September 4, 2008 -- In his pre-match chat with Michael Barkann Andy Roddick said, "It's going to be tough night out there for both of us." He was right. With one racquet crushed before the end of the first set, Roddick emerged from his funk at the beginning of the second by winning a lengthy point and igniting the evening crowd. His struggles were far from over.
Novak Djokovic kept up his onslaught of brilliant tennis in the second set, demonstrating to the city crowd that itched for Roddick to step it up, his mastery of changing the ball's direction. He rallied crosscourt with Roddick, as if he could go on forever. Then at the opportune moment he sent a forehand down the line. Roddick ran wide. On the run, he struck a forehand crosscourtÉ landing where Nole waited. Whack. The Serb drove the winner down the line, a perfect finish to a beautifully constructed point. Djokovic executed this strategy more than once. In the third set the two exchanged forehands and backhands interspersed with down-the-line zingers. Djokovic skidded and scrambled, and kept the point going until he set up an overhead winner. The zone was his.
John McEnroe's solution to Andy's problem, after he'd lost the second set 63, was to be more aggressive. But how? The American's winner to unforced error ratio was lopsided, errors outstripping winners. His serve wasn't working -- Andy's ace-in-the-hole. And, Djokovic was winning something like 70% of his second service points. That's one tough statistic to counter.
But then, in the third, Novak's zone wavered. He played a loose game. Andy broke and consolidated to go up 4/1. Novak might have thought to call the trainer, but didn't and Andy went on to win the third 6/3. New Yorkers were up for the occasion, as usual. They raised their hands in unison, as Andy grabbed his towel from the ball kid and pumped his fist, glancing up at his box where Patrick McEnroe, Andy's interim coach, sat clapping and nodding his head in approval. Andy got his mojo back.
The difference between Novak Djokovic in the zone and Novak Djokovic not playing perfect tennis was evident in the fourth set. He's a player who wears his emotions on his sleeve. So when he dumped a forehand in the net his head dropped. After he sent a backhand wide he talked with himself. Most important, his footwork faltered. On two points after driving shots deep he hesitated before the approach. Not positioned for the return he committed two unforced errors. It was downright un-Djokovic like, given his performance earlier in the match. But, he persevered as Andy strutted around, enjoying his moments of fame.
All revved up and ready to take the match to the fifth set, Roddick served at 5/4. He was going to do it. Everyone in Arthur Ashe knew it, too. Another late night at the Open awaited the anxious. No one expected what happened next. Two double faults and a misinformed drop shot, which landed short. Roddick has missed his golden opportunity, probably his only opportunity to take it to five. Djokovic screamed, clenching both fists as he glared at his box. His pardon from lackluster tennis was realized. He would avenge the man who flippantly told the world that he suffered from "sixteen different injuries."
The battle ended in a tiebreak. First to seven by two. It was Novak Djokovic who made it to the finish line at lucky seven. The two men came to the net to shake hands, as is the tradition. However, the Serbian wasn't gallant in victory as is his normally behavior. He shook Roddick's hand swiftly, averting his eyes. After tossing his racquet toward his chair Djokovic, on a mission and totally oblivious to fans, walked toward his support team: his mother and father, his coach and trainers. His dark eyes burned with intensity. He screamed, as if this match proved to the American crowd that he, Novak Djokovic of Serbian, was not a fake, but the man who bettered Andy Roddick on his home turf.
New Yorkers aren't easy pushovers. They saw the pride in Novak's eyes, his gestures, and in his manner with Andy at the net. They booed the winner. Then, as Michael Barkann conducted the on-court interview, Novak told the crowd they were against him. Not a well thought out public relations policy, by any means. They booed more. Novak came back reiterating Andy's comment about "sixteen injuries." To his credit, Barkann tried to make light of the uncomfortable situation. He joked with Novak, which eased them a bit.
Novak Djokovic had been favored to win this match. He was one of five players picked early by tennis experts to pull away from the draw, which he has. Roddick was one of the five, but no longer. If he hadn't committed two double faults or brain cramped and hit the poor drop shot in the fourth, Arthur Ashe Stadium may still be rocking. But not this year. Not for Andy Roddick, anyway.
Novak Djokovic will play Roger Federer in the semifinals Saturday. It will be the ninth time they've faced off. Roger is up 6-2. This will be Roger's eighteenth consecutive Grand Slam semifinal, too. Ivan Lendl is second in line for this distinction with ten semifinals in a row.
Wind Whacks Arthur's Court
September 5, 2008 -- Mother Nature and raw human will stormed Arthur Ashe Stadium today. Jelena Jankovic, in her fifth semi of a major, and Elena Dementieva, Beijing's gold medalist, began the afternoon trading breaks of serve as readily as wind changes direction. Next, Serena Williams and Dinara Safina tried to tame the elements. They hit the balls harder, with more pace. But, there's really no fooling Mother Nature. In the end Jankovic steadied herself and Serena concentrated with such intensity that she didn't seem to know the wind was a problem.
The top four women's seeds didn't make it to the semifinal matches although numbers two, three, six and seven did make it. Dinara Safina was the youngster on the court, with only one Grand Slam final in her corner: this year's French Open where she lost to Ana Ivanovic.
Elena Dementieva played in her 40th consecutive major today. She had played in two previous finals: The U. S. Open and The French Open, losing both. Her confidence was high today, though, as she began the match. She had gold in her tank and intended to cash in. However her opponent Jelena Jankovic had dreams, too. She didn't want her run to end just short of the final. Down a break of serve in both the first and second sets, Jankovic kept the ball in play provoking her Russian opponent to go for bigger and better shots -- damn the wind. As a result, Elena's unforced errors mounted as a determined Jankovic ran around the court retrieving balls that mere mortals would have failed to touch. She won both sets 6/4 6/4.
When Mary Jo Fernandez got to Jelena for an after-match interview, the tears had already started to flow.
"I was fighting all the time," Jelena, the world's potential number one player, said. "I'm happy, happy, happy to be in the final."
When asked what she might do tonight, Jelena added, " I think I go back there and cry some more."
Eight years ago Marat Safin defeated Pete Sampras in straight sets to win his first Grand Slam title at the U. S. Open. At the same time his younger sister Dinara Safina was sleeping in Valencia, or so goes the story she told Mary Carillo in a pre-match chat. Today, though, was her turn to reach for the golden ring. But first she had to defeat Serena Williams, a two-time U. S. Open champion in 2002 and 2007. No easy task. The six-foot-tall Safina had a 1-0 record against Serena, having defeated her this spring in Berlin on clay. Safina also won titles in Los Angeles and Montreal this summer. For her efforts there she won the U. S. Open Series. Maybe Serena should have been scared, considering Dinara's surge.
It looked that way in the first game when Serena was broken. But Safina's edge was short lived. In the fourth game, Williams evened the set and went on to win the set 6/3 yielding only one more game to Safina.
In the second set, Serena wouldn't allow Safina to dictate from the baseline. Safina lost her range, too. She put together a few good points, but her rhythm was shaky. She screamed at herself, the people in her box, and slapped at her shoes with her racquet. Not the picture of a mature professional tennis player, but of one frustrated girl who didn't quite know how to get herself back in the match and pull herself away from the mind blowing wind.
Serena, on the other side of the net, was calm. She didn't scream or pump her fists with any frequency, except when she broke Safina for the second time in the second set. The finish line was just up ahead for the American. Set score: 6/2.
Jelena Jankovic and Serena Williams have played each other six times. They are three and three. Although the Serbian will be playing in her first Grand Slam, don't expect a Nervous Nelly. She's waited a long time for this opportunity. Jelena will do well if she moves Serena up and back on court, and relentlessly continues to get balls back over the net.
Serena Williams has made four appearances in the finals of the U. S. Open. She won two of them. If she serves well and takes advantage of short balls, she will win hoist the trophy. However, if she gets in lengthy rallies with Jankovic, it could be a long day at the office.