"Much Better"

by: Steve Tignor | September 15, 2009

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Dp It was the perfect ending; I was wrong again. Juan Martin del Potro beat Roger Federer in a chaotic Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday and sent the tournament out with a festive buzz. From an instantly infamous outburst—forever to be known as “The Tirade” in tennis lore—to the best shot ever hit by the best player ever, to a spunky new American on the horizon, to a pair of appealingly humble champions, it was an Open that we’ll be seeing more of in future highlight reels. For now, let the snap judgments begin.

Juan Martin del Potro

What will I remember from this most logical and inevitable—though still stunning—Grand Slam breakthrough?

—Del Potro lumbering slowly behind the baseline as he set up to serve, and finishing by blowing on the heel of his right hand. It was a ritual that exuded self-assurance, and seemed to help him gather more of it with each point.

—Del Potro enlarging the court and ranging backward behind the baseline to track down a forehand in the corner and unleashing a flat line drive past his opponent. There were two remarkable aspects to this shot: It had absolutely no arc, and when it hit the DecoTurf, it didn’t so much bounce as skid, like something coming off ice.

—The Argentine, from the third set on, forcing Federer back with his heavier, thuddier shots. The world’s best was suddenly just hanging on for dear life, surviving with his squash shot. From my perspective in the 10th row off the baseline, it seemed like, if del Potro believed in himself, that it was only a matter of time before he would overwhelm Federer. For the day, at least, the sport had been handed over to a new, taller, rangier, more physical, and powerful generation.

—Del Potro’s player box. For anyone who’s seen all he ever needs to see of Anna Wintour’s straw helmet, Gavin Rossdale’s ever-ascending forehead, and his wife, what’s her name, this kid from small-town Argentina couldn’t have been a bigger breath of fresh air. He had his manager, his coach, Davin, and his trainer, Orazi (when I see the similar-looking Davin and Orazi next to del Potro at tournaments, my brain always goes, “Hi, my name’s Larry, this is my brother, Darrell, and this is my other brother, Darrell.”) Behind them were two rows of very empty, and very desirable, seats. When DP clambered up there afterward, all they could do was hug each other over and over; they didn’t have anyone else. The vibe wasn’t “us against the world,” though, the way it is with Maria Sharapova’s player box; DP doesn’t do confrontation. It was just “us.” 

—Dick Enberg opening the trophy presentation by asking del Potro how he felt, considering that the Argentine had claimed that the previous day, when he'd crushed Rafael Nadal, had been the best of his life. DP answered without missing a beat, and with maximum brevity: He said he felt "much better." 

—The sight of del Potro in the press room afterward. One of my favorite rituals at the Slams is the champion bringing the trophy with him up to the dais. I wasn’t shocked by DP’s win yesterday until I saw him behind the same silver cup that Rod Laver raised at Forest Hills when he completed the Grand Slam in 1969. Del Potro hunched low and, as always answered questions slowly and thickly. Finally, an Italian reporter had had enough. He asked, with mock exasperation:

“You always talk so quietly with this soft voice. Do you ever shout in your life, in your private life? Do you ever get angry?”

Del Potro, slowly and thickly, barely looking up: “Yeah, of course.”

—Finally, yesterday on the way into the National Tennis Center, as I passed through security and bag check and traipsed across the grounds to the stultifying press room one last time, I told myself how happy I was not to have to go anywhere near the place for the next 12 months. But as I walked out in the opposite direction after the final, behind a couple in matching blue and white Argentine soccer shirts who had their arms draped around each other, I’d changed my mind. There was a buzz around the grounds and in the air that I was going to miss; I wanted to see more tennis. A few minutes later, I got on the train back into Manhattan. The woman sitting next to me, who was coming from somewhere else, said, “Did you see del Potro?”

“Yes, I saw him.”

“I liked to watch him when he won,” she said, and put her hands over her face to imitate his emotional reaction after the final point. She had hit it: That was why I wanted to see more tennis, to see that emotion and relief that only a player who has won his first major can conjure. It doesn’t happen all that often nowadays, which only made the last moments of yesterday’s final that much more exhilarating. Thanks for sharing it with us, DP. A+

Kc Kim Clijsters

I wonder if she even feels like she’s playing her best yet. Give Clijsters credit: She saw an opening at the top, and she filled it. And she appeared to me to be hitting with more aggression—intelligent aggression—than ever, while the only difference in her movement was that she didn’t do quite as many splits as she did in the old days (that’s a good thing, by the way). While I’m surprised she beat both Williams sisters and went all the way so soon, I knew she would bounce back with no trouble. As with Jennifer Capriati in her comeback at the start of the decade, if you can hit big and through the court on the women’s tour, you always have a chance. Kim can do that, and she can move with a gymnast’s sure-footedness—she seemed to enjoy scaling the wall to get to her husband after the final as much as anything she did on court. More important, she put a smile back on the face of women’s tennis a day after Serena had scowled her way out of the tournament. The trophy ceremony was a love fest and a big welcome back for a favorite of everyone involved in the sport. Her daughter danced, Mary Jo gave her a hug, and the guy crying next to her husband was John Dolan, a WTA pr guy who has had more than his fill of pro egos, but who couldn’t help but become a friend of Kim’s. Would she have beaten Serena anyway? It’s not a lock, given Williams’ history of returns from the dead. But Clijsters deserved the win anyway. You should get something for not dropping an f-bomb at a line judge, shouldn’t you? A+

Caroline Wozniacki

She wasn’t the edgiest runner-up in history—the bloodthirsty sporting rivalry between the Danes and the Belgians just doesn’t register in the Big Apple—or the most famous. A few minutes before the final, I was walking in the hallway under Ashe next to a blonde with two racquets who was wearing a nondescript gray sweatshirt. I didn’t realize it was Wozniacki until I got back to my desk in the pressroom. And I’ve spoken to her before.

I feared a nervous meltdown in the final, but she didn’t show much, if any, fear. Wozniacki is refreshing all around: She doesn’t shriek or look up to her box all that often. She uses her brain, makes adjustments during rallies, and plays purposeful defense. She solved the riddle of Oudin by employing the moonball, and used it again to good effect in the final—let’s just hope the dark days of Andrea Jaeger are not upon us once again. Wozniacki is a natural at the game who also knows how to move forward, even if her volley is an adventure. She made Clijsters, a superior ball-striker, work for everything she got. A

Roger Federer

What does the greatest do after he’s the greatest? Pete Sampras went into a deep slump, rallied for one more major, and retired. He was 32, though, while Federer’s tennis afterlife is beginning at 28. Yesterday he was dwarfed by his younger opponent, and as the match progressed he had to work harder than del Potro to get on the offensive. But while he was outplayed by DP for long stretches, and on his heels much of the time, you might still say that Federer let this one slip away. He went to DP’s forehand a lot, even after the big guy found a monstrous groove with it. And serving for a two-set lead at 5-4 in the second, Federer opted for a drop shot on a key point that he ended up losing. It’s the shot that won him their French Open semi, but maybe he fell a little too in love with it here. Will Federer become overly besotted with his maestro image now that all the heavy lifting is done? His finest moment of the tournament was a between-the-legs shot. Don’t panic yet, though. Even Federer, who was two points from the title, termed this loss “acceptable.” After the year he's had, both professionally and personally, he better say that. A

Melanie Oudin

The only image that could match del Potro’s victory plunge was the celebration Oudin patented after her three upsets: staggering forward, hands-in the-air, eyes bugged out, she was the slightly berserk face of teen triumph, American-style. Don't try to resist. A

Mary Carillo

Right from the start, she was tough but dead-on in her assessment of the Serena situation, blaming the player, not the official, and calling for a suspension. A

Rafael Nadal

Making his second straight Open semi was an accomplishment. Enduring another, very different injury immediately after the knee problem was troubling. Getting run out of town by del Potro was embarrassing, and a possibly a reputation-diminisher in the locker room. But he’s been here before—remember Tsonga in Melbourne?—and returned stronger than ever. The down moments in his career just seem to make him hungrier. If that's possible. B+

Jimmy Connors

Who would have thought we’d wish that Jimmy Connors would loosen up a little? At least undo the top button on your shirt, before you strangle yourself. And stop asking Martina what she thinks—she's gonna tell you anyway. What you said, when you said it, was pretty strong. B

John McEnroe

Mac, Mac, and more Mac. Mac on your TV, Mac in your ear in the stadium, Mac’s eternally-not-quite-balding (how much Rogaine can one man use?) head hovering over the National Tennis Center. He didn’t waste any time making ESPN his territory. I think Brad Gilbert is in witness protection—who was that man in black doing a mixed doubles match on Court 12?—and Darren Cahill didn’t get a whole lot of love either.

But Mac is good. He’s still enthusiastic, and his insights aren't overworked—he never tries to claim that there’s more going on strategically out there than there really is. But his argument that “you just can’t call a foot fault” in the Serena situation was flawed (more on why below). He remains a player chauvinist to a fault. B

Novak Djokovic

What happened to the days when the Serb and his wacky family fought Federer tooth and nail? Now he’s been mesmerized and softly intimidated like the rest of the tour. In their semi, he stuck his butt out for Federer to hit, he prayed to the lord for help, he never acted like he could win the match, and he wrapped it up, as always, with a nice big hug. Smiling is great, but that’s not what most of us want out of a tennis match. C+

Dinara Safina

I’d have more sympathy for her last-minute move to Armstrong if she’d showed a little more in the match she lost there. As it was, Kvitova appeared to me to be every bit as good as the No. 1 player in the world. Reaching that spot may have been the worst thing that ever happened to Dinara. C

Andy Murray

Has he become too methodical in his preparation, to the point where he’s ironed out his creativity? For a player of such vaunted variety, he had no options once he got behind Marin Cilic. There’s no substitute for power and aggression, as del Potro, who just left the Scot and his many Masters titles in the dust, has proven again. C-

Serena Williams

A foot fault is different from a line call for at least one major reason: No matter how much control a player has over his or her feet, they can’t know for sure whether the call was right or wrong, because they’re looking at the ball at that moment. Could Serena have been that confident she didn’t foot fault at the moment she went berserk? She had been called for three others during the tournament, so it couldn’t have been a shock. Rather, she was protesting the idea of the call, of someone having the gall to whistle her for it on a second serve at 5-6 in the second set of the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

There are defenders, most prominently McEnroe, of the idea that “you just don’t make that call at that stage.” The concept comes from basketball, where referees typically try not to decide a game with a foul call. But refereeing in basketball is relatively subjective to begin with; there’s some kind of illegal contact on hundreds of plays during a game. In the final seconds, it’s just a matter of the refs raising their threshold a little for what constitutes a foul. Can we ask this of tennis officials? When should we tell them not to do their jobs and call foot faults? Only on second serves at 5-6 in the second set of the semis of the Open? On match points? In tiebreakers? After the eighth game of a set? No, the simplest answer, as usual, is the best—they should call foot faults when they see them, and players should make sure they don’t commit them. It isn't a trivial rule, either: There obviously needs to be a uniform place where players start points, and the back of the baseline is the easiest spot for it. If you start to allow players to cross the line by half an inch, it will soon become an inch or two inches or three inches, until no one is sure what they can do, or what they can call. 

If there’s a rule of thumb that we should import from another sport, it should come from the NFL. Foot faults, like overruled calls in football, should only be made when they’re indisputable in the eye of the line judge. If there’s doubt, don’t call it. But that criteria should hold true at every stage of the match. If the lineswoman in the Serena semifinal believed without doubt she saw a foot fault, she was right to call it. It’s the player’s job not to cut it that close. And whatever the reason for the call, its obviously the player's job not to threaten anyone.

Serena was angry, at the line judge and at herself. You could see her frustration building during the match. Now, like McEnroe, she’ll have a new, unwelcome addendum to her career bio: A Slam loss because of multiple code violations, because she said—screamed—words that should never be used on a tennis court, brandished her racquet at a line judge, and even went back toward her a second time. As with McEnroe, her temper and her talent are intertwined; as weak as her first apology was, there’s no question that the fierce emotion she showed in her outburst is, when it’s harnessed, part of what has made her an 11-time Slam champion. But that’s what makes her punishment for it all the more necessary, so we can get more of Serena the champion, the Serena who rarely argues calls, in the future. For our purposes today, two f-words—foot-fault—led to more f-words by Serena; they can only be answered in kind here. F

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