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September 9, 2013 Article

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Dissecting U.S. Open 2013
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The 2013 Open brought plenty of superb tennis including a fair number of surprises. Still, the pre-tournament favorites captured the men's and women's singles crowns, overcoming their most dangerous rivals in final-round thrillers. In winning the big prizes, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal continued their superior play seen earlier in the summer.
 
It was a good tournament for several players past age 30, including Serena, 31, along with veterans Flavia Pennetta, Tommy Robredo, and Lleyton Hewitt, all of whom penetrated higher than expected. Less fortunate was Roger Federer, 32, who departed in the fourth round and now seems outside the elite Big Four. Meanwhile several rising starlets showed their near-readiness to challenge the top women, including Sloane Stephens, Camila Giorgi, and perhaps Kurumi Nara.
 
Temperatures were generally cooler than usual. Rains temporarily disrupted the schedule late in the first week, and gusty winds annoyed players during much of the second. The coolness and the winds probably contributed to the unusually low number of aces recorded during the late rounds -- .058 aces per point played, not much above values typical on the slower courts at Garros. Servers nevertheless upheld their usual edge, winning points and games at ratios only slightly below those usually seen at the Open.
 
THE QUALIFIERS
 
The qualifying rounds were played in four days, 20-23 August, where 128 male players and 128 females each attempted to win three consecutive matches and thus advance to the Open's main draw. Of those who succeeded, many were players at mid-career, now within the world's second hundred.
 
Seven of the 16 female qualifiers won their first main-draw matches, thus reaching the round of 64. Three of them -- Kurumi Nara of Japan, Julia Glushko of Israel, and Camila Giorgi of Italy would win again in the next round. Nara, 21, defeated seeded Cirstea in straight sets. Probably the biggest surprise was that of Miami-born Victoria Duval, 17, who came from near defeat to win the second and third sets over 11th-seeded Samantha Stosur, winner of U.S. Open 2011. I had watched Vicki here in Washington several weeks earlier and wrote then of her aggressive style and her ability to hold up well in fierce backhand-to-backhand exchanges with another riser, Michelle Larcher de Brito. (Michelle, 20, also successfully qualified at the Open and also won her first main-draw match.) What in Washington seemed a softish serve of Vicki, seemed stronger now.
 
The male qualifiers were more successful in the main draw, 10 of the 16 winning their first matches, and two of them -- Daniel Evans, 23, of Britain, and Mikhail Kukushkin, 25, of Kazakhstan, winning in the second round also. None of the male and only one of female qualifiers, to be discussed later, would go farther.
 
FIRST AND SECOND ROUNDS
 
Several surprise outcomes interrupted the march of the top eights, men and women. Flavia Pennetta, 31, rebuilding her ranking after wrist surgery, comfortably defeated countrywoman Errani, fourth seeded. Meanwhile Juan Martin del Potro, probably handicapped with wrist weakness especially in his backhand two-hander, lost in five long sets to veteran Lleyton Hewitt, whose all-court abilities and competitive fire produced the late-evening victory. Riser Eugenie Bouchard, 19, bid strongly to defeat 8th-seeded Kerber but faltered late in the third set, seemingly worn by the humidity.
 
After two rounds of singles and one of doubles and mixed, the standings by nation were beginning to assume the expected shape. The male contingents from Spain and U.S. now seemed assured of finishing ahead of the others, given the likely further contributions of Rafael Nadal in singles and Granollers-Lopez and the Bryans in doubles. Meanwhile the American women, led by Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, had established a strong lead, helped by unexpected contributions in singles by unseeded Alison Riske and Christina McHale.
 
THIRD AND FOURTH ROUNDS
 
The Round of 32 introduced head-to-head play among the seeded players and those who had earlier captured their places. (There were 13 of the latter, the intruders, one more than the historic average.)
 
Camila Giorgi, age 21, brought a slender physique and moderate height at 5-6. But gifted in vision, coordination, and timing, she produced excellent velocities and accuracy in stroking and serving. In her third-round victory over Caroline Wozniacki, Camila also showed good mental strengths -- courage in aggressive stroking, performing well when pressure was high, readiness to move inside baseline. The Italian starlet consistently pushed a willing Woziacki into defensive play, and despite some failures in overhead and volleying work, Camila showed a remarkable bent, indeed perfection, for putting away swinging volleys from anywhere on the court. Unveiling a backhand just as reliable and potent as Wozniacki's, a bold second serve, and excellent court mobility, Camila lost the first set but then came through late in the second and third.
 
Giorgi's victory came as a surprise for me. I had watched her a year ago in her first-round loss here at Citi Open, when her forceful tennis produced a multitude of errors. A fine run at Wimbledon 2012 had placed her on our watch list, but during her 12-month list tenure, she finished worse off in the rankings than at the start. Shoulder trouble this summer forced her to the sidelines after another good run at Wimbledon. But she returned at Flushing to her newest success.
 
The fourth round opened with a long-awaited match between Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, 20, who had defeated a damaged Serena at Australian Open in January. Now, many points were severely contested, both players striking aggressively and moving well in countering opponent's firepower. Serena's superior size and strength gave her an edge, which Serena translated into greater topspin for matching Sloane's velocities and obtaining severe cross-court angles. The scoreboard reached four games each, both players having lost serve once. Serena then broke through to capture the first set, and the great champion, though tested in many points, remained at full throttle to run out the second. Still, it had been an excellent performance by Sloane, whose power, movement, accuracy, and mental strengths seemed not far below Serena's.
 
Also on middle Sunday, tall and slim Ekaterina Makarova, 25, brought impressive left-handed stroking power to feast on the softer offerings of Agnieszka Radwanska, defeating the tournament's third seed in straight sets. Radwanska's departure appeared to open the way to the final four for Li Na, who stroked and moved more aggressively than usual in crushing Jelena Jankovic.
 
Monday, Labor Day, brought a long, mid-afternoon rain delay but also some of the tournament's most exciting tennis among the men. For one set, Roger Federer and Tommy Robredo engaged in full-throated tennis -- both men punishing the ball with full power in every stroke, both aggressively placing the ball to the edges, both moving superbly in taking away the opponent's space for winners. Errors were few considering the extraordinary length and weight of the exchanges. Robredo prevailed In the set-ending tiebreaker.
 
But the sizzle seemed to fade thereafter, especially for Roger. Again and again, Roger seemed ready to break serve. And again and again Tommy escaped, often after disappointing mistakes by Roger. (For the full match, Roger achieved 16 break points but won only two of them, none in sets two and three. Roger lost his own serve once in each of the last two sets -- both times amid abject sequences of errors by Roger. Except for a brilliant moment here and there, usually when serving, Roger was far below his past greatness.
 
Did the 81% humidity take the bite out of Roger's offensive game? Probably so, but achieving pace was also important for Robredo, especially in answering Roger at net.
 
Soon afterwards, Kohlschreiber and heavily favored Nadal took the court. Strangely, the same pattern seemed to unfold. Again the underdog, Kohlschreiber, moved ahead, winning their first-set tiebreaker. Nadal attained many break-point opportunities but lost nearly all of them, often missing shots closely, so that mid-way in the match Nadal had converted only one of 16 break points. But late in the second set the pattern finally changed. Rafa's big game began clicking and, as the edge came off Kohlschreiber's remarkable earlier shot-making, the scoreboard turned Rafa's way. The margin separating the two became large toward the finish.
 
Yet another fascinating fourth-rounder marked the evening. Milos Raonic scored many aces (40), but Richard Gasquet found ways to blunt Milos's potent strikes. After more than four hours in the humidity, the Canadian's big serve lost its effectiveness. Long after surviving an adverse match point in the fourth set, Gasquet prevailed in five.
 
QUARTERS AND SEMIS
 
By reaching the round of eight, Richard Gasquet had fulfilled his seeded level. Now, on a windy Wednesday, he bid to go even higher. His opponent was David Ferrer, a superb battler known for his determination and ability in finding ways to defeat seemingly stronger opponents. Richard won the first two sets, showing the more penetrating strokes, but as the afternoon waned it was David who seemed to gain in strength as Richard became openly unhappy with his ragged play. But as the fifth set lengthened there was one weapon where Richard's superiority remained. That was the French star's magnificent backhand, especially when pounded down-the-line to David's slightly exposed forehand corner. Richard's powerful backhand seemed radar-guided in again and again finding that deep corner, repeatedly producing winners or weak replies from David. That was the weapon keeping Richard even on the scoreboard and ultimately pressing David to an uncharacteristic faltering at the finish.
 
An even greater surprise came next. From start to finish Stan Wawrinka proved the better player -- driving with better power and control, coming forward skillfully on occasions, ripping winners to the sides and corners at unexpected moments. Andy Murray tried to establish his strong baseline game but instead produced too many errors, too little offense, several untimely double-faults. Stan, who had improved with each earlier outing during the tournament, now continued to raise his level with each set against Andy. Having earlier defeated Berdych in four sets, Wawrinka now left little doubt that he was the deserved champion of his quarter.
 
The women's quarters largely followed expectations. Serena won easily, Azarenka won comfortably, finishing powerfully despite strong play by Hantuchova. Li Na defeated lefty Makarova in split sets without finding the potent game shown by Li earlier in the week. The unexpected intruder to the final four was Flavia Pennetta, 31, ranked as high as #10 several years ago, now rekindling her career after wrist surgery. Unseeded, Flavia after beating Errani then dismissed rising Simona Halep and now devoured the slices of Roberta Vinci.
 
Azarenka d. Pennetta, 64 62.
 
The gusty winds of recent days remained to hamper shot-making accuracy. The rallies were long and often forcing, but there were few winners, most points ending in errors. Pennetta, the smaller player, often drove beautifully to the corners, but Azarenka was usually able to defend. Vika finally won the first set, holding serve in a long tenth game after failing to win five earlier set points. Seven of the set's ten games had ended in serving breaks.
 
The pattern continued in the second set. Pennetta again showed some good attacking thrusts but failed to hold serve throughout. Vika's win moved her into the final round, but the manner of her victory gave little encouragement for further success.
 
Serena Williams d. Li Na, 60 63
 
It was happy time for Serena through the entire first set, when the American unloaded her big game at its best, allowing Li Na no chance to deploy her own weaponry. Things went better for the Chinese superstar in the second set, Na breaking serve early and nearly attaining a 3-1 lead on the scoreboard. But the opportunity slipped away, and Serena began a fresh run of success. Still, Na was now playing better, showing her ability in heavy-duty exchanges, blurring Serena's dominance with forceful attacking of her own including some good play at net. Too often, however, a closing rocket by Li would land just outside the lines, changing an advantageous situation for Na into a point lost. The best tennis of the evening came in the last quarter-hour, after Serena had reached the first of her seven match points, when the two dueled furiously in barrages that wore down both players. Serena eventually captured that seventh match point, having kept her composure and concentration in the face of Li's late bid.
 
Novak Djokovic d. Stan Wawrinka, 26 76 36 63 64
 
Djokovic started poorly, the fiery shot-making of his Swiss opponent dominating as Novak's many errors left him unable to find an effective answer. The play became more equal in the second set, but the excellent offensive and defensive skills of Wawrinka generally overmatched the more careful tactics of Novak, who seemed unwilling to risk striking his usually telling down-the-line backhands. In a longish fifth game, Stan amid continuing heavy attacking took a set-and-and-a break lead. Game eight put heavy pressure on both players when in the face of determined error-avoidance by Djokovic, it was Stan who faltered, yielding errors. It became the first turning point of the match, avoiding a two-set lead for Wawrinka, when Stan faltered in the tightly played tiebreaker game. But the script was far from finished. Novak yielded the third set with a horribly error-filled eighth game -- a second turning point.
 
Throughout the match, the more aggressive player had been Stan, the heavier server and stroker, the one more interested in forcing matters by attacking the corners. Important had been Novak's ability to return Stan's powerful first serves, regularly in the 130's. Also helping keep Novak alive was the Serbian's slight edge in court mobility, especially in the cat-and-mouse exchanges that usually followed drop-shot attempts. Thus, when Stan required trainer attention for upper-thigh injury mid-way in set four, requiring off-court wrapping, the final turning point was reached. Stan yielded the fourth set quietly and, with his weapons now compromised by tiredness and the injury, the Swiss star only occasionally threatened Novak's more-cautious though scarcely soft tactics.
 
Nadal d. Gasquet, 64 76 62
 
Richard Gasquet showed two significant weapons against heavily favored Nadal. The most dangerous was Richard's one-handed backhand, which when hit with pace and overspin was both precise and powerful, capable of creating or exploiting openings during points even against Rafa's mobility and striking greatness. What proved another valuable weapon was Richard's excellent skills at net, including good success in his selective use of serve-and-volley tactics. Rafa's tendency to return serve from deep, often neutrally, helped in Richard's serve-and-volley forays.
 
Rafa meanwhile played with considerable aggressiveness at times, so that in several stretches his total of points won at net almost equaled Richard's. It was Rafa, the first-strike warrior, often devouring Richard's serve returns and finishing at net. Rafa was also strong in drop-shot and ensuing cat-and-mouse work. Ultimately, the combination of Rafa's superb mobility, including quickness in setting up for inside-out forehands, along with the punishing nature of the latter blows, inexorably pointed to Richard's eventual defeat. With Richard tired and discouraged after losing the second-set tiebreaker, the third set went quickly.
 
THE FINALS
 
Serena Williams d. Victoria Azarenka, 75 67 61
 
It was high drama, lasting nearly three hours, on the biggest stage of tennis. Serena was the acknowledged favorite, especially in view of her stronger play in the tournament's earlier rounds. But Victoria Azarenka had defeated Serena twice this year, both times on hard courts, most recently in a third-set tiebreaker several weeks earlier in Cincinnati. Still present now were the gusty winds that had affected play throughout the last week at the Open, if anything more persistent than ever. Omnipresent also was support from the huge gathering, strongly favoring Serena.
 
The first set was ragged, the wind making problems for both players, especially Serena whose superiority depended on aggressive play. Serena had extra trouble finding the court with her first serve but managed to stay even, finally moving ahead behind some fine serve-returns in game eleven and then holding serve to claim the set. Serena's edge had been narrow, she having regularly shown irritation at the conditions, but she moved ahead early in the second set by two breaks of serve.
 
But Vika, showing excellent determination and composure, then fought back. It gradually became clear that Vika had become the better player -- rallying with greater confidence, often returning strong ace-bids by Serena and then outlasting Serena in avoiding error. Serena seemed less quick off the mark than Vika, less able to adjust her striking position for the effects of wind. Vika's defended well against Serena's bids for winners and her replies offered few easy attacking opportunities. Vika also scored excellent success in her occasional net attacks and drop shots. The scoreboard thus reacted to Vika's surge, reaching second-set tiebreaker. The lead in the tense tiebreaker then shifted back and forth until Serena, having twice survived adverse set points, finally yielded a deciding forehand error. It was one set all.
 
But with the third set, flaws shown occasionally by Vika earlier now became more telling -- double-faults in the face of Serena's threat to her second serve, stroking errors that seemed as improbable as many earlier ones by Serena. Still preferring to stay in back court and yet unruffled by several foot-fault calls, Serena now moved ahead in a long fourth game that ended in an Azarenka double-fault, her second of that game.
 
Once again ahead on the scoreboard, Serena now closed out superbly. Her big serve was at last showing its greatness, and a spell of errors by Vika spelled a second service break. Serena finally became the one most helped by the difficult wind.
 
Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, 62 36 64 61
 
The expected final-round meeting of Nadal and Djokovic was here. Rafa was the obvious favorite based on his superior play so far at the Open and his recent triumphs at Montreal and Cincinnati.
 
Can tennis ever have been played at a higher level of skill, ferocity, and determination?
 
Rafa won the first set fairly easily. But after that, for the greater part of the match, it was Djokovic who dictated matters, pushing Nadal deep and wide, pounding ordinary offerings for winners to the corners. Rafa's heavy overspin shots lacked the penetration of Novak's, and on occasions where Rafa managed to claim the upper hand, often it was Novak who answered with almost incredible replies drawn from his near-perfect defensive abilities. In stretches, it was hard to see how Rafa could win a point in the face of Novak's forceful play except by errors from Novak.
 
Many of the rallies became extended, 25 shots or more. One of them lasted 54 shots, many of them surely winners against other opponents. It was that longest test that gave Novak his first break of serve. Novak remained by far the more effective attacker, the better server and returner, better in avoiding errors. His edge in aggressive power seemed complete when hitting downwind with the fairly light breeze. Novak captured the second set and moved ahead in the third, narrowly missing a double-break advantage.
 
Perhaps it was Novak's more taxing road to the final, especially his extended struggle in overcoming Wawrinka. Perhaps it was the customary effect of Rafa's heavy blows, sustained even while Rafa slipped behind. Rafa, having stepped up his own power and depth, was now denying Novak comfortable attacking opportunities, creating ones of his own. Rafa now unleashed repeatedly his powerful inside-out forehand, often finishing at net. It had become Rafa at his determined best, having taken domination away from Novak, obtaining errors from Novak now more than occasionally, especially when a shot by Rafa landed close to a line.
 
Novak never recovered after losing the third set. The Serbian's deliveries now lost their precision, and although Novak tried drop shot and net-rush tactics, alternately safe tactics and bold, nearly all the points flowed to Rafa. Rafa closed out matters with little delay.
 
OTHER HONORS
 
Triple Crown
 
No male player had won the triple crown (singles, doubles, mixed) at the U.S. championships in the Open era, and no female player had done so since Martina Navratilova in 1987. Coming closest this year were two women -- Andrea Hlavackova of Czech Republic (who won the women's doubles and the mixed) and Serena Williams (who won the singles and four matches in the women's doubles). Thus both women won a total of 11 matches against the 18 required for the complete triple. The leader among the men was Bruno Soares of Brazil, with five wins in doubles plus three in mixed for a total of 8 match wins.
 
The men's doubles champions this year were Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek, a superbly complementing pair who knocked out the Bryan twins in the semi-finals. The quest by the Bryans for the classic Grand Slam thus ended in a near-miss. Paes-Stepanek next won the crown on final-round Sunday with loss of only four games. The women's doubles champions, Hlavackova-Hradecka, in the final round defeated Aussies Barty-Dellaqua in split sets, the Czech pair having earlier defeated the sisters Williams. Hlavackova and her partner, Max Mirnyi, won the mixed over Abigail Spears (U.S.) and Santiago Gonzalez (Mexico) in an interesting final.
 
Overachievement
 
Here, we measure singles overachievement by comparing each player's pre-tournament seeded level vs. his or her actual level of attainment. The top overachiever was Flavia Pennetta of Italy, who was unseeded but actually reached the round of four -- a remarkable four levels of overachievement. Two other women scored three levels -- Daniela Hantuchova (unseeded, reached round of eight) and Camila Giorgi of Italy (won through in the qualifiers for one credit and then attained round of 16 in the main draw for two more). Eight male players and several other females scored two levels of overachievement.
 
Tennis Nations
 
The male contingent from U.S.A. had led those of all other nations in main-draw singles wins in every Open of the current century except 2010, when they were outscored by the men from Spain. Now in 2013, once again the Armada led by Rafael Nadal unseated the host nation's men. Meanwhile the U.S. females outscored all others for the third consecutive year. The Russkayas, lacking the absent Sharapova, slipped out of their usual place in the top two:
 
Men
 
Spain, 27.5 match wins
U.S.A., 18.5
France, 18.0
Germany, 13.0
 
Women
 
U.S.A., 36.5
Italy, 19.5
Russia, 18.5
Czech Republic, 17.5
 
Wrap
 
For Serena it was her fifth U.S. Open crown, the 17th Slam triumph of her career bringing her yet closer to the all-time leaders. Her claim to the #1 ranking and our La Prima mantle is now unquestioned. Serena is yet the Empress of world tennis.
 
It was Rafa's 13th Slam triumph, his second at U.S. Open. He remains our Il Primo and, with two Slam triumphs during 2013, holds the inside track to the year-end crown. Both Rafa and Serena collect not only the stated $2.5 million prize money as champions of the Open but also an extra $1.0 million as winners of this summer's U.S. Open series.
 
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
 
APPENDIX 1: WATCH-LIST WATCHING AT THE OPEN
 
Of the ten women in the main draw currently listed on one or more of our running Watch Lists, the most successful at the Open were Laura Robson, who won twice to reach the round of 32 before losing to Li Na, and Simona Halep, who won three times to reach the final 16, defeating Kirilenko and losing to Pennetta. Four other listees would score impressive first-round wins but would lose in round two (Mladenovic, Bouchard, Vekic, and Schmiedlova). The other four (Burdette, A. Beck, Keys, and Kar. Pliskova) would lose in the first round. For some of these, being in the main draw itself reflected constructive recent achievement. Meanwhile Ana Konjuh, listed in July 2013, won the Women's Juniors.
 
Eleven male listees performed in the main draw. Two scored two main-draw wins -- Evgeny Donskoy and Jack Sock. Two listees won first-round matches but lost their second match -- Brad Klahn and Grigor Dimitrov. Seven lost in the first round, including, disappointingly, Jerzy Janowicz and Fabio Fognini.
 
APPENDIX 2: POST-MORTEM ON THE INDICATORS
 
Our pre-tournament indicators proved moderately successful at U.S. Open 2013, equaling or surpassing the official seedings as predictors of the final outcomes. Of the three primary indicators, QWQ (quality-win quotient) proved the best predictor among both men and women. HCX (hard-court index) and Basic Indicator, were essentially equal to the seeded order as predictors. Our Composite of the three indicators was also superior to the seedings. Our announced predictions, which were heavily based on the Composite, surpassed the seeded order among the men and were equally valid to the seedings among the women.
 
QWQ had also scored best at Australian Open and Garros 2013. Basic Indicator proved best at Wimbledon. Similar post-mortems could point to coefficients useful for weighting the three indicators in reaching the Composite.
 

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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.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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