of unseeded players reaching the final 32 has been twelve.) The most notable unseeded overachiever was tall, left-handed Martin Klizan, 23, Slovak Republic, previously ranked #52. In the second round Klizan defeated fifth-seeded Jo-wilfried Tsonga, who thus became the first member of the men's top eight to depart.
Early-round upsets were more frequent among the women. A total of 14 unseeded women reached the third round, replacing a like number of seeded stars. The most prominent of the departing favorites was Caroline Wozniacki, seeded eighth, showing knee trouble. Caroline lost in the first round to rising Irina-Camelia Begu, age 22, from Romania. Also exiting was seeded Francesca Schiavone, defeated by American Sloane Stephens, 20.
Much drama accompanied the meeting of Kim Clijsters, 29, and Laura Robson, 18, of Britain. A three-time past champion at the Open, Kim was now competing in her farewell tournament before an adoring audience. But Laura's powerful ground game held up well, and the teenager won in two tiebreak sets, in the process making a strong claim to replace Kim in the hearts of tennis fans worldwide.
But perhaps the most gripping moments of the first week came in the second-round performance of Venus Williams and the success of rising German player Angelique Kerber in fending off Venus's powerful bid.
Angelique Kerber d. Venus Williams 62 57 75
Angelique Kerber's ability to compete at the highest level had been seen in Cincinnati recently, when Angelique defeated Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova prior to losing in split sets to Li Na. Now, a refreshed Kerber again showed her excellent court movement and ability in withstanding attack. Angelique took the first set when heavier-striking Venus was unable to find her consistency, especially in serving. But after that, Venus began delivering her best, hammering screamers across the net with every swing, moving superbly to the corners to reply to Angelique's thrusts.
Venus contributed more unforced errors than she wished, but even so It was hard to see how Angelique could overcome the relentless rocketry. Indeed Venus captured a close second set and moved ahead in the third set, four games to two. There were breathtaking volleys and overheads by Venus, mixed with crowd-pleasing defensive gems by Angeligue, every game now bitterly contended. But Angelique now managed to win almost every one of them, stepping up her own counter-attacking. The large crowd noisily supported Venus, but Angelique kept her concentration and finally prevailed, narrowly.
It was a good tournament for most players on our current watch lists. (Our computer selects a fresh list each trimester, designed to focus our watching for the next twelve months.) Our selectees of last December included Laura Robson and Angelique Kerber, both of whom made stellar performances at the Open, discussed elsewhere here. Meanwhile, several of our selectees from earlier this year also advanced their careers:
-- Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, 20. Won three qualifying matches and then defeated Peer and lost to seeded Jankovic in the main draw.
-- Kiki Bertens, 20. Defeated seeded McHale in the first round and then lost to Puchkova.
-- Sloane Stephens, 20. Defeated seeded Schiavone in first round and later lost in third round to seeded Ivanovic.
-- Varvara Lepchenko, 26, Defended her #31 seed and extended Stosur to first-set tiebreaker.
-- Sara Errani, 25. Attained tournament semi-finals (discussed later here).
Our male listees from last December also did well. Martin Klizan, 23, upset Tsonga and attained the fourth round. Jack Sock, 21, defeated seeded Mayer and extended Almagro very well before losing in four. Kei Nishikori, 22, defended his seed to reach the third round, Benoit Paire, 23, extended seeded Kohlschreiber to five sets in the second round, and Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, 23, defeated seeded Troicki in the first.
Among those listed in earlier 2012, Milos Raonic, 21, fulfilled his seed to reach the final 16 before losing to Andy Murray. Guido Pella, 22, advanced through the qualifiers but then lost to Davydenko in the first round.
The Final 32 women became the Final Eight during the extended weekend for Labor Day. An important upset came in the third round, when Laura Robson defeated ninth-seeded Li Na, who played well. Laura's wonderful run ended on Sunday afternoon, however -- terminated by defending-champion Samantha Stosur. Meanwhile, fifth-seeded Kvitova lost to Marion Bartoli.
Two other high-seeded stars then lost to two lower-ranked Italian risers. Roberta Vinci handled Agnieszka Radwanska fairly comfortably, Agnieszka apparently unable to generate full pace because of a long-standing shoulder problem. Meanwhile Sara Errani defeated Angelique Kerber in a closely fought affair marked by long rallies. Sara's superior court movement and forehand overspin persistently frustrated Angelique. The first-set tiebreaker went to Errani when Kerber double-faulted away a set point. In the second set Angelique stepped up her power and aggressiveness, recovering to reach three games all. But Sara then too raised her game, and Angelique faded badly at the finish.
Four top-eighters thus remained in the final Eight. Three of them were in the upper half -- Azarenka, Sharapova, and defending champ Stosur. Serena Williams was still the strong favorite in the lower half. But the long weekend's most thrilling affair happened the previous evening.
Maria Sharapova d. Nadia Petrova, 61 46 64
Tall and powerful, Moscow-born Nadia Petrova, now 30, had held world #3 ranking back in 2006 and had long been among the game's top superstars. Seeded #19 at the Open, she had won three consecutive matches in straight sets.
Both Nadia and her highly-favored opponent, Maria Sharapova, unleashed full artillery from the outset, neither temporizing in her aggressive striking. Nadia played well, capturing the second set and winning the first two games in the third. When an hour's rain delay intervened, it seemed that the interruption might break Nadia's strong run. But upon resumption Nadia unleashed three mighty serves, thereby taking a 40-15 lead seemingly about to take a commanding three-game lead.
That was the high-water mark for Nadia. Maria began getting back Nadia's serves, and abruptly scorched two backhands that found the cross-court sideline for winners, Having stopped Nadia's run, Maria continued to deliver her rockets to the corners and lines, with almost no errors. Maria's characteristic boldness, applied brilliantly and just in time, swept the day and leaving Nadia unable to change matters.
The Men
The surviving members of the male top eight also advanced through round three. Tsonga's place was now occupied by Martin Klizan, who defeated Chardy in straight sets to continue his fine run. Andy Roddick, having earlier announced his retirement, performed strongly in defeating crowd-pleasing Fognini, while Phil Kohlschreiber defeated ninth-seeded John Isner in five sets very late Monday night.
The fourth round began on Labor Day. Andy Murray drew dangerous Milos Raonic, equipped with devastating serving ability and an improving, complementing all-court game. The analysis is clear-cut -- the foremost weapon was Milos's first serve backed by his potent first-striking ability. But otherwise Milos was ineffective against Andy's balanced defensive and offensive weaponry. The young Canadian won only 31% of his second-serve points and 22% of the points when Andy was serving. The result was a comfortable win for Murray.
Victoria Azarenka d. Samantha Stosur, 61 46 76
Twas a humid and windy Tuesday afternoon for the first of the women's quarter-finals -- the top-seeded woman, Victoria Azarenka, against last year's champion, Samantha Stosur. Victoria moved ahead initially, her characteristic heavy game relentlessly free of errors. But Sam squeezed out the second set, equalizing matters on the scoreboard.
The styles of play of the two were much alike, both women trying to move opponent with moderately paced serves and strokes. Victoria's shots came with the easier power and greater consistency. Sam's forcing blows came from a shorter backswing, helping accuracy at slightly lesser striking power. Sam generally showed the better variety and court-craft and was the more aggressive player, more inclined to step forward in making her replies.
Either player might have won the third-set tiebreaker. Sam fell behind early but recovered to five points all when Victoria contributed a horrible double-fault. But Sam's arduous and long effort was washed away when, with the score exactly equal, the last two points went to Victoria. The first ended with a surprise drop shot by Victoria, the second with a screamer by Vika that clipped the baseline with too much juice for Sam to meet cleanly.
Other Quarters
A distraught Maria Sharapova lost the first four games to an aggressive Marion Bartoli before rains left from hurricane Isaac ended play on Tuesday. Upon resumption, Maria fought back, equalizing matters by capturing the second set. Bartoli was still hammering away, denying Maria the time needed to set up for her flat screamers. It was heavy-hitting tennis from both players, both concentrating well, neither temporizing in her rocketry. Maria was the one able to generate the more severe blows but also the one more likely to gift errors. At the finish it was Maria's superior weight of shot that made the difference.
Sara Errani defeated countrywoman and doubles-partner Vinci in straight sets, Points were long and well constructed. But Roberta's heavily sliced backhands and occasional net forays presented little difficulty for Sara, who patiently allowed her own firm, steady, and moderately forcing ground-strokes to prevail.
Finally, Serena won her quarter-final in sizzling fashion, her first serve all but unreturnable by Ivanovic most of the way. Serena scarcely lost a point that mattered throughout the affair.
Men's Quarter-finals
The men's quarters began with a near-shocker. Andy Murray fell behind Marin Cilic by a set and a double-service-break, but the talented Scot finally found his superior game and prevailed in four. Soon afterwards, It briefly seemed that an even more remarkable come-back was transpiring. Could Roger Federer pull off a recovery as remarkable as Murray's?
Tomas Berdych d. Roger Federer, 76 64 36 63
The evening conditions were cool and damp -- slowing down the play enough to help Tomas Berdych in replying to Federer's strong attacking, even as Tomas's superior height and weight allowed him to drive through the heavy air more easily. The absence of wind also favored Tomas, leaving his high ball toss unaffected.
Tomas and Roger had split their last three matches amid many split-setters and tiebreak games. Thus it was no surprise that matters began closely -- Tomas overcoming an early lost serving game and then gradually stepping up his power and consistency. Roger showed his intent to attack early and often, coming forward, but along with the attacking came too many unforced errors by Roger. The first-set tiebreaker went quickly, Tomas losing only one point amid several rocket serve-returns by Tomas and several misses by Roger.
Federer's mistakes continued in the second set, Roger falling behind early and Tomas relentless in his play. Roger then lost serve dismally to start set three. But then came a spell of that magnificently aggressive perfection regularly seen in Roger's greatest victories. For the rest of the third set, Roger's strikes carried the greater pace, seeming to dive for the lines late in their trajectory, the diving impelled by incredibly severe topspin, all setting up Roger's superb finishing at net.
But Roger's wizardry faded in set four. Playing at his powerful and error-free best, Tomas stayed even and broke ahead in game eight. In his only break-point opportunity of the set, Tomas blistered a forehand serve-return directly at Roger at the baseline. Roger could move aside only enough to manage a weak reply. Now ahead five games to three, Tomas served out the final game brilliantly, winning at love.
Victoria Azarenka d. Maria Sharapova, 36 62 64
The first semi pitted the tournament's first and third seeds -- the reigning champions of Australia and Garros, respectively. At first Maria Sharapova's severe serving and stroking overwhelmed Azarenka, whose power game was largely absent, leaving Vika unable to create problems for Maria.
Maria broke serve again to start set two, but Victoria's own controlled power and fine movement to the ball had begun to appear. The second game of the set was long and hard, Victoria returning serve well, Maria sometimes forced onto the defensive. Victoria thus turned matters, winning that game along with the next two, playing forcefully. Many bruising points and games would follow as Victoria finished off the second set, applying her bigger topspin and superior defensive ability.
As the third set began it was interesting to note that neither player had lost a third set in all of 2012. The two had played a total of 23 three-set matches and had won all of them. Indeed, as the deciding set now unfolded there was no decline in determination by either. It was clear, however, that Maria was having the greater trouble in winning her serving games -- an imbalance seen in the slight smile of confidence on the face of Vika even as Maria looked concerned, indeed worried, between points.
Assuredly Victoria was now the fresher player, Maria slightly slowed in her movement and shot preparation -- perhaps worn down from her strenuous style in contrast to Vika's more economical movement. Still, Maria wavered little in her all-out hitting, stepping up her serving and stroking, so that many points became extreme tests of the will and physicality of both players. Neither attacked net often, as the severity of the rocketry and the mobility of both players largely forbid this tactic -- or indeed any other not based on extreme power.
The score reached four-games-all, third set. Victoria held serve easily. Now, with Maria serving to stay alive, Maria's boldness and determination became no longer enough. The final game was extended, marked by close errors by Maria and solid pressure by Vika. The ending confirmed the signals sensed earlier.
Serena Williams d. Sara Errani, 61 62
Serena Williams had stormed through the first five rounds, winning by brute force. The story was much the same now against Sara Errani.
Serena started patiently, toning down her serving and stroking enough to avoid errors but not enough to allow Sara to dominate the play. The balance worked beautifully. As Serena gradually stepped up her power, probably by plan, Sara had no chance to contend for domination, even as Serena's errors admittedly increased. It was yet another impressive performance by Serena against an opponent extremely dangerous if facing a less powerful foe.
Andy Murray d. Tomas Berdych, 57 62 61 76
Andy Murray's four-set victory over Tomas Berdych wasn't easy. Play was hampered throughout by winds of 20 mph and up, generally out of the north and thus along the line of most shots. Both players tried to adjust their tactics and techniques, devising different methods for playing on the upwind and downwind sides, respectively. The wind played favorites -- (1) hurting Tomas in his attacking game, especially his usually potent serve with its unusually high ball toss, and (2) improving the effectiveness of Andy's natural defensive inclinations and skills.
All three breaks of serve in the first set came when the server faced the wind. The set ended when Tomas, upwind, crushed a Murray serve followed by another wind-aided rocket by Tomas in the next point.
But Andy was more comfortable than Tomas in harnessing a tailwind to help him control play. Meanwhile the wind if anything increased in velocity, fortifying Andy's pattern to play defensively, holding down his own errors. Sets two and three went to Murray fairly comfortably, and Andy took the first three games of set four. Discouraged but appreciating that he must be the attacker, amid a diminished wind Berdych improved in his serving and attacking. Murray, who had been playing in absolute defensive mode, fairly quickly responded as the scoreboard advanced to four-games-all, then five, and finally six games all.
Murray's modified tactics still called for safe shot-making, but now mixed in were stepped-up striking and occasional thrusts to the corners. In the tiebreaker Tomas started with the wind at his back, winning four of the six points. After changing sides, Andy won four of the six, helped by the wind. With Andy now on the disadvantaged, downwind side, four more points would be played. Three of them ended in strikes by Tomas that, wind-aided, landed long.
Andy's victory came from his skillful exploitation of the difficult wind. Tomas tried to adapt his forcing game to the conditions. But in every set Tomas's unforced errors numbered in double digits. Meanwhile Andy's unforced errors in the last three sets combined totaled only nine.
Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka, 62 26 75
Throughout the tournament to date Serena had overwhelmed her opponents by severe power in serving and stroking, she winning all six matches without loss of a set. But she had not faced anyone having Victoria Azarenka's fine movement and countering ability, coupled with artillery in rallying that was almost as potent and even more consistent than Serena's.
Victoria's strengths were hard to recognize in the early going. Serena's power seemed once again irresistible as Serena won the first three games. Serena would go on to wrap up that first set, but there were already signs that Victoria's play was improving and that errors by Serena were creeping in. Indeed, Serena would quickly lose the first two games of set two.
Victoria was now denying Serena the winners that usually resulted from Serena's rockets to the corners. With well-directed ground strokes that stayed low but penetrated deep, Victoria countered many of Serena's most forceful attacks. Thunderous rallies sometimes ensued, both players showing their highest power and ability. But Victoria's superior avoidance of errors in these exchanges soon became clear. Vika won the second set by a margin identical to Serena's in the first.
Serena was being so clearly outplayed that it was hard to see how she could turn matters around in the final set. Her strong serving in the first game stopped Vika's momentum, but a run of bad errors by Serena later gave Vika the set's first break of serve. Serena broke back with some excellent striking, but soon afterwards, in game seven, Serena gifted away another break, at love. This time, Vika backed up her break, winning game eight with fine aggressive serving and first-striking. With Vika ahead five games to three, the end seemed close.
Serena's winning of the last four games came from two happenings -- (1) Serena's improved attacking, executed with full concentration and almost no errors and (2) a sequence of costly errors by Vika, especially in game ten when she served for the match.
For the full match Serena scored 13 aces, Vike none. Serena also showed a strong edge in first-serve average velocity. Serena's margin in striking winners (excluding aces) almost exactly equaled Victoria's edge in avoiding unforced errors. Nearly all Serena's winners were delivered from back court except in replying to short balls from her opponent.
It was Serena's fourth U.S. Open singles championship, her 15th Slam crown over her full career.
Andy Murray d. Novak Djokovic 76 75 26 36 62
It had to go five sets, this meeting of two 25-year-olds, rivals since they faced one another as juniors a decade ago, both now at the pinnacle of professional sport. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic had dueled for five sets at Australian Open back in January. Novak won that encounter after losing the first two sets, but Andy had won two of their three meetings since then, including in the semis of the Olympics. Andy would later win the olympic crown, just as Novak had gone on to triumph in Melbourne.
Although Djokovic's journey through the current tournament had been easier than Andy's, Novak had trouble early in his semi-final against David Ferrer. Novak fell behind in the first set, which began amid the high winds of Saturday evening. Severe weather stopped play, but when the match resumed the next day amid calm wind, Novak promptly found and applied his heavy forcing game, winning the last three sets fairly comfortably.
Now, 4 P.M. Monday, the wind was again strong, almost as strong as on Saturday but from the opposite direction. Andy and Novak were equally talented in almost every aspect, but it was not surprising that the wind helped turn the first two sets to Murray. (Andy had handled the windy conditions well in defeating Berdych on Saturday, while Novak had been bedeviled by them only a little later against Ferrer.)
Andy won the first set in an extended tiebreaker, the second by virtue of two misses by Novak when another tiebreaker seemed just ahead. There had been many long rallies throughout, both men concerned to avoid errors. Gradually the wind velocities decreased so that during and after set three the play seemed only slightly affected, From then on Novak became more confident in his habitual aggressive striking and, compared with Andy, his greater willingness to move forward. The points became more spirited, and in the fourth set Novak's serve became highly effective. When the score reached two sets all, the momentum seemed Novak's -- not only on the scoreboard but also in the growing impact of his serving and aggressive play.
The enthusiasm of the gallery in the fifth set was unrestrained, often erupting during play when exchanges became fierce and especially when one or both players came or were drawn to net. Both players seemed to respond, and the often drab play of the early going was forgotten. Andy captured two service breaks early in the set, and Novak answered splendidly, recovering one of them. With Andy serving at score 2-3, it looked as if a Djokovic surge might be at hand.
Andy answered like a champion. He delivered four serves in game six, and not one was returned by Novak. Soon afterwards Novak began showing leg cramping or perhaps groin strain. A trainer visit followed, and the match finished quietly thereafter. Five hours afer the match began, the long-awaited first Slam for Andy had arrived.
Upsets marked the opening round of the men's doubles, when four of the eight highest-seeded pairs were eliminated. But form largely prevailed after that, such that the American brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, second seeded, won the crown, defeating Paes-Stepanek in the final match. It was the 12th Slam triumph for the brothers, who thus joined the Australian pair Newcombe-Roche atop the all-time Slam list.
Since Martina Navratilova did so in 1987, no player has won the U.S. Open triple (winning the singles, doubles, and mixed in the same year). The player coming closest this year was Italian star Sara Errani, who scored wins in eleven matches, as follows:
-- Sara Errani, 11 match wins (5 singles, 6 doubles)
-- Roberta Vinci, 10 wins (4 s, 6 d)
-- Serena Williams, 9 wins (7 s, 2 d)
-- Andrea Hlavackova, 9 wins (3 s, 5 d, 1 mix)
-- Lucie Hradecka, 9 wins (1 s, 5 d, 3 mix)
-- Ekaterina Makarova, 9 wins (2 s, 2 d, 5 mix)
The men's tally was less spirited, as fewer individuals entered multiple events. The leader was Bruno Soares of Brazil, who scored five wins in capturing the mixed doubles with Makarova plus three in men's doubles, making a total of nine. There has been no male triple-crown winner in the Open Era.
The female contingents from Russia and US.A. had each finished atop the tally of match wins by nation three times in the last six years. This year the two contingents were exactly tied just prior to the final round in singles. (Wins in doubles or mixed doubles score one-half credit for each partner's nation.) The final-round victory of Serena Williams put the Americans ahead of the Russkayas:
-- U.S.A., 28.0
-- Russia, 27.0
-- Czech Republic, 23.5
The men's tally felt the absence of Nadal. The Americans won by a margin much greater than last year's:
-- U.S.A. 39.0
-- Spain, 24.0
-- France, 16.0
It had been a lively Slam, at least as fascinating as most. As usual, in the frequency of aces and in other measurements this U.S. Open fell intermediate between Garros at one extreme and Wimbledon at the other, roughly mirroring the Australian.
The weather had been excellent until the storms of the final week. The galleries had been highly engaged but universally respectful toward all competitors. Television carried the proceedings worldwide. The business of pro tennis seemed never healthier, the sport never better played or more magnificent.
There would be important Davis and Fed Cup tennis ahead, along with a pro swing through Asia and more events in Europe. But tennis year 2012 had now passed its climax. The members of the Big Four in men's tennis had each captured one of the year's Slams, even as the great Serena's place in history had been strongly reaffirmed.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

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