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September 8, 2014 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Dissecting U.S. Open 2014
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Moderately high temperatures, for which the unusually cool summer allowed little acclimatizing, along with very high humidity and spells of high winds challenged players throughout the first several days. After that, instead of abating, all three conditions became more extreme, contributing to several outcomes.
The women's champion, for the sixth time, was the powerful and athletic American Serena Williams, who dominated in her matches to a degree even remarkable for Serena. Her foremost rivals were removed by unexpected losses along the way, and their conquerors were unable to contend with Serena's ever-stronger on-court performances. The men's draw unfolded mostly as expected until in a stunning semi-final Saturday the tournament's top two favorites were both defeated by younger stars. Both finalists, Marin Cilic, 25, and Kei Nishikori, 24, then battled each other to claim the mantle previously monopolized by the very few. By convincing margin, the more potent repertoire of the tall Croatian prevailed.
Throughout the tournament, the play generally favored the attacking player provided that, as always, the aggressor was able to avoid excessive errors. Serving and serve-returning abilities were ever critical, both for winning or losing cheap points but especially for establishing dominance in the early exchanges that followed. Service aces occurred and games were won by servers at higher rates than in any of the previous eight U.S. Opens (data from the last four rounds of the men's singles). The numbers again showed that the bounce speed at Flushing was intermediate in speed to those at Garros and Wimbledon -- i.e., close to the bounce speed in Australia. Perhaps because of the high winds, net approaches came less frequently than at U.S. Opens of recent years, less frequently even than at Garros 2014. Among both men and women, court positioning closely behind baseline usually provided best defensive and offensive posture, provided that it came with readiness to pounce on attackable offerings by opponent.
The Qualifying Rounds
A total of 128 male and 128 female aspirants faced off in three rounds of qualifying matches, 19-23 August. Nearly all the matches were closely contested, as most entrants were drawn from the second hundred in the world rankings. Remarkably, more than half the matches were split-setters.
The female youth brigade did unusually well in the qualifying play, as eight of the sixteen successful female qualifiers were aged 22 or younger. Two were teenagers -- Australia's Ashleigh Barty, 18, and Canada's Francoise Abanda, 17. Like most of the qualifiers, both Ashleigh and Francoise lost to seeded players in the first round of the main draw. Two qualifiers would reach the main-draw fourth round, however -- Serbian Aleksandra Krunic, 21, and Croatian Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 34, a long-ago prodigy now in tennis reincarnation.
The successful male qualifiers were generally older, at median age 26. Six of the sixteen who qualified would win their first main-draw match-up, including the group's youngest, Borna Coric of Croatia, 17 at height 6-1, who defeated seeded Rosol in main-draw first-round play. No male qualifier would go any farther.
Fifteen-year-old Californian Catherine "CiCi" Bellis won the USTA National girls' 18's tournament in San Diego in early August, thereby earning wild-card entry into the Open. Seasoned in international ITF-Circuit events, CiCi this year won the Easter Bowl and the Italian Juniors in Milan. Attaining ITF World rank as #2 Junior at so early an age was indeed remarkable.
Vastly larger acclaim soon followed. In a stunning victory in her first main-draw match at the Open, Tuesday August 26, CiCi defeated 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, who had been runner-up at this year's Australian Open. At height perhaps 5-4, the young American showed excellent right-handed power and control, plenty of aggressiveness, and an amazingly mature confidence. Lifted by strong home-nation crowd support, CiCi came from behind in the third set to collect her improbable victory.
An overflow gallery watched CiCi's next match, against Zarina Diyas, age 19 at listed height 5-8 (Kazakhstan). Able to deliver crisp forehands and backhands relentlessly, Zarina had risen from just inside the second hundred last year and now ranked World #48. In what became a crowd-pleasing three-setter, Zarina was able to blunt CiCi's power and aggressiveness with her own shot-making and mobility along with superior avoidance of error.
Bellis would lose early in the Junior tournament at the Open's second week. But the long-term future looked bright for both her and Diyas.
For the most part, form held in the early rounds of the main draw at about the usual regularity. All but eleven of the 32 seeded female players successfully defended their seeded status by winning their first two matches. Of the highest-seeded eight, all survived except for fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and eighth-seeded Ivanovich. Following the pattern seen in recent months, among the penetrators were several unseeded members of the female 22-and-under youth brigade:
Belinda Bencic, 17 (Switzerland), defeated #31 Nara
Nicole Gibbs, 21 (U.S.A ), defeated #23 Pavluchenkova
Karolina Pliskova, 22 (Czech Republic), defeated #8 Ivanovic
Aleksandra Krunic, 21 (Serbia), defeated #27 Keys
Zarina Diyas, 19 (Kazakhstan), defeated Bellis to replace #12 Cibulkova
Meanwhile the number of male seeds knocked out after two rounds was twelve -- one fewer than the median number from the previous Opens. Among the unseeded who took their places in the final 32 were the following members of the male youth brigade (age 24-and-under):
Nick Kyrgios, 19 (Australia), defeated #21 Youzhny
Dominic Thiem 20 (Austria), defeated #11 Gulbis
Pablo Carreno Busta, 23 (Spain), defeated Paire to replace #24 Benneteau
Andrey Kuznetsov, 23 (Russia), defeated #31 Verdasco
David Goffin, 23 (Belgium), defeated #32 Joao Sousa
The Nations
With more than half the tournament's matches completed, the leading nations in the tally of matches were now apparent. After two rounds of singles and one of men's and women's doubles:
USA, 21.0 match wins
Czech Republic, 13.0
Russia, 10.0
Spain, 17.5
France, 15.0
USA, 11.0
The U.S. women's total included twelve wins by the Americans in the first round of singles. No other nation had more than five. The American women also had a strong lead in the doubles.
Earlier in the year the French males scored tops in matches won at both Australian Open and Wimbledon 2014 and were second to Spain's at Garros. In the early going at U.S., shown above, Spain (without Nadal) and France each tallied nine wins in first-round singles. But the Modern Musketeers lost ground in men's doubles.
Round three brought yet another surprise among the women. Qualifier Aleksandra Krunic, 21 at height 5-4, brought an athletic game built about the speed of movement and clean striking ability -- strengths that had brought down power-striking Madison Keys in the previous round. Aleksandra's newest victim was third-seeded Petra Kvitova, 24 at 6-0, the recent champion at Wimbledon but far from her best on this day. For much of the going Aleksandra played defensively, relentlessly avoiding errors while holding off Kvitova's forceful power. Too often, Petra missed favorable bids for winners. But whenever Kvitova stepped down her forcefulness, often there was Aleksandra able to place firm winners on Petra's side of the net. Important was the neutralizing of Kvitova's lefty serving prowess, as Krunic won 48% of the points served by Kvitova.
Aleksandra made a strong bid for one more victory, squeezing out the first set against an uncomfortable Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round. Vika managed to rein in her errors after that, but Aleksandra kept matters close to the finish, showing good attacking skills to complement her superior speed and consistency. Overall, Aleksandra tallied more winners (including six aces) and fewer unforced errors than the two-time Slam Champion. Vika led in points won at net, 25-8, to capture the victory.
Meanwhile top-seeded Serena Williams marched forward, winning her first four matches in straight sets, all by scores no closer than 6-3. But otherwise the middle rounds saw total breakdown of the female seeded order. Aside from Serena no player seeded in the top eight succeeded in reaching the tournament's quarter-finals. The new Swiss Miss, Belinda Bencic, 17, defeated Kerber and Jankovic to claim Kerber's place in the last eight. Unseeded Peng Shuai defeated Radwanska and Safarova to take Agnieszka's place, and Caroline Wozniacki knocked out Sharapova in a magnificent test of wills. Riser Eugenie Bouchard, having already survived split-setters against two lower-ranked opponents, became victim of the superior movement and striking of lower-seeded lefty Ekaterina Makarova. Eugenie thus failed to complete her run of reaching at least the semis in all four of the year's Slams.
The top-seeded males were far more successful. Only three of the top-seeded eight failed to survive the middle rounds. Ferrer had lost in round two, and Raonic and Dimitrov were defeated in remarkable fourth-round outcomes. Raonic, 23, lost a five-setter to Nishikori, 24, despite Milos's edge in fastest serve (144 vs. 120 mph) and aces (35-8). Grigor Dimitrov meanwhile lost to Gael Monfils, whose continuing fine play provided one of the marvels of the tournament. Gael, 28 at height 6-4, is gifted in his extreme power and mobility -- able to play almost any style at high level. Now, staying focused and strong in overcoming the week's difficult playing conditions, Monfils defeated in straight sets higher-ranked Richard Gasquet in the third round and Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth. Gael was admirably self-disciplined throughout.
Leading the way into the quarter-finals were the tournament's prime favorites --Federer, who demolished seeded Bautista Agut in an avalanche of hard hitting and net-attacking, and Djokovic, who like Monfils won his four matches without losing a set.
Murray vs. Djokovic
Second Wednesday evening brought temporary relief from the harsh heat and humidity, even as the strong winds that bedeviled earlier matches now yielded to a light breeze, hardly noticeable. Inside Ashe Stadium all awaited the tournament's first meeting of the men's Big Four -- a fourth-round match-up widely anticipated.
It began quietly, broken by many unforced errors amid short rallies. Gradually both men found their usual high level, however, and after several lead changes the scoreboard reached six games all, the gallery now fully warmed to the occasion.
Novak Djokovic won the first point of the tiebreaker behind a superb sequence of sliced backhands accompanied by relentless movement forward and a final, winning volley. After that Novak never lost control of the tiebreaker, and Andy Murray won only one point in the tiebreaker, unable to alter the momentum.
The second set brought what had always been expected -- tennis at the highest level by both men, equally matched, even as the lead on the scoreboard shifted back and forth. Both were so good at movement and stroking that winners were hard to achieve except at extreme risk of error. But it was Andy who was now the heavier striker, Novak the one who replied with softer stroking, often heavily sliced. Andy's forehand now often carried extreme pace in bids not so much for immediate winners but instead for ineffective short returns inviting further punishment.
In the first point of the tiebreak game Andy unleashed one of his extreme forehand blows, setting up an immediate net approach and volley winner for the powerful redhead. Again, that first point created the momentum. Novak would win only one of the remaining seven points in the tiebreaker.
It was now midnight, neither player having yet shown physical weakening, though it was Murray who had struggled in coping with the humidity in earlier rounds. Now, Andy's scorching forehand gradually became less violent and less reliable, the first serve lost a bit in velocity, and, especially in the final stages, the Murray legs seriously weakened. Djokovic d. Murray 76 67 62 64.
Federer vs. Monfils
Gael Monfils had played Roger Federer closely on other occasions. The two had divided their two most recent meetings, both of them split-setters. Gael had not lost a set in winning his first four matches of the current fortnight, Roger had lost just one set. Thus it would not have been surprising if their Thursday meeting under the lights in Ashe Stadium had been closely contested.
Thus the unbroken dominance of Monfils for two sets became a shocking surprise. During that period Federer had little answer for the sizzling rocketry and blinding speed of his opponent, who was playing at his very best, highly focused. Especially dominating was Gael in their heavy-hitting baseline-to-baseline exchanges. As the score advanced Gael showed little sign of yielding his mastery, especially in the second set when unforced errors by Roger outnumbered Gael's 13-4. Roger meanwhile showed interest in attacking net, but his margin in forecourt was not enough to reverse the flow. Gael's turned-ankle injury early in set two scarcely affected the demolition.
The pattern changed early in the third set. Perhaps it was that Gael unwisely relaxed or perhaps the ankle was retarding his play. Or perhaps Roger adjusted better to the unending strong winds. But it was clear that Roger was now matching Gael in serving and stroking velocities. Meanwhile Roger was cutting down his unforced errors even as the accuracy of Gael's bolts was declining.
Most points and games were still hard-fought. Indeed, Gael held two match points late in the fourth set. But both went to Roger -- one by Gael's close miss on a forcing try, one by a winner to a corner by Roger. Roger's net brilliance more and more came into play, especially in persistent approaches by Roger against the Monfils backhand. By margins of a single service break, Roger won sets three and four. And when Roger took an early lead in set five, Gael's resistance ended soon afterwards. Federer d. Monfils 46 36 64 75 62.
All women's quarter-finals and semis were settled in straight sets. Serena Williams easily defeated first Pennetta and then Makarova, dominating with her power and, especially in the semi against Makarova, with her quickness in moving to striking position. The other semi-final was closely fought, matching two baseliners both equipped with outstanding two-handed backhands. Caroline Wozniacki won the first-set tiebreaker against Peng Shuai. Later, unable to ovecome severe symptoms stemming from the mid-afternoon heat and humidity, Shuai acknowledged her need to concede. Serena and Caroline would be the Sunday finalists.
Djokovic v. Nishikori
The high temperatures, humidity, and winds remained in full effect for the early afternoon semi on Saturday. Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori began carefully, driving the ball firmly but with much margin of safety, both keen to guard his own side of the court. By mid-set it was Nishikori playing at closer to full blood, and it was the young Japanese star who captured the set-ending break of serve by making several firm, aggressive returns.
Djokovic responded well, gradually improving his forcefulness while cutting down his errors, comfortably winning what seemed a critical second set and pressing Kei early in the third. Kei was now giving signs that seemed to reveal fatigue, not surprisingly given the existing temperature (in the 90's) and high humidity, especially as Kei had endured long five-setters in his two previous matches. But the apparent tiredness soon went away as Kei fought off Novak's increased pressure.
Indeed it was Djokovic who faded badly in the third-set tiebreaker, when Novak yielded several inexplicably bad errors early and two more forehand errors at the finish. The malaise persisted when Novak gifted away the opening game of set four, serving.
With the finish line now in sight, Kei's shot-making brilliance reached its highest level in his remaining serving games, even as he husbanded his energy during Novak's serving games. A double-break margin favoring Kei finally came in a concluding game marked by a difficult high backhand serve return that became a wondrous winner by Kei.
Kei had clearly outplayed and physically outlasted Novak, essentially by producing the better level of shot-making. The outcome assured that four different males and four different females would be 2014's Slam champions. Nishikori d. Djokovic, 64 16 76 63.
Federer vs. Cilic
The year had a good one for Marin Cilic, now 25 at height 6-6, following a four-month suspension in late 2013 under the anti-doping program. There had been three tournament triumphs, a worthy W-L record overall, and creditable split-set losses to Djokovic at Wimbledon and Federer in Toronto. His world ranking had improved from #37 in January to #16 just before the Open. Marin credited the recent coaching of Goran Ivanisevic in refashioning his power serving technique and his overall approach to match play. Marin's advance to the semis at the Open included a five-set win over Gilles Simon, to whom he had lost in five sets in Australia in January, and a straight-set win over Berdych. In the latter affair Marin out-aced Berdych by tally 19-4, to some extent by disguise and placement, as his average velocities were slower. Roger Federer assuredly understood that Marin Cilic would be a dangerous opponent in their Saturday semi.
A thunderstorm delayed their start about an hour, bringing relief from the searing heat if not the humidity and wind. The first break of serve came in the fourth game when Federer, serving, led by 40-Love whereupon the racket of Cilic produced nothing but rockets. Roger threatened to break back in the next game, but potent serves by Cilic turned back the threat. From then on, it was Marin's relentlessly powerful serving, serve-returning, and stroking, fortified by Marin's excellent deception, quickness in movement and reach, and excellent avoidance of error, that stopped the several bids by Roger to change the flow. First-serving frequently above 130-mph at over 50% in-court percentage, Marin won an amazing 87% of first-serving points. Roger sometimes seemed to react surprisingly late to Marin's serving and stroking power. As Marin said immediately afterwards, today's was Marin's career-best level of tennis. Cilic d. Federer, 63 64 63.
The blistering serving and stroking of Serena Williams far exceeded the resistance of Caroline Wozniacki on this day. Caroline tried bravely, but it early became evident that her best hope was to prolong the points and games long enough to elicit errors by Serena. Caroline indeed showed some potent striking of her own, but her bids seldom overcame Serena's excellent court coverage. Overall, the official count of Caroline's winning placements (aside from several serving aces) was one, compared with Serena's 22.
The play was ragged on both sides in the first set, which included a segment of five consecutive breaks of serve -- products of overhitting by Serena and Caroline's inability to adjust to Serena's pace. Late in the set as Serena's shot-preparation improved her errors became less frequent, and with the second set Serena's serve regularly produced its familiar devastation. Some lively baseline rallies gave entertainment to the gallery, but Serena's ability to close out matters seemed always evident. S. Williams d. Wozniacki, 63 63.
It was Serena's eighteenth Slam triumph, tying her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at fourth place in the all-time's tally. Those two luminaries took part in the post-match presentation, creating a memorable moment.
The dazzling rocketry of Marin Cilic seen against Federer could scarcely be forgotten, and there was much of it now on display against Kei Nishikori, the superb mover and striker who had come through so much during the week. Kei was the higher-seeded player and held the clear edge in their career meetings. But the superior serving and the strong rallying game of Cilic on this day would prevail, commencing early in the first set with the first of five breaks of Kei's serve. The script was never reversed by a disappointed Nishikori, whose own brilliance was only occasionally seen.
Marin's serving at height 6-6 and a tricky delivery motion made for much of the difference -- a 17-2 edge in aces for Cilic, a 16-mph edge in first-serve average velocity, a second-serve hop that produced a points-won percentage of 59% for Marin. Confident in his movement and rallying skills, Cilic played slightly more patiently than against Federer, matching Nishikori in steadiness and consistency, less inclined to produce the steaming forehand for the immediate kill. At net Marin won 11 of 13. Requiring special note was Marin's short-backswing backhand two-hander, so accurate and deceptive, the shot that closed out the final game.
Afterwards there came Marin's delightful dash into the stands, the hugs for the entourage especially coach Ivanisevic, whose past playing style was now recognizable in Marin's own. Cilic d. Nishikori, 63 63 63.
The Nations
Lifted by twelve wins in the first round of the women's singles, the American women led from the outset in the tally of matches won. It was the fourth straight year for American success. By Vesnina's and Makarova's winning the women's doubles on the final weekend, the contingent of Russkayas achieved a second-place tie with the Czechs. Meanwhile The Spanish males despite the absence of Nadal repeated their first-place finish of 2013, though at smaller margin. U.S. strength in men's doubles, including another Slam triumph by the Bryan twins, lifted the host nation to second place, passing France.
U.S.A., 33.5 matches won
Russia, 20.0
Czech Republic, 20.0
Spain, 26.0
U.S.A., 24.0
France, 19.0
The Triple
A player's winning all three events at a Slam -- the singles, doubles, and mixed -- requires winning 18 matches. Here were the closest at the 2014 Open:
Ekaterina Makarova, 11 wins total (5 singles, 6 doubles)
Serena Williams, 10 total (7 singles, 3 doubles)
Flavia Pennetta, 9 total (4 singles, 5 doubles)
Sania Mirza, 9 total (4 doubles, 5 mixed)
Bruno Soares, 8 total (3 doubles, 5 mixed)
Singles Overachievers
Peng Shuai, not seeded, reached rounds of 32, 16, 8, and 4 = 4 levels of over-achievement
five players tied at 3 levels (Krunic, Makarova, Lucic-Baroni, Bencic, Wozniacki)
Marin Cilic, seeded #9-16., reached rounds of 8, 4, 2, and 1 = 4 levels of over-achievement
Dominic Thiem, not seeded, reached rounds of 32, 16, and 8 = 3 levels
Kei Nishikori, seeded #9-16., reached rounds of 8, 4, and 2 = 3 levels
The Indicators
Of the three indicators used in reaching our pre-tournament Composite, the most successful as predictor was Hard-Court Index, by narrow margin over Current Playing Level.
The women's champion, Serena Williams, had been rated second in Current Playing Level, and first in Basic Indicator, Hard-Court Index, and Composite. (She would have been first in Quality-Win Quotient, which was not used in our prediction.) Runner-up Caroline Wozniacki had been fifth in Composite, including third place in Current Playing Level and fifth in Hard-Court Index. The strong showing of Makarova was best predicted (fifth place) by Current Playing Level. According to Composite, the indicated runner-up should have been Simona Halep, who lost in the third round.
The men's indicators had strongly pointed to Djokovic and Federer as likely finalists. Both lost in the semis, beaten by Nishikori and Cilic, respectively. Cilic had been rated sixth in Hard-Court Index, Nishikori eighth in Basic, Cilic the higher of the two in Current Playing Level and Composite.
As to the predictions previously offered here, the scoreboard reads 50%. (Serena was correctly picked, Roger incorrectly.)
Wide notice followed success at the Open by several members of the youth brigade (here defined as women age 22-and-under and men 24-and-under). Members Kei Nishikori and Dominic Thiem were two of the tournament's male high overachievers. Females Bencic, Krunic, and Bellis introduced themselves splendidly.
Here are the new rankings of the brigade age groups, ranked according to results in Third Trimester 2014 (July 20 to date). Especially among the men, the list reflects success at the Open, where the run of Nishikori not quite closed his margin behind Raonic, who had excellent results earlier in the summer. Among the women, the achievements at the Open of Bencic, Krunic, and Diyas lifted all three onto the current list.
Women, 22-and-under
1. Elina Svitolina, 20 (Ukraine). Lost in 1st round at Open.
2. Bojana Jovanovski, 22 (Serbia). Lost in 1st round at Open.
3. Belinda Bencic, 17 (Switzerland). Quarter-finals at Open.
4. Kurumi Nara, 22 (Japan). 2nd round at Open.
5. Aleksandra Krunic, 21 (Serbia). Qualies + 4th round at Open.
6. Zarina Diyas, 21 (Kazakhstan). 4th round at open
Men, 24-and-under
1. Milos Raonic, 23 (Canada). 4th round at Open.
2. Kei Nishikori, 24 (Japan). Runner-up at Open.
3. David Goffin, 23 (Belgium). 3rd round at Open.
4. Dominic Thiem, 21 (Austria). 4th round at Open.
5. Jerzy Janowicz, 24 (Poland). 2nd round at Open.
6. Grigor Dimitrov , 23 (Bulgaria). 4th round at Open.
The era of the Big Four in men's tennis was clearly broken on semi-final Saturday in New York. The leaders of the current youth brigade will thrust further upward into the new order. Nishikori will soon reach 25 and leave the brigade. But other members not far behind the leaders listed here will surely rise to add to the turbulence.
-- 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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