US Open Second Week Preview (by Matt)

Rather than look at the order of play for each day – come on, what’s to say about that Tipsarevic-Ferrero match or that Kerber-Pennetta quarterfinal? (others can guest blog-post on those kinds of matches…) – I prefer to look at the entire second week of a major tournament.

The storylines?

Sure, we can start in the fourth round, but let’s then work through the rest of the week to provide an overview of the stakes in New York for several different kinds of players.

So, about that fourth round: Fish versus Tsonga. That’s the match the Picket Fence will be leaning on. It’s a fascinating match, and it is rightly the third match of the day session on Ashe Stadium, meaning that it’s being treated as the featured match of the day by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and CBS television, the American broadcast network which chooses the matches it wants for the three-day holiday weekend.

(Monday is Labor Day in America, a holiday which gives CBS the platform from which to air three 7-hour blocks of tennis over three days, thereby justifying the network’s investment in the tournament. The Labor Day weekend makes the day matches the featured matches; the night sessions on the first weekend of the U.S. Open are viewed as second-tier matches appropriate for the Tennis Channel and, on Labor Day night, ESPN2. I’m happy to provide more information and background on U.S. Open scheduling for non-American Fencers, upon request.)

If one were to pick this match strictly on the current form of the players, Tsonga would be the choice. The Frenchman has shrugged off his injury (some would say it wasn’t much of an injury at all against Novak Djokovic in Montreal; I’ll give the oft-injured Jo the benefit of the doubt) and is flying around the court with confidence. Fish, on the other hand, has looked tired as a result of all the tennis (six weeks’ worth) he’s played during the long, hot hardcourt summer. Fish did well to get past Kevin Anderson in straights on Saturday, saving some resources for Monday. However, will Fish’s tank have enough fuel in it? That’s probably the most relevant question in this match.

It’s worth pointing out that the match will be Tsonga’s first at Ashe in this tournament. A big crowd will be on hand after Serena Williams’s match against Ana Ivanovic, a contest that won’t be competitive but will lure New Yorkers to the 24,000-seat bowl in Flushing Meadows. When Fish and Tsonga start, a full house will be ready to help the top-ranked American. Fish will need to gain energy from the crowd and use it to his advantage.

Fish fans – who are doubling as Federer fans in this match, given Tsonga’s doings against Wogie at Wimbledon and in Canada – must hope that the eighth seed has been pacing himself for the second week. Fish has never made a major semifinal and is about to see if he’s worthy of the final weekend at a top-level tournament. Fish, at 29, won’t have many more chances to find uncharted territory in a solid but unspectacular career that hasn’t witnessed any glorious vistas of supreme accomplishment. This truly is a career-defining match for him (a quarterfinal with Fed would be even more significant), which means that fatigue can wait until after the U.S. Open concludes.

Tsonga, who has reached a major final (2008 in Australia) before busting on through to the 2011 Wimby semis, owns the all-around game worthy of a major winner, but he has been saddled by a fragile mentality that has often coexisted with an accordingly injury-prone body. If Tsonga isn’t physically bothered in this match, however, his mind might be able to get out of the way… as was the case in the Wimbledon quarters against Our Hero.

This match offers a unique convergence of circumstances: Tsonga isn’t playing one of the Big Three, but he’ll be in a stadium that should crackle with electricity. Does this mean Tsonga will feel pressure in this match, or is it Fish who will do the lion’s share of worrying on Monday afternoon? That’s a rich layer of psychological intrigue, a slice of curiosity which is part of what makes this match a must-see event at this year’s Open.

Fish will need to lean on his serve and likely dig out a tiebreak or two (it will be the same for Federer in a would-be quarterfinal on Wednesday night). If Fish can win the first set and plant a seed of doubt in the 11th seed’s mind, he might not win this match in straights (that outcome isn’t likely in either direction), but he could gain the cushion needed to manage his reserves and then find a second wind late in the third set, with a New York crowd growing in enthusiasm (and adult-beverage consumption).

I do think Tsonga’s mind might wander in this match, and I do think Fish will treat the moment with the seriousness it deserves. Fish’s weary tennis doesn’t inspire confidence, but as Jimmy Connors (1991) and Todd Martin (1999) have shown us, Americans can be pushed to new heights of determination at the USTA National Tennis Center. The pick is Fish, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (5).

The other particularly intriguing Monday match with high stakes for both players is the Caroline Wozniacki-Svetlana Kuznetsova fourth-rounder under the lights on Monday night.

This same scenario – Woz versus the Kooze on Labor Day night – played out two years ago, and Wozniacki outlasted her error-prone opponent, 2-6, 7-6, 7-6. The loss was one of the Kooze’s most disappointing at a major (that’s saying a lot, of course), partly because the next two rounds of that U.S. Open were so easy for the winner of that match – Melanie Oudin in the quarters and Yanina Wickmayer in the semis.

You know the drill with the Kooze – she has all the shots in the repository but one of the worst mental games on the WTA Tour. Kuznetsova crushed Wozniacki in the first set of that 2009 fourth-rounder with a full-flight game Wogie would have appreciated. Then, in the second set, it was as though Kuznetsova realized how fluidly she was playing and held that fact against her own tortured self. The Kooze reacted very negatively whenever she’d miss a shot, and as a result, she did not get out of her own way. Wozniacki patiently waited for errors that came from the Kooze’s racket in the business ends of the last two sets. The Kooze saved some match points and worked her way into a third-set tiebreak, but Wozniacki continued to do what she does best: retrieve balls against foes who aren’t willing to hit an extra ball. Kuznetsova lost the moment and the match; tellingly, she hasn’t made the semifinals or better at a major since her 2009 French Open title run. That loss to Wozniacki severely damaged the Kooze’s confidence; this is a moment of reckoning for her.

Which means she’ll lose 4 and 3, right?

The only other fourth-round match worth eyeing is on Tuesday, when Rafael Nadal and Gilles Muller lock horns. Muller can scare top-class opponents – he battled Federer well in the 2008 U.S. Open quarterfinals before losing in three tough sets. He took Rafa to the precipice in the first two sets of this year’s Wimbledon third round, but he couldn’t close the deal in tightly-fought breakers. Rafa is not physically fit – we saw this in Sunday afternoon’s widely-circulated press conference – so Muller has a real opportunity to break through and reach another major quarterfinal.

Just don’t bet on it actually happening. You need to prove yourself more than Muller has before you get the benefit of the doubt.

In the quarterfinals, the Tsonga-Fish winner and the Stosur-Zvonareva winner will be the players with the most to play for. The Roddick-Ferrer winner will also have some poker chips on the table, but with Rafa and Murray in that half of the draw, the window of real long-term opportunity is limited.

Once we reach the semifinal rounds in New York, the three players who will feel the heat more than anyone else are Andy Murray – whose draw has opened up beyond his wildest dreams – and, on the women’s side, the two semifinalists in the bottom half of the draw. The bottom half of the WTA side was blown wide open after just five days and three rounds, with Sharapova, Kvitova, and Li Na all bowing out very early. There’s a huge career opportunity out there, waiting to be snatched by a lucky lady who is ready to walk through that portal between promise and fulfillment. Of the women in the bottom half of the draw who could possibly play (most likely) Serena in Saturday night’s final, only Vera Zvonareva has been to the U.S. Open final before. The pressure will be palpable in the first women’s semi on Friday afternoon. (Serena’s semifinal will be second because of CBS television’s preference for a ratings-magnet match in a higher-visibility time window.)

One of the many reasons I love tennis is that unlike golf, it involves a lot less randomness in the realm of individual sports. Golf has witnessed a constant parade of obscure major champions who rise up for one weekend and then fade into the background. In tennis, the spotlight remains for two full weeks – there’s nowhere to hide when the second week arrives. The sport is too much of a proving ground to allow cheap champions to sneak through (Thomas Johansson, Albert Costa, and a few others excepted in the 21st century). When players face the gauntlet of the second week of a major, the clarity with which they rise or fall is so unmistakable. Greatness gets revealed in tennis majors, whereas flukey champions are the order of the day in most golf majors.

Enjoy the week, Fencers!


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About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

2 responses to “US Open Second Week Preview (by Matt)”

  1. VanessaLovesTennis (@NessLovesTennis) says :

    Very, very intelligently done. Kudos! 🙂

  2. marcoiac says :

    about depth in tennis: saw muller losing first round qualies in l.a. last year. that’s depth!

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