Briefs for the Defense

Tuesday, August 28, 2012 /by

NEW YORK—When Samantha Stosur walked out onto the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium for her first practice session since she stunned Serena Williams to win the U.S. Open title last year, sights and sounds from that career highlight came flooding back.

“Little things kind of pop into your mind as you’re walking out there again,” she said the other day. When pressed on the nature of those memories, she added, “Probably the forehand winner I hit on match point, that was the one thing that came back probably first.”

Novak Djokovic had good reason to remember a forehand placement from 2011 as well, the stone-cold winner he clubbed off a Roger Federer serve to save match point. He went on to win the match and, ultimately, depose Rafael Nadal as U.S. Open champion. “It brings me the nicest memories, that’s for sure,” Djokovic on Saturday. “That point, you know, it saved me from losing semifinals and giving me the opportunity to win the title.”

Each of those forehands also wrought some, well, complications. Good problems, for sure, or at least better than those that accrue for losers. Stosur hasn’t won a title since her triumph here last year; Djokovic raised the bar so high for himself in 2011 (he won three majors and at one point toted a gaudy 64-2 record) that all he’s been able to do since his triumph at the Australian Open is knock it off.

Stosur opened her campaign to defend yesterday; Djokovic will make his Flushing Meadows debut tonight.

Stosur, now 28, has struggled this season. She won but one match in four tournaments in her native Australia, culminating in a humiliating first-round loss to No. 59 Sorana Cirstea at the Aussie Open. On hard courts in the late winter, she was so-so (although she did reach the final in Doha), but she started to turn things around again once she got on the red clay, with a nice run to the French Open semis. But since then, she’s won back-to-back matches just once, in Cincinnati.

Stosur was resolutely philosophical about the way all that water has—almost alarmingly—slipped away under the bridge, blithely remarking, “Of course I would wish I would've done better for the first part of this year. But you know, everything goes the way it goes for whatever reason.”

Take that, if you cling to the comfort of that bromide, Everything happens for a reason. . . !

Obviously, Slammin’ Sammy hasn’t been obsessing about the big picture, her karma, or her shortcomings; she can’t be bothered trying to figure it all out. She’s been thinking only about the immediate future, an attitude that served her well when she faced that often dreaded first-round match at a major; this one was against Petra Martic.

The only goal most players have at the start of a tournament is to get through the first round. Defending champions in particular dread those opening pairings, no matter the opponent, because of the potential for disaster. No defending female Grand Slam champion had ever been the victim of a first-round upset until Steffi Graf lost to Lori McNeil at Wimbledon in 1994, about century into this whacky game.

Anxiety-prone at the best of times, Stosur still cleared that first-round hurdle on Ashe by feet, instead of the expected inches: She won the first 19 points of the match. Martic didn’t even put the ball into play against her opponent’s signature kick serve until the final point of the third game, with Stsour up 2-0, 40-0. A service return that found its way into the court, Stosur dispatched it with a backhand winner.

The first point Stosur lost wasn’t even one that Martic won in any meaningful sense; it was a double-fault. She didn’t lose many more, winning the match going away, 6-1, 6-1.

Stosur is, in reality, a two-Slam player, at her best at the French and U.S. Opens. She tends to have bouts of anxiety at her home Grand Slam, and in her own words can “freeze up” and play “handcuffed.” At Wimbledon, she doesn’t move and adapt well to the vagaries of the grass surface with her somewhat stiff game. That she got off to such a good start at this event is an excellent omen.

Djokovic is a more complete competitor than Stosur, and something of an exception among European players in that he absolutely thrives on the distinct, raucous U.S. Open atmosphere. He got what he more or less asked for this year, and will launch his campaign with a night match against Paolo Lorenzi.

“New York is one of the most exciting cities in the world,” Djokovic said before the tournament began. “So you definitely can feel that. You know, especially the night matches that you play as a player here and in front of the packed stadium. It's a lot of entertainment, a lot of fun. Interactions with people, with fans, they get into every point, they play with you, so it's quite different from all the other tournaments.”

Djokovic doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how effectively and cleverly he’s become a tennis cosmopolitan, despite having come from what has been a tennis backwater, Serbia. Even the estimable Federer and Nadal merely seem to tolerate and accept the New York vibe, perhaps understanding that it’s always wise to pay lip service to the locals. And you know how self-mythologizing all those strident and sharp-elbowed Manhattan swells are, what with all that “the city so great they named it twice” and “New York state of mind” baloney.  

Djokovic, by contrast, seems truly to enjoy playing here; it’s the ham in him. And the speed bumps he hit in his rush to embrace the conditions—surely you remember the little spat with Andy Roddick?—have exposed him to that serrated edge New Yorkers have, too. Perhaps more important, if more pedestrian: These hard courts really suit Djokovic’s game, what with those sledgehammer groundstrokes and unrelenting desire—and ability—to push his opponent back off the baseline.

One of the great challenges for Djokovic is resisting the sense that his game and/or spirit have somehow declined. That’s a tough one, because he’s obviously not the same player he was in 2011. He’s had odd and sometimes puzzling lapses and at times seemed pococurante and even jaded. Yet it’s hard to truly process the idea that last year was truly rare. He was too good to be Djokovic, while this year he hasn’t been good enough to be Djokovic. The “real” Novak Djokovic exists somewhere in the middle (which is more than good enough to contend at any major), and it’s the swinging from pole to pole that makes him an interesting player.

Given the relentless comparisons to 2011, Djokovic frequently needs to remind himself, and us, that: “It's been a long season and a long summer, but my year has been really good. You know, it's hard to compare obviously with 2011, even though I have got that question asked many times this year—you know, what has changed from 2011.

“I actually try to always look at it from a positive side. I do feel physically stronger and more prepared than I did last year. Mentally, I had some ups and downs throughout the season, but I think that was maybe expected in a way. It's normal to have ups and downs.”

Sam Stosur certainly would assent to that, and if Djokovic plays anything like she did in her opening match, it will be a resounding shot fired across the bows of Federer and Andy Murray, his primary rivals at Flushing Meadows.

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