By Matt Roberts
The US Open, played out in the hustle and bustle of The Big Apple, is rarely dull. And this year was no exception. A thrilling men’s final brought the fortnight to a close but the event will be remembered for the biggest upset in the sport’s history.
Djokovic gives mental masterclass to deny Federer
Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer 6-4 5-7 6-4 6-4 in an epic encounter under the lights at Flushing Meadows to win his second US Open title. Victory moves the Serb into the ‘double-digit’ club for major titles; he’s now on ten, seventh on the all-time list. Nadal and Federer, on 14 and 17 respectively, are within his sights.
In many ways, this was one of Djokovic’s most impressive Grand Slam wins. Across the net was Federer, in the midst of a late career resurgence and playing extraordinary tennis having not dropped a single set since Wimbledon. The great Swiss had brushed aside his compatriot Wawrinka in the semi-finals for the loss of just eight games. He was flowing, purring, dazzling again.
And there was another participant in this contest, too. The three-hour rain delay prior to the match had allowed the spectators to, for want of a better term, get ‘boozed-up’. The atmosphere was electric, the cavernous Arthur Ashe stadium was a cauldron of noise all night as New Yorkers frankly lost their minds every time Federer won a point. But Djokovic put in a ‘Me Against The World’ performance for the ages. That he managed to emerge victorious despite such a hostile environment was a testament to his mental and emotional fortitude.
There’s an old adage in tennis: ‘All points are equal, but some points are bigger than others.’ Sunday’s final was the purest demonstration of this paradox in recent history. Time and again the Swiss put himself in a position to grab control of the match only to be denied by Djokovic who saved 19 of Federer’s 23 break points in an astonishing display of mental resilience. The margins between two great champions are usually fine. On Sunday, they were minute. Ultimately, whereas Djokovic was composed and focused in the biggest moments, Federer hesitated, unsure of the best tactic to adopt.
At times it looked as though Federer was puzzled by Djokovic’s versatility and relentlessness. Federer played a great match but, the second set aside when he was very assertive, there wasn’t quite the same clarity of thought as during last month’s Cincinnati final where he attacked at every possible moment. Too often he tried to rally with Djokovic but the Serb is the greatest baseline duellist of them all. Unsurprisingly the Swiss came off second best in the lengthy exchanges.
Djokovic must be vexing to play. He has no tangible weakness. He’s a peerless defender who adopts the mantra to constantly ‘get one more ball back.’ That’s not to say he can’t attack. On the contrary, he spreads the play expertly with his groundstrokes and has greatly improved in the forecourt. As Mark Petchey said on commentary, his game is ‘defence laced with aggression’. It’s a pretty lethal combination. Ultimately, his base level of play is so high that he forces opponents to consistently perform one or two gears above their natural level. Consequently, it’s impossible to feel entirely at ease against him. To beat him, you have to play a perfect match. Only Stan Wawrinka, who produced a barrage of booming strokes in the Roland Garros final, has been able to do it on the Grand Slam stage in 2015.
Federer, at 34, is still playing amazingly well. No man has ever produced such good tennis at his age. But facing Djokovic, this battle-hardened 28-year-old in the prime of his career, at the majors over five sets, seems to be an obstacle that not even he can breach.
Forza Italia as Serena is slammed in the semis
When Roberta Vinci’s angled dropshot found the line on match point against Serena Williams in the semi-final on Friday afternoon, it was ‘wham-bam goodbye slam.’ The Italian had pulled off the biggest upset in the sport’s history.
The nature of tennis, where the game’s giants regularly come up against the minnows, means that it has a history of shocks. But this was bigger than Helena Sukova’s unlikely win against Martina Navratilova in 1984 and Robin Soderling’s demolition job of Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French Open. This was so huge because so much was at stake.
Just two wins away from a calendar Grand Slam, Serena was on the verge of history. She’d beaten sister Venus in the quarter-finals, playing purposefully and aggressively. To win the tournament, all she had to do was overcome two players ranked outside the top 25 who she had a combined record of 11-0 against. In other words, it wasn’t quite a foregone conclusion that she would win the title, but it was pretty close.
Serena cruised through the opening set against Vinci, reeling off five straight games to take it 6-2. She was hardly playing brilliantly, but she didn’t need to. Her ferocious power game, although not quite fully engaged, was dominating her diminutive Italian opponent.
Williams had been 25-3 in major singles semi-finals before Friday. All three of those defeats came against players who had previously been ranked No. 1 in the world. The powers that be at the USTA could have been excused for pencilling in ‘Serena Williams’ next to ‘Flavia Pennetta’ on the programme for Saturday’s final. She couldn’t lose from this position, could she? She could.
She suddenly lost her flow and Vinci took the second set 6-4. While concerning, this was hardly a massive surprise. So many times in her incredible run she had inexplicably lost a set to a weaker opponent. And yet every time she composed herself, fist pumped and romped through. She has a crisis, she overcomes it. That’s just the way it is with the Serena and just what would happen against Vinci, right? Wrong.
In the most remarkable period of play, it all came crashing down for the American.
Was it just a bad day? Possibly. But Serena hit 16 aces and 50 winners in the match – it was by no means an awful performance.
Was it an inspired opponent? Partly. Vinci sliced and diced her way through the match, sneaking her way to the net, unpredictably injecting some pace to go alongside her deft touch and expressing her loveable personality with flamboyant celebrations.
Was it the weight of expectation? Probably. Serena was not Serena in sets two and three. She was paralysed by a fear, unable to swing freely.
The end, when it came, was swift. Vinci served for the match at 5-4, and won all four points. Nobody saw this coming. All around Arthur Ashe stadium, mouths were agape in disbelief. Had this really happened? It had.
Emotionally drained, Williams departed the court to a standing ovation, her greatness still intact, but her historic Grand Slam bid derailed.
The natural instinct following such a devastating defeat would surely be to curl up into a ball and shut everything off for a few days. But Serena is more focused and motivated than ever before in her career. She will continue to hunt down Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 majors.
In the end, the Serena-less final was an all-Italian affair between two childhood friends. Pennetta and Vinci won the French Open junior doubles title together in 1999 and they produced an entertaining match. Pennetta won in straight sets and then announced that she will be retiring at the end of the season. It was all very nice and touching. But it was hard to ignore the overwhelming sense of ‘What could have been?’.
Serena could have been there – history could have been made.
Photograph: tobyas via Wikimedia Commons